Hugh Acheson: Southern food, beyond the butter
January 18th, 2012
09:30 AM ET
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Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Hugh Acheson is the chef/partner of Five & Ten and The National in Athens, Georgia and Empire State South in Atlanta, Georgia as well as a judge on the current season on Top Chef, and author of "A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen." He has a very famous unibrow.

If you search "Paula Deen" on the Google, these are some of the search suggestions that appear: riding things, recipes, furniture, cookware, meatloaf, and diabetes. I strongly recommend researching the first and last on that list because both point to the decline of Western civilization.

Let me preface this with the wish that this piece not be about maligning a personality or calling out specific dishes in a repertoire. Hopefully it is about furthering a constructive discussion to rejoice in a better Southern food.

Southern food did not make the South unhealthy, rather a broken arrow of cookery did, one that is ultra-processed, trans fat laden, lard fried, and massively caloric. That’s not how I eat and I eat Southern food pretty much every day of my life.

A number of months ago I was to pose questions and moderate a discussion with Paula Deen at a theater in Austin during the Texas Book Festival. Paula arrived shortly before the event began, while almost a thousand of her coterie sat in their seats. Two armchairs were on the stage with a stool next to Paula’s chair just in case her husband Michael wanted to join the conversation. He didn’t and it remained empty.

The event began and I starting out lofting soft balls for Paula to swing for the fences and please her amassed fandom. These folks were not there to see a strange little Canadian guy talk about the importance of your local farms and revel in the green bounty that my adopted homeplace of Athens, Georgia has to offer.

Paula talked about her history, her family, made light of herself, and chatted up her clothing line at JC Penney. There was nothing out of the ordinary and it was the sort of chat she probably does three times a week.

I then decided to ask a pertinent question, at least to me. The question was, “Do you think that Southern food has had a start and a finish or do you think it’s something that continues to evolve?”

If there ever was a moment in time where I was speaking Esperanto to the Korean grocer on the corner, this was it. Paula looked a little confused so I went on to clarify.

I talked about how we do a dish at my restaurant in Atlanta, Empire State South, conceived by Ryan Smith, the chef there. It is Carolina Middlin’ Rice Grits with Kimchi, Pork Belly and Pickled Radish. The rice grits are the broken kernels of Carolina Gold rice, which historically were an important staple of the rice workers, predominantly the Gullah population, in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The whole kernels of rice would be exported while the broken kernels were kept by the locals and used to make porridges and paps, starches that when cooked are akin to the consistency of grits.

It is a dish that bounces between an homage to history and a celebration of the current. Its core is that very historical rice porridge, yet then it takes a current tangent and is suffused with chopped up house-made kimchi, an ode to the modern proliferation of Asian cultures in the South. Then we return to our Southern history with a small portion (two ounces) of braised and crisped local pork belly, and loop back to the world-inflected South with a simple pickle of local radishes.

It is a dish that thoroughly defines my views on the community of Southern food: Southern food is a celebration of the people within the community, using the agrarian bounty that is constantly around them. It pays homage to the past but is a constantly evolving, ebbing with the seasons and flowing with the constant progression of the South. It is a foodways that really has had a much stronger emphasis on vegetables and sides than huge portions of proteins, and one that is healthy if we show off the diversity of our crops and cooking styles.

Paula looked at me with moderate confusion and disdain and blurted out to her masses, “What’s wrong with just butter and salt in grits?”

And that’s the issue isn’t it? That is the monochrome image of Southern food, one that I am tired of challenging, a simply unhealthy version that has been pushed for decades. True Southern food is so much more than that.

The recent news about Paula’s diagnosis with type 2 diabetes should be a wake up call. What may be the most ironic twist is that she has already secured a deal with a pharmaceutical company to be a spokesperson for diabetes drugs. Here’s to hoping that well paid soapbox effects true change in how Southern food is viewed.

