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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

wedding photography :: portrait photography :: travel photography :: pensacola, fl

The Southern Problem Pt. I - Observations

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There is a reason that food tastes good.  If food were meant to just be nourishment, and nothing more, taste buds would be unnecessary.  Fruit would not exist.  Instead of a there being a smorgasbord of cuisines to help define cultures all over the world, humans would be content to subsist off of generic pastes or nutrient wafers; real-life food would be like Soylent Green.

However, it just so happens that food is so much more than the sum of its nutrients and energy potential.  Food is delicious.  Food is meant to be enjoyed and embraced for both health and taste.

The problem I see in the food culture of America, is that we have succeeded.  We are a wealthy nation, and our abundance of food, the plethora companies providing food and food products on a grand scale and the quality of our healthcare reflects just how well we have done as a nation.

We have plenty of food with which to make other foods, allowing for companies to make a tidy living selling variations on food, some naturally of higher quality or nutritional value than others, but the point still stands.

And as to our healthcare system, we can get by eating pretty much anything, because medications and technologies exist to do damage control over both the short and long-term problems brought on by an unhealthy diet.  Nowhere is this more prevalent than in my home region of the American South.  I watched a few minutes of Blazing Saddles on the CMT Network last week.  It was presented through the program Southern Fried Flicks, with each segment of the film introduced with an celebrity interview or correlating food item by "southern goddess," Hazel Smith.

The presentation of otherwise good films through a program like this is abhorrent to me on several levels.  The immediate pairing of "Southern" with "fried" is a descriptive term long devoid of charm in my own mind.  Furthermore, the presentation of a grossly overweight woman peddling cheaply-prepared, fried foods is a gimmick which one would assume would yield diminished returns in most markets for the visual depiction of cause-and-effect, especially in the post-Paula Deen era.  To present Hazel Smith as a "goddess" because she has an accent and a country music background is an affront to every healthy, beautiful Southern woman I have ever known.

These are some fairly petty grievances to take with a show I would not have even turned on had Blazing Saddles not caught my eye in the channel guide.  But it brought to mind an issue which has been germinating in my mind for a while: Southern image problem.

As a native Floridian from the non-Disney wasteland of northwest Florida, I honestly resent the popular image of a typical Southerner as a paranoid, racist, homophobic and uneducated cretin, one generation removed from the Deliverance crowd but still marrying within the family.  Country music, once an honest expression of working-class emotion, now an American Idol-approved industry capitalizing on the image of plaid shirts, denim shorts and cowboy boots, is certainly no help, either.  But one of the biggest issues to me is our food.

Southern cooking is loved and hated in one way or another all over the country.  Every native Southerner, from Kentucky to Florida, has memories of at least one relative (usually aged and female) who disappeared into their kitchens and engaged in culinary magic resulting in savory and sweet dishes that combined any and all comforting foods into bakes, casseroles, pastries and side dishes.  My own memories along these lines concern my Mississippi-born grandmothers.  They both moved to the Florida Panhandle from the Mississippi Delta and combined the best of Delta fare with Florida's seafood offerings to create dishes which left indelible memories.

Now, the problem with Southern cooking is that, due to the hardscrabble economic circumstances which surrounded many of the Southern States, our cooking traditions, which persist to this day, resulted mostly from poverty.  The ingredients available to agricultural communities of lesser means defined the food which came from these communities.

The impacts of economics, agriculture and ingredient availability and population demographics are visible in much more detail than just the broad spectrum, Cracker Barrel image of Southern food to the country at large.  The ubiquitous practice of frying chicken became prevalent in the South because it was a common practice for many of the Africans who were kidnapped into slavery and whose descendants carried on the traditions in their own kitchens and those of their owners across the South.  Familiar, regional crops such as rice, beans and yams defined the dishes which arose out of the Carolinas and Louisiana to produce such distinctive branches of southern fare as Creole and Gullah cuisines.  The availability of seafood in coastal states led to the incorporation of fish, shrimp, crawfish and oysters into the definitive dishes of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana.  The cheapness of lard, cornmeal and flour was responsible for biscuits and cornbread becoming such an identifiable pastry in the South, much more than its Scottish grandfather, the scone, which remained more common in the north.

All of these varieties, and many others, are the components which make up the whole of southern food.  Southern food was born largely of poverty, it is very carbohydrate-based, and was made to be filling and satisfying to meet the needs of people who worked hard labor their entire lives.  As anyone who has ever spent a holiday in a traditional Southern home, where all the classics tend to converge at a single meal, the food coma concomitant with such heavy fare is not unfamiliar.

However satisfying it might have been intended to be, for most people, food is not so hard to come by, nor our daily workload so difficult, that we need to eat massive amounts of biscuits, gravy, potatoes and fried cuts of meat on a regular basis.  The following graph was a self-assessment in which the sampled population rated the quality of their diet and the amount of money they spent on food.  Take a look:

This graph was part of a larger study, but was the segment of it which I found most interesting.  Whether people think they are eating well or eating poorly, they are spending about the same amount of money on food.  This seems to communicate that healthy food and unhealthy food are both in ready supply, but if the restaurant choices and belt-straining waistlines of my hometown are any indication, Southern-influenced comfort foods, "soul food," fast food and pre-packaged foods continue to reign as the options of choice for dining both out and in.

Part of this is resultant from the forty-year miseducation of the public as to what constitutes a "healthy diet."  This is worth its own post, and is already the stated purpose of multiple books and blogs.  But viewed as a whole, the shortcomings and detrimental effect of American food culture are showing themselves more every day.

In pop culture, the likes of Paula Deen and Hazel Smith are presented as womanhood's Southern norm.  The average southern man is far more likely to watch football than to ever pick up a pigskin himself after high school, and his appearance tends to reflect that fact.  And don't even get me started on Nascar.

In short, Southerners have a immediate connotation with obesity, and I'm sorry to say, the facts back it up.  Diabetes is more prevalent in the American Southeast, and has been for years.  Southerners do it to themselves through a historical nutrient-deficient diet, which continues in the modern day in correlation with the national trends of increased overall caloric intake (see diagram 2-1).

The problems are evident.  For the next few weeks, I plan to continue with this theme and post a series of entries about the history of southern food, agriculture and health.  Everyone knows there is a problem, but I want to dive in and find the root cause, focusing on the South.  Whether it be simple correlation or as concrete proof of cause, I want to see what is available.  I find food history interesting and this is a good excuse to dive into some research.

I will still be posting lighter fare to keep the blog from becoming a one-note stream of data, but you can count on at least one sizable post a week about Southern food culture for an indefinite period of time.  Stay tuned!

External Links:

Southern Fried Flicks - CMT

Paul Deen and Diabetes - Diabetes-Warrior.Net

"Hogs and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America," by Frederick Douglass Opie - Google Books

Louisiana Creole cuisine: Overview - Wikipedia

"Low country Gullah/Geechee Soul food" and African based cuisine - CravesSoulFood

What's the Difference Between Biscuits and Scones? - YumSugar

The Best Way to Get Diabetes: Follow the Diabetes Dietary Guidelines - Mark's Daily Apple

Profiling Food Consumption in America - USDA Factbook (PDF)

Maps of Trends in Diagnosed Diabetes - CDC