Speak of the foods of the Deep South, and you conjure up familiar images of fried chicken, slow-cooked greens, sweet potato pie, and brown-sugar-crusted hams. But, of course, the reality of Southern cuisine is considerably more complex and wide-ranging, with every region sporting its own culinary traditions, influenced by contributions from multiple countries and cultures. And many of them are far healthier than you might think.
It was the Native Americans who introduced the European settlers to corn, and thus we have cornbread, hominy, grits, and hush puppies. The Spanish introduced pigs to the New World, with their favorite resulting product-ham. The French imported a whole array of spicing and preparation notions that we know as Creole cuisine; and it was the Scots who liked to fry their chicken, unlike the boiled bird of British choice.
Perhaps the biggest contributors to the now-classic elements of Southern food were African slaves who worked the plantations after being torn from their homelands. They kept alive the cuisines they remembered as best they could, given the constrictions of their environment and servitude. Black-eyed peas, collard greens, and okra all originated in Africa; even watermelon had its origins in Africa.
Interestingly, it was the straitened circumstances of the slaves that led to the healthy basis of "soul food." Vegetables and beans were the inexpensive and easily obtained staples that formed the bedrock of their meals, with the addition of only small amounts of meat that was used more for flavoring than as a main ingredient. Think slow-cooked greens with ham hocks, or even gumbo (whose name was derived from quingombo, the West African word for okra).
So yes, it was exactly what modern nutritionists advise for a proper diet-generous amounts of vegetables and fruits, complex carbs such as beans and corn, and small portions of meat and fish. Southern food is simple, direct, and seasonal-three excellent attributes for cooking at home.
Of course, there are many indulgent aspects of Southern cooking, especially when it comes to desserts-pecan pie with whipped cream anyone? And it would be hard to make a case for the nutritional benefits of biscuits and gravy or chicken-fried steak. But once you dig a little deeper, you can find endless options for sensible-yet-delicious dishes, from the seafood-inflected casseroles of Creole lineage to the seasonal vegetable-strewn offerings of soul food.
So it's time to explore the lighter side of Southern cooking; it was there all along, just waiting to be acknowledged and enjoyed.
A good cast-iron pan is essential to Southern cooking. Get one, season it right, and use it regularly! It's a good way to boost your iron intake.