This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
“I was always conflicted about being from the South” says Andrew Beck Grace at the beginning of Eating Alabama, a documentary about attempting to eat local which I watched while I was in Alabama. This particular line rankled some of my relatives, “Why would you be conflicted about being from the South” one said, mere hours after he had said “I can feel my IQ dropping” as we crossed the border between Florida and Alabama (something that doesn’t make sense on any level considering the state of Florida).
Indeed, I feel like I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time myself not to make such cracks about the places and people of the South, a habit I picked up not in the North, but while young in the South, which I spent over half my life so far. Missed in the controversy about Paula Deen, was that some of the off-color jokes she admits telling were about “rednecks”, a term that some people have applied to Deen herself and one that speaks to an ambivalence that isn’t always introspective.
And sometimes it is brilliantly so, such as Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, a story I find myself reading often. A story that despite being short, I would struggle to write about all the meaning in it without filing a novel. Part of O’Connor’s brilliance was that she could do that in so few words.
The children in the story express their disdain for their home place early on:
"Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much," John Wesley said.
"If I were a little boy," said the grandmother, "I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."
"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground," John Wesley said, "and Georgia is a lousy state too."
"You said it," June Star said.
Interestingly, nearly all the food in the story is modern industrial food- white bread, canned apricots, Coca-Cola. To me these emphasize that the story takes place in that very Southern-between place, of embracing modernity in its commodity capitalism form existing side by side with a profound consciousness of the past, often with two few questions asked.
Paula Deen fantasized about an “old fashioned” plantation wedding, the grandmother in a Good Man is Hard to Find fantasizes about visiting a beautiful old “Gone with the wind” plantation, a fantasy that ultimately leads the family to their doom.
Some people have pointed out correctly that if we harangued everyone who told jokes like Deen’s, we’d have few people left. But the fact that she said those things didn’t cause her downfall, it was the fact that unsurprisingly it was part of a hostile and miserable culture in the workspaces she and her family ran.
Admittedly I had been critical of Deen for far longer than this recent incident, who not only represented the transmogrified processed food that has unfortunately come to dominate Southern tables, but actively promoted the corporations behind it. For example, she was a spokesperson for Smithfield, a now Chinese-owned pork factory-farming conglomerate. The fastest way to kill a small town is to put one of their hog farms there.
But there has been considerable backlash against the downfall of Deen, which also isn’t surprising to me. Regardless of anything, her food represents a type of opulence which is OK among the kind of people for whom “elitist” (or even worse “elitist Yankee”) is a slur. Regardless of their income, I have been told by many that a place like Whole Foods is for “those people.” And Paula’s food is for people like them. It represents ease, choice, modernity, comfort, and plenty.
The Southern food which is almost impossible to avoid these days at ritzy restaurants in big cities is the food that many people once had to eat when they had few choices. Food made from scratch, from local ingredients that were once widely available, is now largely for rich college-educated city folk both symbolically and in reality. And like it or not, regardless of my roots, I'm "those people" now, and there isn't really going back on that, though I'm not always sure it's a good thing. There are things I've experienced that are amazing, but there are things I'll never understand in the way I would have if I had "stayed home," but it was a choice made for me when I was 15.
And probably some of that backlash is right. It seems like crocodile tears for some of these companies that once sponsored her to care so much about the matter. But in the end, the structures that made her decided she was no longer useful and spit her out. It is in the end OK for corporations (Cracker Barrel survived far more egregious accusations for example) to espouse such ideas, but not for their cogs. This is a time when a corporation can be redeemed, but not a person. Smithfield probably ran the numbers and calculated it was no more profitable to continue to stand behind her than it is to allow sows to give birth to their piglets outside a farrowing crate so small it doesn’t allow them to even turn around.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, a character called The Misfit consumes the family. I won’t quote the story directly and spoil the ending, but instead I’ll refer to Alex Link’s excellent essay (sadly behind a paywall):
In place of the sentimentalized, commodified estate, the story gives us a commodified South that comes to life to consume the family in its tum. It swallows the family with a "satisfied insuck of breath" ( 129) with the help of the Misfit, the embodiment of Lefebvre's residual "incommunicable." As both a terrifying figure out of the tabloids and a perfect southern gentleman out of nostalgic fantasies like Gone with the Wind, the Misfit embodies the Romantic gloss that interposes itself between subjects and the South, as well as the means of transcending that interposition.
