By Hardy Jackson
“The South excelled in two things which the French deem essential to civilization: a code of manners and a native cuisine.” – John Peale Bishop
- John Peale Bishop
Well, old John Peale may have been onto something there, but according to a couple of recent studies the cuisine part of our culture is leading us to an early grave.
Not long ago it was reported that anyone who wants diabetes should move South and start eating. This was followed by the results of a Men’s Health magazine survey of the health of men in 101 cities and guess what, Dixie didn’t do well. The first “southern” city to make the list was Raleigh, N.C. at #13, and you don’t find another until El Paso at #22, with Corpus Christi coming in at #28 and St. Petersburg, Fla. at #32.
As for Alabama, Montgomery comes in at #74, Birmingham ranks at #89.
Like so much that is Southern, our eating habits can be traced back to our history. For about as long as there has been a South, culinarily speaking, a good part of the population has had to get by on the poorest cuts of meat and the most forlorn vegetables.
So Southern cooks set out to make the bad at least taste better. What they accomplished has been nothing short of miraculous.
For proof I refer you to the late Ernest Matthew Mickler’s 1986 classic White Trash Cooking, a loving tribute to what southerners can do with traditional staples like fat pork, corn meal, molasses, garden greens, Ritz crackers, Cool Whip, Velveeta and whatever else happens to be handy.
(Many of the same recipes can be found in any “soul-food” cookbook, which underscores the biracial character of the Southern cuisine.)
This sort of cooking and this sort of eating has survived almost intact in the rural South or among rural Southerners who moved to cities like Birmingham and Montgomery. But rather than take our eating habits as an indication of how isolated and unsophisticated the deep South remains, I contend that what we cook and consume is just one more bit of evidence of just how cosmopolitan southerners actually are.
Consider my buddy Jim, who taught Southern history at one of our fine Southern Universities. A scholar recognized both at home and abroad, Jim was invited to lecture at the University of Vienna.
As a gift for his hosts, Jim carried cans of Vienna Sausage to pass around. The sausages were a big hit, as was Jim’s explanation of how Vienna was properly pronounced (“Vi – eeee – nah”).
Now I don’t know, or really care, how Vienna would rank among healthy cities in Europe. And from what Jim tells me, the Viennese don’t know or care either. They enjoy food fixed the way they like it fixed.
Same as down in Dixie.
Our barbeque has more regional variation than French wine. Californians go on about the way they experiment with ingredients and approaches, we can match ‘em with dishes like “Uncle Willie’s Swamp Cabbage Stew,” “Freda’s Five-Can Casserole,” and a “Kiss Me Not Sandwich” (White Trash Cooking, pp. 11, 41, 73).
As for discovering that most of the cities in the Southern heartland are not healthy places to live well, if you can’t have it all, I’d rather have mine with “Ham-Lama Salad” and some “Soda Cracker Pie,” thank you very much.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.