(This is my Publisher's Note in the new edition of The Oxford American.)
Our appreciation of Southern cuisine has a dark side. We usually acknowledge it with a laugh, or a devil-may-care sense of recklessness.
That fried chicken leg may kill you; that pork rib is going to take a year off your life. But it's worth it, you say. You are willing to live on the edge.
This apparent choice between good health and good eating is made even starker with every new report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest, issued in November 2009, was titled "Highest Rates of Obesity, Diabetes in the South," and it included some sobering statistics. Most Southern states have obesity rates hovering near, or above, the thirty-percent mark, and projections indicate that the problem is going to get much worse in the years ahead.
Of course, it doesn't take long for the researchers to trace the expanding waistlines back to the biscuits and gravy.
"Southern culture plays a role in the rising obesity rates in the region," reports a 2008 article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "Traditional Southern foods--even vegetables such as fried green tomatoes and fried okra--can be land mines for the weight-conscious, health experts said."
Intuitively, that may seem true, but it does not explain why our nation's skyrocketing obesity problem is a relatively recent phenomenon that is not confined to the South. The CDC data indicates that no state had an obesity rate higher than fifteen percent in 1990. By 1998, no state had a prevalence of obesity less than ten percent. As our lives become less physically demanding (with fewer jobs in agriculture and blue-collar trades), and our diets become less wholesome (with more sugar and artificial ingredients), all Americans are at risk of becoming ensnared in the obesity trap.
Still, there is a particularly sad irony in the South disproportionally suffering from an obesity epidemic that could be attributable to its regional cuisine. Many of what are now considered traditional Southern dishes were to a large degree designed to fill empty stomachs and provide essential energy when work was hard and food was scarce.
Then, like now, the South had a higher rate of poverty than almost anywhere else in the nation. So what has changed?
Take a walk through the aisles of your grocery store and compare the prices of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats to those of the mass-produced processed foods. It will quickly become clear that the poor people of the South are making the exact same decisions they made during the time of James Agee and Walker Evans--they are opting for the affordable calories.
The cruel fact is that fewer than one hundred years ago being poor meant you were painfully thin. Now, it means you are dangerously fat.
But this time, it's probably not the biscuits and gravy that are to blame so much as candy bars, soft drinks, and fast food.
In fact, our favorite Southern foods actually have become indulgences because an increasing number of Southerners cannot afford them. By an extraordinary twist of economics, the fresh, local produce once available cheaply at the back-road farm stand has become the preserve of the elites, available in gourmet-food shops at inflated prices.
It used to be that keeping a few free-range chickens, tending some grain-fed hogs, and raising a small vegetable garden was how people simply survived. Now these are often vanity projects for young hipsters and retired hedge-fund executives who have discovered the forgotten pleasures of "heirloom" tomatoes and artisanal sausage. Incredibly, we've reached a point in our society where things that humans have done for thousands of years--grow a vegetable, smoke or cure a piece of meat--now provide the grounds for smug satisfaction. (Think of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, playing shepherdess and milking the cows.)
In a region where farming is still a dominant industry, how can food that is fresh, local, and organic be beyond the reach of so many Southerners? Our states are among the nation's leaders in the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, rice, peanuts, poultry, and other agricultural products. Yet schoolchildren in poor, rural districts, surrounded by fields and chicken houses, eat processed lunches delivered by food-service tractor-trailers from facilities that are thousands of miles away.
In the end, this paradox can be traced back to those fields and chicken houses, which are now incorporated elements of the devastatingly efficient agribusiness giants. Mechanization, genetic engineering, herbicides, pesticides, growth hormones, and massive economies of scale ensure that anything grown in the next town over is as likely to end up in a grocery store in Maine as in your neighborhood supermarket. In this environment, running a small farm according to organic principles and traditional methods requires greater commitment and investment, which explains why fresh produce is rarer and more expensive.
It is therefore easy to understand how the local food movement also has become another form of social protest against the forces that are corporatizing and homogenizing our society. Fair enough, but it should not make wholesome food so precious and inaccessible that it becomes a luxury item.
Already there has been a noticeable elevation of familiar Southern cuisine from the dairy bar to the martini bar; from the checkered tablecloth to the white tablecloth; from the blue plate to fine china. We're getting used to exclusive restaurants offering their interpretations of fried chicken, greens, pork rinds, and grits--with the requisite menu credit of the nearby organic farm where the meat and produce was raised.
In a bizarre reversal, now it is the wealthy who are rail-thin and eating beans and cornbread. And the poor? The message seems to be: Let them eat (Little Debbie) cake.