And Paula Deen, despite her willing promotion of that system, was just as much a product of it as anyone else. I remember making her recipes in my college dorm cooking club. We had a miserable cramped dorm kitchen. They were easy and they tasted good (don’t let people tell you things like that don’t, maybe they don’t have any fancy complexity, but my mouth still waters reading about them sometimes). Sometimes at the end of the day, looking at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, I miss the times when I ate that way.
Cooking has become seen as an empowering act allowing you to take charge of your health and the food system. I want to believe that too, but if I, a young person without any children, find it hard to fit into my life, I don’t have much hope for it at least if things stay they way they are. When I learned to cook from scratch I lived in Sweden, where I maybe went to class a few hours a day, and that’s if I was feeling studious. It’s just the realities of the American economy that part-time work is untenable for a large majority of people (try finding health insurance and having a part-time job) and a 9-5 job often creeps onto other hours, consuming your life with after hours and commutes. Plus it’s hard for me to decide to spend hours in the kitchen when it means sacrificing social and intellectual pursuits.
Also whatever she was, at least Deen was not of the watered down politically-correct version of Southern cooking that has haunted the "those people" media outlets like PBS. You know, like collard greens cooked with olive oil and soy sauce, because butter and ham hocks are soooo bad for you sort of thing.
In Eating Alabama, you can see how time-consuming and somewhat socially isolating their eat only local project is. They spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out wheat and processing it themselves rather than questioning whether or not it belongs in Alabama any more than the fire ants or kudzu do. The amount of time they spend on it (as well as soybeans) only would make it more affordable than just eating even a fairly expensive alternative if you were seriously underemployed and your time was worth nothing. Plus, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in heritage grains advanced by chefs like Sean Brock and entrepreneurs like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. Alabama has its own McEwen & Sons organic cornmeal and grits. I don’t know if I’m related to them, but I a can vouch for their quality.
Though I didn’t spend very long in Alabama this time, I thought the selection of local quality food available was pretty impressive, but you can’t look to move there and just find exact local equivalents to foods you already eat like the couple in Eating Alabama seemed to do. Given the climate and geography, if you want to eat local easily you’ll find yourself eating more seafood and less of things like dairy, which coming from the Midwest where it’s not easy to find things like good shrimp I was more than happy to do.
Local gulf shrimp boil, local pecans, a game cookbook my grandmother had, boiled peanuts
Of course it’s hard not to have the oil spill in the back of your mind, that put a bit of worry onto the region’s oceanic bounty, but is only one of the shadows on the food system there. The relentless sprawl that has already rendered my hometown unrecognizable from my memories. The weight of cotton on the soil, the pesticides used to grow it showing up in foods such as rice grown in the region. And sometimes it seems like like nature itself has it out for the place, ravaging New Orleans, one of the few places I’d say is really proud of its old foodways to the point where it has resisted change better than most.
But the televisions networks that made Deen a star are unlikely to feature this food or its cooks. The Food Network for one exists to sell things at scale. If you wanted to make Paula Deen’s recipes in the far North of Wisconsin, you could. There was nothing in them you couldn’t get at a big grocery store or Walmart. To contrast, I can’t make a good crawfish boil in Illinois. The crawfish available here aren’t even close to being the same. Same with Edna Lewis' incredible cookbooks.
Just like there was no reason for the networks to keep her on when she became a liability to what they wanted to promote, there is no reason for them to promote foods and people that aren’t any good at promoting those things in the first place.
We "know better" than to eat deadly traditional Soul Food, says Nation of Islam* minister Abdul Hafeez Muhammad interviewed in a new documentary aired on PBS called Soul Food Junkies. I was hoping for an in-depth exploration of the history of soul food, but unfortunately most of this documentary was self-deprecating in a rather familiar way. It's no coincidence that one of the trailers is titled moralistically "Soul food: sacrament or sin."
Filmmaker Byron Hunt's father suffered from obesity and died relatively young of pancreatic cancer. Influenced by the health advice from The Nation of Islam, Byron blamed soul food for his father's health problems and switched himself to a plant-based diet, cutting out all pork and red meat.
It is hard to talk about Southern food without talking about soul food, which is why I can identify with this story a bit. As the documentary notes, many white Southern children were raised by African-American slaves and later servants. The food they cooked for these children influenced their taste, which is why Soul Food and Southern food are so inter-twined. In my own family, there was a great-grandmother I never knew, who was obese and died young. It was the era of Ancel Keys, the era in which the zeitgeist was to blame fat. Also there were class-based considerations, Abdul expresses the sentiment that traditional soul food existed only because our ancestors were poor and didn't know better or have better choices. Many upwardly mobile white rural Southerner's shared this disdain for their ancestral food, deeming it "poverty food." My grandmother and her sister adopted what they believed to be a healthier more modern diet, a low-fat diet excluding things like pig's feet and real butter.
