Real Southern Food, Lightened Up
With the renaissance of all things Southern, our cuisine is at the forefront. Chefs all over the country are offering Southern cuisine. Some are more successful than others. The ones that fail often try to gussy things up with dollops of pimiento cheese, wrap it in some kind of pork, and fry everything that isn’t nailed down. Then they slap it on a menu and call it “Southern.” That’s oversimplification. There’s more to authentic Southern cooking than butter and bacon grease, fried chicken and fatback. My book, Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome embraces the bountiful fresh fruits and vegetables that are the true staples of the Southern larder.
Traditionally, Southern cooking was actually a vegetable-based cuisine. We have nearly a 12-month growing season in most of the South. To this day, agriculture plays a huge part in Southern food and cooking. Georgia ranks first in the United States in the production of chicken broilers, peanuts, and pecans. Nearly 30% of the state – over 10 million acres – is farmland. Southern cuisine is also vibrant, alive, and changing. There are now huge populations of Latin Americans in the South. Georgia’s Hispanic population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. Their presence has certainly spiced things up with Southern food. There are also large Asian and Indian communities, mostly in the larger cities, but their effects are penetrating into the smaller towns and countryside as well. What defines Southern food has changed and evolved. We have been affected by global influences. The food of the South is equally catfish and churrasco, BBQ and bulgogi, cheese grits and curried goat.
I knew this to be true and I worked hard to defend Southern cuisine as I traveled across the United States promoting my cookbooks and teaching cooking classes. On television, all people had been seeing of Southern food was butter, butter, and more butter, but Southern cooking is not all about overindulgence.
Traditional Southern food emphasizes the delicate ingredients that are indigenous to our region. Believe me, deep-fried-bacon-wrapped macaroni and cheese is not a classic Southern dish! It seemed a real uphill battle, and I wasn’t a good representation of what I was saying. I have had weight issues my entire life, but several years ago found myself unhealthy, unhappy, and really overweight. I knew I had to make some changes.
I’m not a skinny girl. I am not a doctor or a dietician. I am not a professional model, actor, or dancer with an entire life focus of being super-thin (and a staff of nutritionists and trainers to help me get there). I am a French-trained Southern chef. I have broad shoulders and my genetics dictate that I am one sturdy girl. I knew I needed to lose weight, but also, I needed to eat more healthily and exercise more. I wanted to be strong.
I joined a weight loss program and started exercising. I lost nearly 40 pounds over two years. What I like very much about the program that I did was that it wasn’t about what I couldn’t have. It wasn’t dieting and going without. It was about making smarter choices. I focused on what I could have, not what I couldn’t. However, portion control became very important. And, since the diet allowed unlimited vegetables, my plate evolved to include more vegetables and less meat and starch. I learned to eat healthy protein in the morning to stave off hunger. I became cognizant of drinking more water and not giving in always to cravings. Food began to taste different to me. As I made these changes in my cooking style, I wanted to share with my readers.
This is when the concept of Lighten Up, Y’all evolved.
However, I didn’t want to write a diet book. I wanted to write a book to share my story and to also let readers know that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can’t tell me that snacking on fat free strawberry yogurt is going to satisfy a craving for strawberry cheesecake. Here’s the deal — you can have the strawberry cheesecake but you cannot have it everyday. It’s actually pretty simple: eat less and exercise more.
The cornerstone of my work is that my recipes are well-written, taste good, and work. It’s a point of pride for me. Most importantly, the food has to taste delicious. I wanted each recipe packed with real Southern flavor, but made with healthier, more wholesome ingredients and techniques. I trimmed the fat and raised the nutritional density. I used just enough oil to get the job done. I didn’t eliminate bacon from some recipes, but used a judicious amount so that the bacon flavor was present but the dish wasn’t overly fatty. The ingredients are wholesome and I don’t call for over processed non-fat fake foods. Mayonnaise is used so much in Southern cooking it could be a food group, so to deal with that conundrum, I used an even split of olive oil mayonnaise and 2% Greek yogurt with great results.
I included more whole grains, lighter proteins, and many of the desserts use whole-wheat pastry flour instead of more refined all-purpose flour. I also used applesauce instead of butter or subbed out some of the butter for heart-healthy canola oil. Some of the recipes are lighter versions of classics like the warm, melting Broccoli Mac and Cheese, Lightened Up Pimiento Cheese, or the Summer Squash Casserole, while others are simply lighter and healthier Southern recipes such as the Sweet Potato Gratin with Herb Crumble, Braised Collards in Tomato Onion Gravy, or the Gulf Coast Seafood Stew.
I tested the recipes on family and friends and the response was unanimous. Folks really liked the food. During testing, it became my custom to have Friday night dinner parties and we’d taste and rate the dishes. If I had to go back to the drawing board, I never spent more than three tries on a dish – the way I look at it, if I couldn’t make it a B+ in three tests (on its way to becoming an “A”) it was never going to be good enough.
My books are very, very personal. I am a storyteller. I write about my family and my childhood. I’ve written about joy and happiness and loved ones dying and hearts being broken. This is the most personal book I could have ever written. It’s my story.
It’s my acceptance of my body. It’s my appreciation of being healthy and strong rather than pursuing an idealized body shape or weight. It’s the story of me paying attention to my emotional, spiritual, and physical well being, and not solely looking at the bathroom scales. It’s the story of me truly enjoying exercise and physical activity. (Last year I trained for six months and walked sixty miles in three days for a breast cancer walk!) It’s also the story that I am continuing to learn every day, that there is beauty in every body. Writing Lighten Up, Y’all changed my life.
Is this a lifelong journey? Yes. Will I have to watch what I eat and continue to exercise? Yes. Here’s the difference, now I want to.
It’s a way of life. Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes – so lighten up, y’all!
First published April 2015