One word: okra.
For the past 12 years, Evans has been the organizer of the Okra Festival, an annual event that draws foodies, artists and storytellers to tiny Burkeville, just west of Montgomery. Held in a cluster of private homes along Harriet Tubman Road, the festival has a homespun, makeshift feel, but Evans says people have come from Mobile, Atlanta and Huntsville to feast on pig ears, pickled okra and gumbo.
“It’s weird to have 14 people you don’t know in your living room,” said Evans, who opens her own home for the event. “But it’s the only place I’ve seen in Alabama where people don’t self-segregate.”
Evans, who grew up in Pennsylvania, said she’s long been fascinated with the power of food to bring Southerners together, even across otherwise rigid racial lines.
There’s another thing that fascinates her: the fact that our food seems to be killing us.
“I’m 67,” Evans said. “And I’m watching friends and neighbors, at 50, who can’t move as well as me. They can’t walk around because of diabetes.”
A hefty problem
Alabama’s expanding waistline is a problem public health officials have been warning about for years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32 percent of Alabama residents were at weights considered obese in 2010. There are critics who question the CDC’s criteria for obesity, but it’s clear the average weight is increasing. Fewer than 14 percent of Alabamians were in the obese category in 1990, CDC data shows.
And diabetes diagnoses — a much more clear-cut number — are also up. CDC numbers show that in most Alabama counties in 2009, one out of every 10 adults was diagnosed with some form of diabetes. That’s a major change from 2004, when only a few Black Belt counties passed the 10 percent mark.
It is, to some extent, a Southern problem. The Deep South leads the nation in both obesity and diabetes, and many have speculated that Southern food traditions — sweet tea, fried chicken and buttery biscuits, among other things — are a significant part of the problem.
Lamar Phillips isn’t ready to take the blame.
Phillips owns the Goal Post, a barbecue joint that has been serving heaps of the signature Southern food to Anniston residents for decades.
Phillips said he’s pretty sure the portion sizes haven’t grown over the years. But the people have.
“It’s inactivity,” he said, with all the certainty of a football coach who just lost the game. “We’re eating the same stuff, but we aren’t doing as much.”
When he was a kid, Phillips said, it was normal to play a pickup game of basketball in the afternoon.
Now kids play video games.
A meat and three
“I don’t necessarily blame those who raise, or cook, or serve our food,” said John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. “There’s a range of cultural as well as culinary issues.”
Edge is a recognized expert on food in a region where everybody is an expert on food. His organization, the Foodways Alliance, is housed at the University of Mississippi and studies the history and future of Southern food in the way the Foxfire books once described Appalachian culture — a combination of academic rigor, oral history and folk-culture advocacy.
Edge said he knows Southerners are getting fatter. But he says blaming our food traditions is “overly simplistic.”
It’s true, he said, that Southerners have always set a full table, putting out more casserole dishes than anybody could reasonably be expected to empty. But in the past, he said, the diet was tied to the seasons.
There was ham when someone killed a hog, he said. There was okra, and pole beans and pears when they were in season.
“The tradition was a meat-and-three,” he said. “That’s three vegetables, not three meats. The center of the table was the bounty of the fields.”
But things changed, Edge said. People stopped working in the fields and started working indoors. Fast food came to the South, and it took Southern fare to the rest of the country. Some Southern fare, anyway.
“Barbecue and fried chicken are sexier on TV,” he said. Healthier Southern traditions, like collard greens or sweet potatoes, don’t get the same air time.
Edge is quick to note he isn’t blaming outsiders for the change in our eating and exercise habits. Burger King, Krystal and Kentucky Fried Chicken are all Southern creations, he noted.
Studying Southern food has made him a healthier eater, Edge claims, in part because he understands that the region’s cuisine is changing all the time — including healthy changes.
“We’re as likely to flavor our rice with Vietnamese fish sauce as with a hock of pork,” he said.
Barbara Evans, the Okra Festival organizer, isn’t so sure Southerners are willing to change. In fact, she’s convinced that all collard greens are not created the same.
“I like crispy snap beans and asparagus,” she said. “And I like them cooked in grease and all that. But these are two very different foods.”
Evans said she has become a healthier eater since she became a festival organizer. But at first, the Southern diet had her packing on the pounds.
Evans came to Burke-ville as a union organizer at a General Electric plant. As the single white mother of a black son in 1970s Alabama, she found her career options pretty limited. In the hard times, she started eating like a local.
“We’d eat grits sandwiches — talk about starch! — and we’d fry up patties of that canned mackerel, the stuff everybody calls salmon here,” she said.
She remembers that food fondly, but Evans has moved on. At neighborhood get-togethers, she makes salads with fresh vegetables and leans toward the crisp produce instead of the fried stuff. It’s often a hard sell.
“People are picky about their food,” she said. “It’s a very personal thing. They don’t want someone messing with what they know.”
Evans said she can’t give away a quiche with okra in it, but if she calls it okra pie, it might find some takers.
‘Eat this, it’s healthy’
Donnie Monroe has been cooking it the same way for his entire career.
As kitchen manager at Cooter Brown’s Rib Shack in Jacksonville, Monroe practices the time-honored tradition of barbecue. Quick to point out that he speaks for himself and not the restaurant, Monroe said he doesn’t think Southern food traditions are to blame for obesity.
“We smoke the pork the same way it’s always been done,” he said.
Portion sizes, however, have grown at most restaurants, he said. Monroe said he hasn’t seen noticeable growth in the portions at Cooter Brown’s in recent years — but across the industry, he said, there’s been a push toward bigger cups of cole slaw and larger tubs of potato salad.
When those sizes have increased, he said, it’s usually because of customer demand. When people get big portions at one restaurant, they expect bigger portions at other restaurants.
Ted Ownby, director of the Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, said he suspects people in the modern Deep South have become more and more willing to reward themselves with food.
“People used to eat these feasts at events that were considered celebratory,” he said. “What was a seasonal event became 12 Saturdays in the fall. And then it became every day.”
Ownby said that’s just a theory, something he’s kicking around. There are as many theories as there are cooks and eaters of Southern food, but there seems to be general agreement that food is a way Southerners express love and build community — and those are things that make bad food habits particularly hard to break.
“We want our friends and family to be happy,” Evans said, chuckling. “We don’t care that the food is killing them.”
If there’s a way out, Evans thinks, it may rest in part on the thing that got us here — good cooking. Give people healthy food that tastes good, she said, and it will catch on.
“You never get somebody to eat something by saying, try this, it’s healthy,” she said. “You’ve got to say, try this, it’s good.”