They threw the babies out with the bathwater. Just because you aren't fat doesn't mean you are healthy- different health problems started plaguing people in my family, inspring me to adopt a more traditional, as in 1700s, diet that has helped me conquer many of these problems.
Early on, Byron introduces traditional soul food as things like "ham hocks, collared greens, and fried chicken". One of those things is not like the other, one of those thing does not belong- and that thing is probably the most persistent item in both Southern and Soul Food. That's fried chicken. Minister Abdul says that while he eats lots of colon-cleaning salads, he just can't give up the fried chicken. How could he? It's the bane of many members of my family as well. It's so damn delicious- crispy, salty, sweet, fatty. It hits every damn button in our brain.
One time someone I know well told me that they had eaten a healthy meal of just protein. What was it? Well they had fried chicken for lunch. I hate to break the news, but fried chicken, as delicious as it is, is not a traditional food of our ancestors or a high quality protein or fat source. Older relatives have often told me of the days in which chicken was a luxury item, something special. It wasn't until the industrialization of chicken farming that it was economically feasible for lower and middle class Southerners to buy up wings and legs to fry in batches. Also, the other essential ingredients of modern fried chicken- large amounts of cheap fat (mostly refined vegetable oil these days) and refined flour and sugar, were not part of our great-great-great grandparent's diet. I've made fried chicken from heritage hogs and chicken raised on pasture and battered with heritage corn meal. It's damn expensive. And furthermore it's hard, which brings us to another point- that so much of the so-called traditional soul and southern food is eaten out, at restaurants that basically feed us hyperpalatable sugar-coated soybean-oil drenched factory-farmed garbage. It's nothing like the original African variants fried chicken, which is not battered in wheat or sugar, and is fried in palm oil, though some argue that the Southern propensity for fried food came from the Scots-Irish.
I didn't have high hopes for this documentary based on what I'd read on blogs like The Salt.
As the film recounts, soul food was survival food in the black South. Dishes were inspired by a need to make do with what slaves could access: greens they grew themselves, leftover meat parts like pig ears and feet, and cheap foods like rice and yams loaded with calories to fuel a field slave's work. Some of these recipes had origins in Africa. (Gumbo, we learn, was the West African word for "okra.")
While it's easy enough to eat a bucket of fried chicken. I'd really challenge anyone to get fat on a diet of locally-sourced pig offal, rice yams, and greens. That seems like a difficult challenge. And the problem is that the film does NOT recount the history of soul food. It is extremely confused. It spends a lot of time on rambling and guilt and very little time exploring the heritage of actual Soul Food. It's about as accurate as if you hired Paula Deen to do a documentary on traditional Southern food.
How did things like fried chicken, white bread, and mac&cheese get to be "traditional" soul foods? This documentary does not explore this at all.
In this documentary about soul food, fried chicken is mentioned and shown at least ten times. Never is there any mention of the fact it is a side-effect of industrialization of food ,and the same kind of pseudo-tradition that harms cultures as Indian fry bread. Offal and other soul food staples are derided as unhealthy, but no one explains why. It's no coincidence that one of the only scientific explanations about what makes food unhealthy in the documentary comes from Dr. Rodney L. Ellis who mentions the unhealthy properties particular to fried foods and foods with added sugar.
Interestingly, this interview with one of the people featured in the documentary, Bryant Terry, whose vegan cookbooks I enjoyed as a vegan and still find useful now (though admittedly I often add meat stocks and butter to the recipes >:) ), was interviewed in the past and expressed exactly this distinction between the monochromatic pablum of mac & cheese, bread, and fried stuff that dominates the screen in this documentary:
In reality, soul food is good for you. In order to understand why, you have to understand grits. As seen with instant grits, mass production and distribution has diminished the product's superb quality and has obscured the distinctive characteristics that make down-home hominy so darn desirable in the first place. The taste of instant grits boxed up in a factory can never compare to the complex nutty flavor of grits stone-ground in a Mississippi mill. So it's understandable that those who have only had that watered-down stuff (read: many of my friends in the Northeast) scoff at the mention of grits.
Similar to instant grits, instant soul food is a dishonest representation of African American cuisine. And to be clear, when I refer to instant soul food, I'm not just describing the processing, packaging, and mass marketing of African American cuisine in the late 1980s. I'm also alluding to the oversimplified version of the cuisine that was constructed in the popular imagination in the late 1960s.