Paula Deen confirms that she has type 2 diabetes, unveils partnership with drug company
5@5 – Overlooked Southern ingredients
5@5 – Virginia Willis – Southern is a state of mind
Talk with your mouth full – what is Southern food?
Reclaiming the soul of Southern food
Southern food: more voices from the field

soundoff (280 Responses)
  1. The Fraiche Kitchen

    Reblogged this on The Fraiche Kitchen and commented:
    Let's just say from the start, great article Hugh Acheson! Having myself grown up in the South, and mostly eating fresh veggies & fruits (Is there a peach as good as a Georgia peach, because I haven't found one yet!), I'm thrilled that the concept and image of Southern food is evolving past that of grits with butter! The complexity of Southern food is entrenched in the history of the South and the influences brought from every continent. Yes, there may be great satisfaction in the simplicity of a vegetable or fruit in it's pure, raw form, just like a good peach. But true Southern food is an experience that is a rich, diverse, and sensory exploration, one that should not be reduced to boring due to a lack of imagination or respect for its origins.

    October 10, 2014 at 6:39 pm |
  2. Mary Thomas

    Im impressed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog thats both educative and engaging, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is something not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about. I'm very happy that I came across this during my search for something concerning this.

    June 22, 2014 at 12:06 am |
  3. Alanna_Russell

    I feel it is the outsiders dissolution of Southern food into its unhealthiest and easiest elements, that has made broader society see Southern food as unhealthy with a focus on butter and salt.

    April 4, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
  4. Fitness Events 2014

    Northern, southern, western, or eastern food can all lead to problems. K in Philly is right! "A typical American lifestyle of very little exercise, be it walking anywhere or at the gym, then calories need to be restricted ... and if you can only eat 1800 calories/day, you can't spare 500 of them for something that isn't very nutrient dense like a SMALL portion of cheesy buttery grits.
    Small portion's people!

    January 30, 2014 at 12:04 pm |
  5. K in Philly from

    "Traditional Southern food", like traiditional Pennsylvania farm food and traditional New York farmers food, etc etc is made for people who are burning a lot more calories than the average American does today .. which is why an active high schooler who's involved in sports (or ballet!) every day does fine eating it .... but once you settle into a typical American lifestyle of very little exerciese, be it walking anywhere or at the gym, then calories need to be restricted ... and if you can only eat 1800 calories/day, you can't spare 500 of them for something that isn't very nutrient dense like a SMALL portion of cheesey buttery grits.

    On the other hand the Southern tradition of cooking greens with pork fat is VERY healthy – the body needs fat with the greens to be able to absorb the nutrients from the greens ... and traditional diets around the world have alway combined fat with vegetables. Much better to spend 100 calories on butter or bacon fat with your veggies than on an empty calorie processed snack marked "100 calorie pack".

    December 6, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  6. Hair bear

    Hey Paula! Love your show,sorry to hear about your illness. Hope you will continue to entertain us! Just gear your show to cooking for people who are diabetic! Why not we all could learn ah healthier way of cooking things! Let the other guys on the Food Channel cook the bad stuff! I'm ah true Fan!

    January 21, 2012 at 12:07 am |
  7. DMW

    Yes, Southern food, like any cuisine, will continue to evolve. The cultural influences are numerous–Native American, Scottish, African, English, French, etc. Technology, culture, globalism, media–all of these factors have contributed to the ever changing Southern cuisine. Edna Lewis has contributed greatly to our understanding of folk traditions in Southern cuisine and even her definition of Southern food expanded to include foods and ingredients that weren't indigenous to the South, e.g. her famous Coconut Lane Cake. Paula Deen's lens into Southern cuisine definitely reflects more of a globalized, mass-produced, convenience oriented approach. She uses a lot of processed foods and an abundance of sugars, animal proteins and other ingredients that weren't so readily available 50 – 100 years ago. Compare a Paula Deen cookbook to The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery. Even though both cookbooks are rooted in Georgia, the food and techniques are vastly different. Can Southern food be healthy? Well of course it can, depending on which paradigm of Southern food we are talking about. Edna Lewis describes in her cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking that fried chicken was reserved for special occassions (if you're raising your own chickens, can one really afford to slaughter enough chickens for every day of the week, or even enough for several days a week?). The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery has an abundance of traditional recipes that feature plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, game, etc. However, if you're definition of Southern food is referenced from Paula Deen's Southern Cooking Bible then you'll find a more Americanized approach (convenience foods, processed, high in carbs, sugars, etc) with an abundance of fats added, such recipes include "Sweet Saltines with Bacon", "Sour Cream, Bacon and Split Pea Soup", "Butter Burgers", etc. I wish Paula Deen all the best. She seems like a great lady, a wonderful mother and wife, a warm and genuine person. I would love to see her take an approach to Southern cusine that really gets to the roots, it's history, agriculture and sustainable, common-sense approach to living in the South.

