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Southern food is big news these days. In the past year or so, the New York Times has printed major features lauding recovered southern food traditions based on heritage seeds and breeds, celebrity chefs, and the national rage for locally grown food, artfully prepared. Every neighborhood you visit now boasts its own farmer's market and community garden, each specializing in the freshest organic produce, straight from the nearest earth. In Atlanta, the New South's famously practical capital, Your Dekalb Farmers Market calls itself "A World Market" and dedicates itself to a well-fed planet with infinite food variety and sustainable international agriculture. The webpage of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture features a list of 347 state eateries purveying locally grown foods, from Charleston's finest to the lunchrooms of the Anderson School District Number 5. Far beyond the famous shrines of Charleston and New Orleans, moreover, cities like Nashville and Birmingham boast about the local ingredients that appear in the updated versions of southern classics offered by their best restaurants. The American food revolution launched by trailblazers like Julia Child has shifted from imported tastes to updated American classics or to new combinations of traditional offerings. Nowhere is this plainer than the modern South, where the locavore movement is in full swing, evolving as it gathers speed and promising succulent benefits to every table, from the simple to the sumptuous.
But there's another side to the story that doesn't always make it to the glossy pages. As I write, a research newsletter has arrived with a cute-looking, green-eyed pig on the cover. The headline reads, "North Carolina's hog farming industry is one of the largest in the nation. Is it also making people sick?" This is a longstanding concern. In the early twentieth century, when all those tasty old-fashioned recipes reigned supreme, the "traditional" South was at least as infamous for nutritional diseases like rickets and pellagra as for segregation and poverty. Those ailments are mostly gone by now, but others have taken their places. As long ago as 1962, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta placed most of the old Confederacy in America's "stroke belt," and it's still there. In 2011, the CDC identified a "diabetes belt" that largely overlapped with the older stroke belt. And you get three guesses about the location of America's obesity and heart disease belts. Small wonder that southern food celebrity Paula Deen, who likes to substitute a glazed doughnut for a hamburger bun, recently announced that she too had developed type 2 diabetes, and would advertise medications for it on television. Or that southern icons from Colonel Sanders to Aunt Jemima have never been known for hawking carrot sticks.
The scientists who labeled these belts did not have to point out (but they did anyway) that the South's signature diseases are still tied to enduring regional scourges like poverty, ignorance, and a history of racial discrimination. Paradoxically, however, the South's dietary problems no longer stem from scarcity per se, but from an abundance of unhealthy food. And though southerners are the most [End Page 3] overweight Americans, they also dominate a food insecurity belt that overlaps with all the belts based on overconsumption.
It's sometimes said that southerners' nutritional problems come from old-fashioned eating habits and fatal components like fatback and lard, blended into everything from greens to hot biscuits. More careful observers know that modern poverty, which leaves many families juggling multiple jobs at odd hours and low wages, steers southerners to foods that are cheap, easy, and quick, and away from painstaking homemade recipes like Mama's lemon meringue pie. Certainly a revived southern passion for the newest and the freshest is long...