The term "soul food" first emerged during the black liberation movement as African Americans named and reclaimed their diverse traditional foods. Clearly, the term was meant to celebrate and distinguish African American cooking from general Southern cooking, and not ghettoize it. But in the late 1960s, soul food was "discovered" by the popular media and constructed as the newest exotic cuisine for white consumers to devour. Rather than portray the complexity of this cuisine and its changes throughout the late 19th and 20th century, many writers played up its more exotic aspects (e.g., animal entrails) and simply framed the cuisine as a remnant of poverty-driven antebellum survival food.
To paraphrase food historian Jessica B. Harris, "soul food" was simply what Southern black folks ate for dinner.
Sadly, over the past four decades most of us have forgotten that what many African Americans in the South ate for dinner just two generations ago was diverse, creative, and comprised of a lot of fresh, local, and homegrown nutrient-dense food.
Most self-proclaimed soul food restaurants, a considerable amount of soul food cookbooks, and the canned and frozen soul food industry reinforce this banal portrayal of African American cuisine. Moreover, film and television routinely bombards viewers with crass images of African American eating habits and culinary practices that further distort and demonize soul food.
Unfortunately the documentary does not clearly make any distinction like this. I can imagine a lot of people not really familiar with Southern or Soul food watching this and it playing into their stereotypes about this kind of cooking.
One of the strangest reaction I get among the more conventional eating-healthy crowd is that traditionally-raised meat is too expensive. Yet these people often maintain that meat is unhealthy anyway, so isn't that a good thing? When price increases, demand decreases- people would have to eat less meat if they switched to buying from local pasture-based farms. But there is also a myth that people in the past were healthier because they ate less meat. In the South this is not true- before urbanization and industrialization Southerners, even the poorest, had access to meat. Economic historian Robert Fogel examined records and found that many plantation owners gave meat rations on an average of 6 ounces a day, not terribly different from meat consumption levels today. The little time spent with the excellent food historian in the documentary mentions that they were often able to hunt and fish, utilizing traditions from their original homelands.
It would have been very interesting to explore some of those further-back traditions, to explore why the health problems African-Americans disproportionately suffer from are almost absent in the people left behind in Africa and to explore the rich diversity of African food culture. How people used to get flavor from a large variety of plants, stocks, and fermented foods instead of from massive amounts of sugar or processed fats. Instead, they give screen time to people like former comedian Dick Gregory who rants that "Soul food will kill you!"
Later in the documentary Byron admits he wanted something to blame. His mother and sister point out that his father had food addiction caused by a lifetime of stress and eating fast food, not "soul food addiction."
Towards the end of the documentary there is a nod towards more systematic causes of some of the health problems African Americans disproportionately suffer from, but it gets a bit derailed. For example it goes from growing your own food (though with an emphasis on produce, which may not be the savior people think) to showing a raw vegan woman preparing some veggie rolls with imported nori and talking about how good she looks. There is an emphasis on creating new interpretations of soul food that are plant-based rather than probably the much simpler and more acceptable task of getting back to real traditions and cutting out processed industrial foods. There isn't much mention of other factors involved such as pollution and access to health care. For example, many African Americans are not screened for hemochromatosis, despite the role it plays in type 2 diabetes, and yes, pancreatic cancer. Many do not get regular screenings of important biomarkers and are only treated for things like heart disease and hypertension when they end up in the ER.
There also isn't much of an exploration of why so many African Americans switched from growing their own food to relying on fast food for so many meals. The history of disenfranchisement that left many without the empowerment to produce and cook their own food.
Overall, I find it extremely disappointing and regressive that a documentary shown on public television would spread so much misinformation and scare-mongering about traditional foods. I don't think that is the path for helping people eat better. But if anything this documentary showcases a rather unfortunate American tradition- preaching extremes rather than balance and moderation.
"It's particularly unfortunate that communities that might be vulnerable to invidious targeting on these matters get fed, metaphorically speaking, misleading information, like traditional Southern food being bad for you," says Paul Campos, a University of Colorado sociologist and the author of "The Obesity Myth."
Certainly healthy food advocates face an uphill fight in changing perceptions across the South. Take the scene at Arthur Cato's House of Southern Food in Hogansville, Ga., where the waitresses write in Magic Marker on wide pads. The grits come topped with butter. Lots of it. Fried catfish comes out of the kitchen in schools. The smoked sausage is dished out in large proportions.
"This is roots food," says Mr. Cato, wiping his hands on his apron. "I've never eaten anything else. I'm 77 years old, and I'm skinny as a rail."
At the Autagaville Cafe, a cinder-block restaurant in the heart of the Black Belt, Mary Wright shrugs off the food controversy, too. "No matter what we do, we're all going to leave here one day, so we might as well go happy and full," she says.
