Backstory: Southern discomfort food
Some black leaders want to wean kids off southern foods for health reasons. But critics say it's robbing a region of its culture.
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He's quick to note that lard-soaked Southern foods are adversely affecting black people more than whites: Statistics show African-Americans gaining weight faster. BlackHealthCare.com, a website devoted to African-American health issues, recently wrote that increased health risks among blacks in the Carolinas and Georgia is rooted partly in "a regional preference for salty, high-fat foods."Skip to next paragraph
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In a city that once awakened the country to civil rights issues, it seems everyone from Mayor James Perkins to School Board member John Terry is reevaluating their daily vittles. "We have the obligation to alert students that a lot of your good stuff has got plenty of fats in it," says Mr. Terry, who has had to temper his own consumption of favorite foods: fried chicken, fried catfish, barbecue, and ice cream.
Terry acknowledges that food is hardly the only cause of the city's health issues. "Some of it is also hereditary, and part of it would be laziness, a failure to exercise," he says.
But there's more to this tale of the table. In this historically poor region, food became entwined not just in stories of survival; it became a symbol, to some, of white persecution of blacks. The coining of the term "soul food" in the 1960s was a way to separate foods that originated with slaves and indigenous people from "plantation food." "What we may be seeing today in some African-American responses [away from Southern food] could be influenced by a pejorative association to a plantation diet," says Mr. Edge.
But the problem with Selma High's approach, critics say, is that research is conflicted about what constitutes a proper diet - and what, exactly, the factors are that play into obesity. They concede that rich foods can contribute to weight problems. But the question, really, is whether a traditional diet can be part of a healthy, moderate life style.
"It's particularly unfortunate that communities that might be vulnerable to invidious targeting on these matters get fed, metaphorically speaking, misleading information, like traditional Southern food being bad for you," says Paul Campos, a University of Colorado sociologist and the author of "The Obesity Myth."
Certainly healthy food advocates face an uphill fight in changing perceptions across the South. Take the scene at Arthur Cato's House of Southern Food in Hogansville, Ga., where the waitresses write in Magic Marker on wide pads. The grits come topped with butter. Lots of it. Fried catfish comes out of the kitchen in schools. The smoked sausage is dished out in large proportions.
"This is roots food," says Mr. Cato, wiping his hands on his apron. "I've never eaten anything else. I'm 77 years old, and I'm skinny as a rail."
At the Autagaville Cafe, a cinder-block restaurant in the heart of the Black Belt, Mary Wright shrugs off the food controversy, too. "No matter what we do, we're all going to leave here one day, so we might as well go happy and full," she says.
According to Wilson, the low-fat diet at Selma's gothic-looking high school caused a lot of "belly-achin' " as well. But a year later students are adjusting. Senior Clarence Walker, for one, resisted the idea of baked chicken over fried. Now, he says, "it all tastes pretty good."