Wednesday, January 18, 2012



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.

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