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Backstory: Southern discomfort food

Some black leaders want to wean kids off southern foods for health reasons. But critics say it's robbing a region of its culture.

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On stage, the famous jazz pianist Thelonious Monk wore a collard-leaf pin in his lapel - an act of solidarity, in the guise of a key Southern food, with his sharecropper roots.

Standing in front of Selma High School the other day, principal Roosevelt Wilson broke with Mr. Monk and proclaimed war on the humble but proud collard, the leafy green usually cooked with lard, and all the other unhealthy Southern foods it evokes.

"If I could, I'd tell them never to eat collards again," says the appropriately lean Mr. Wilson, as he surveys gossiping gaggles of students after a recent day of school.

Wilson is part of a growing crusade to cinch a few notches on the nation's Barbecue Belt. He and others are breaking with the tradition of Southern grub - fried chicken, pulled pork, crawfish pies - not to mention school-lunch pizza and french fries to help stem a national obesity "epidemic."

In black communities across the South, the healthy foods movement is finding converts who want to replace bacon-soaked beans and corn pone with baked chicken and steamed broccoli - all in the name of keeping people, particularly young people, healthy.

But as they do, critics say it undermines a central element of Southern culture - one shared by both blacks and whites. "If you look at the aspects of Southern culture that we ... can celebrate as a joint creation, they are music and food," says John Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Miss., a group working to to preserve food traditions of the South. These are "byproducts of a multiracial culture, something in which we can take pride, not something we should be ashamed of."

Eating one's way across the South yields a trove of treasure or trouble, depending on your point of view: red link sausages, pig pickins, chicken fried steak, red-eye gravy, even, as at Big Ed's in Raleigh, N.C., "brains with eggs." It's a culture of food tied in part to the provincial survival of the South: collards and other field greens provided the necessary nutrients to a population that, in the early 20th century, had suffered deficiencies from the "Three M diet:" meat, meal, and molasses.

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