    January 20, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  8. Emma

    What's bad about Southern Food is all of the starch. If you go to a typical southern food restaurant you will most likely be offered a choice of biscuits, mac and cheese, fried chicken, waffles, grits, bacon, ham, cornbread, white bread, ribs collard greens, pickles and corn. The only healthy food on the menu is the collard greens, Some restaurants here in the South do serve a type of stew that seems relatively healthy but your typical southern food is too starchy and high in fat and sodium. We really only need a diet of unprocessed vegetables, fruits, whole grains and a little bit of lean meat to stay healthy. A lot of Americans would rather eat bad, get fat, sick and die early than to eat healthy and exercise. And that is why we have a nation full of diabetics.

    January 20, 2012 at 2:27 am |
  9. M

    You don't get diabetes from eating natural, saturated fat. Or heart disease.

    Bicuits, grits, rolls, dressing, potatoes, rice, cornbread, pies, cakes, on and on... This AND the volume it is consumed in is where the real blame lies.

    So lard me up, and give me a slab of wonderful fatty pork and mustard greens, but keep the Crisco and Martha White to yourself.

    January 20, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • Antonio

      Lol M. Thats hella funny bruh.

      January 20, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • jsoleil

      Sorry but it is a big lie that fat plays no part in diabetes...I have relatives who have passed with the disease and relatives with it now. Of course fat plays one role in the triad of carbs,sugar and unhealthy fat.

      And it is also a big lie as Paula has professed that somebody in her physical state can have a piece of cake but not the whole cake. Sorry need to change your diet when you are morbidly obese as you are and you need to maybe at best have one small piece of cake a month..not a day. Taking a pill isn't going to change that.

      Bourdain was right..she is the most dangerous woman in America.

      January 21, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  10. Ben Bailey

    Nice biased choice of answers for the poll.
    Gotcha journalism as usual. "Are you still beating your wife" from CNN.... Where's the answer "It can be as healthy or as unhealthy as any regional food".

    Do you think Southern food can be healthy?
    No, which is why I eat it in moderation (Note: it's unhealthy)
    No, and I stay away from it (Note: it's unhealthy)
    Yes, if it's done right (Note: it's unhealthy unless prepared in some unspecified way)
    Yes, but it just isn't as good (Note: it's unhealthy, unless you make it not-southern)
    Other (please share below)

    January 19, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  11. John

    All four of my grandparents were born in Virginia in the 1890s and lived long lives. One of my grandmothers cooked on a wood stove because she preferred it to the electric range she had for canning during the summer. We ate lots of vegetables, but most of them were cooked with bacon grease or a piece of meat to give them some flavor. They raised hogs, raised chickens, ate squirrel, churned butter, fried everything and also had 1500 apple trees they worked themselves. And a new Olds every 3 or 4 years. My other grandparents were farmers too and worked sunup to sundown.

    My point? You can eat any way you like when you are that physically active. You need the calories. You keep the spring flowing cleanly, keep the generator going for power at night or burn kerosene, prune trees, mow under them, place limb supports, and on and on. It was a great life. One grandfather died at 91, but that was from a jaw cancer that everybody said made him look like he was still chewing tobacco. He'd quit 40 years earlier.

    I grew up in the D.C. suburbs. You can't eat like that if you're not active, trust me. We tried. I'd like to be able to eat fried pork chops twice a week and six pieces of bacon every morning. And sausage. And fried ham. I'm serious. There weren't any fat people in my family until we moved to the city. Fwiw, I'm 61 and my father was 89 when he died last year of kidney failure.

    January 19, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Tuffsista

      I agree with what you're saying here. Just analyzing the food alone isn't looking at the entire picture. My grandparents who lived on a farm ate a regualr diet of wonderful Southern foods and lived to ripe old ages. I love the food, but can only eat it once a week because I don't get enough exercise : )

      January 20, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  12. minavaan

    Here's a yummy recipe for you:

    January 19, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
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