According to Wilson, the low-fat diet at Selma's gothic-looking high school caused a lot of "belly-achin' " as well.
Sorry, but a diet of foods like grits (not corn bread made with white flour), rice, crayfish, venison, muscadines and other berries, collards, mustard greens, pickled pigs feet, crab, offal-rich boudins made with rice, sweet potatoes, oysters, and other truly healthful traditional foods is not going to kill you, it may even make you healthier, as they foods are extremely nutrient dense. It is a shame that people might abandon these already threatened food traditions out of mis-placed fear. I will say though that there are some things they didn't know about that we understand a bit better- namely that re-using cooking fats for high-heat frying might lead to unhealthy oxidization of fats. In the rare cases I fry, I do not re-use the fat.
*I guess that religion is a bit like Seventh Day Adventism in terms of plant-based dietary holier than thou and since I criticized David Duke in my last post, it's worth pointing out that their psuedo-scientific views on racial separatism are not dissimilar
Reading the fat acceptance bloggers on Jamie Oliver's new show, is a typical argument of theirs goes like "Food Revolution is awful because it is portraying fat people as unhealthy! Plenty of skinny people are unhealthy too, but they target the fat people for shaming!"
I totally agree with that actually. Focus on appearances distracts from real health problems. It's easy to pick on people who are overweight, but food related illness doesn't discriminate based on weight. As a skinny adolescent, I suffered from all kinds of terrible health problems related to my diet. Candy and soda didn't make me overweight, but it surely contributed to the stomach problems, headaches, and fatigue I suffered from.
As a child growing up the South, many of my friend's fathers succumbed to heart attacks. They were slim men in their 40s.
The old argument that being obese isn't genetic because where are all the the fat hunter-gatherers? While a few statues from the Stone Age seem to glorify curvy ladies, skeletal evidence has yet to be found. BUT there is strong evidence that gene expression can be determined by the maternal diet, gut bacteria, and environmental toxins. All three have been linked to obesity. There is no question that some people are going to have a much harder time with their weight than others. And once someone is obese for a long it's likely that the metabolism is altered enough that they are going to really have a tough time losing it and keeping it off.
Because of an appearance-focused approach to health, plenty of skinny people I know think they are healthy despite eating terrible diets. Not to stereotype, but while Swedes I knew when I lived in Sweden ate relatively healthy, sugary alcoholic drinks and bags of gummy "godis" were a regular part of their diets. For awhile I was confused...how were people eating these awful candy gummy craps and sugar berry flavored vodka soda and looking so good? The answer is probably in the healthy full fat whole foods that are still part of the diet there (in America we both eat crap AND don't eat much nutritious food). But when I started meeting my friend's parents it became clear that there are still effects to these foods, they just show up later. Sweden isn't too far away from the United States in heart disease rates.
For all the blather about Americans being fat, Eastern Europe leads for heart disease per capita. Type 2 diabetes is really hitting other countries hard too- India in particular, despite their "healthy vegetarian diet." So much for meatless Mondays having a huge health effect...but really, what India and Hungary have in common is love for fried processed carbs and massive amounts of sugary desserts without much actual nutrition in between. But maybe diet isn't really even that much of a factor: "In a study of Japanese migrants in the United States the cultural upbringing was the strongest predictor of coronary heart disease. Those who were brought up in a non-Japanese fashion but preferred the lean Japanese food had a heart attack almost twice as often as those who were brought up in the Japanese way but preferred fatty American food."
In the focus on food we often forget about other factors like lifestyle.
I applaud Jamie's expose of the venality of our school lunch system, but I just don't think some homemade pasta is going to cut it. Also as a Southerner, I'm also a little annoyed that it's not a fellow Southerner leading this effort. One of the principles popular in the food justice movement is providing both healthy AND culturally appropriate food. It's too bad that the Southern culture has really been lost.
I often hear about how sending away the Native Americans to government schools caused them to lose their culture. But it wasn't just Native Americans who lost their culture because of government schools. Watch the food being served to those kids in Food Revolution. Some people think Southern food is fried pablum like that, but it's not. They aren't being served Southern food, they are being served industrial gruel. In fact, I'm sure real Southern food is illegal under the USDA guidelines. That's too bad, because my Southern ancestors were living into their late 80s even a hundred years ago on ham hocks, collard and mustard greens, turtle soup, crawfish, buttery grits, and full fat buttermilk. The awful Paula Deen flour and sugar creations are to Southern food what fry bread is to Indian food- neither authentic nor traditional.