Is Southern Food Unhealthy?

 Recently I've been researching Southern food in the 1800s for a dinner that I'm cooking for. Weirdly, this style of cooking is somewhat in revival in Chicago with restaurants like Big Jones and Carriage House serving fairly authentic period foods. I was at Big Jones recently and all their biscuits are made with pastured lard. That's pretty hard to find in the South these days. In fact, recently a Southern relative said that "our family worked hard so our children wouldn't have to eat offal, and now you enjoy it?" 

I grew up in the South and part of my family has lived there for a very long time. The states we are from, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi consistently rank  very poorly in health markers. 

I didn't grow up on lard. When I visited my grandmother, she had a tub of modern "healthy" margarine. But Grandpa still cooked with bacon grease. And there was always lots of shellfish and fish, which I hated as a youngster. 

So when 23andme introduced its beta of a family tree feature and I started filling it out, I was dismayed to realize that on that side of the family at least, lifespan has dropped rather significantly over time, particularly if you exclude people who died in wars, accidents, at birth, or in childbirth. And even more if you exclude those who were not well to do. Most died in their 80s. Many were in their 90s. It goes along with this post I read some time back on Ryan Koch's blog on American lifespans. Nehemiah Manning of Bogalusa, who was my great-great-great grandfather, died when he was 99. 

Interestingly, Bogalusa has been the site of a major heart disease study and an intervention program that promotes low-fat "heart healthy" diets for children.

Based on my research, that's not exactly what Nehemiah grew up on I would guess. It's hard to find much on that side of the family, but I have a lot more information on the family members from Arkansas. They weren't rich, but they were fairly well off. They owned cows, pigs, and sheep. They hunted bears and deer. And fished. My grandmother said her grandmother ate anything that moved. Living outside major cities was probably a boon for them since cities were so unhygienic back then and doctors did more harm than good. I calculated average lifespan of all some generations in my family that I had data for, excluding deaths in war, childbirth, and people who lived in very bad conditions (the McEwens when they first came from Scotland, for example, lived in crowded urban tenements), though I included some people who were rural poor (estimates would probably be higher without them). 

Average lifespans for great grandparents was 74, for great x 2 it was 78, for great x 3 it was also around 78. There were plenty of nonagenarians.  For people not living in obviously awful conditions or dying from things modern medicine does a good job preventing (typhoid, childbirth deaths, etc.), lifespans weren't so dramatically different it seems. Some lines of my family I can trace back into the 1700s, and I can assume a lot of them were wealthy considering they left records of all the land and livestock they owned. Plenty of nonagearians there too. 

As for other things they ate, I know at least one of my great great great grandfathers, who died in a flu epidemic at the old age of 91, owned a flour mill. But those days flour was at least freshly milled and the varieties of wheat they grew were probably pretty different. I think that's why a lot of really old Southern cookbooks don't seem to contain very large sections of baked goods and buns that we think of Southern now, because heritage wheat is much more of a challenge to bake with. 

The main cookbook I've been using for my research is The Virginia Housewife, which is available for free on Google. It's thrifty and luxurious at once. The upper and upper middle classes at the time were influenced by fine French food, but the cookbook is nose-to-tail and includes a lot of instructions on preserving. 

this diet looks AWESOME to me

As far as eating like your grandmother, this stuff was long out of fashion by the time she was born. People started eating industrial margarine, low quality canned foods, and other processed foods even in the 20s and 30s in the South.  In many ways they were probably worse than some of today's processed foods since many were adulterated or contaminated. Cotton took a heavy toll on the region. Cottonseed margarine, possibly the worst kind of margarine you could possibly eat, was present in many kitchens. Cotton mills and farms polluted the soil, a legacy still affecting us today as the recent arsenic in rice controversy has shown. Agriculture was consolidated and regulated. Households no longer kept their own hogs and cows. 

And people blame the traditional southern diet on the region's health problems. Well-meaning reformists like Jamie Oliver attempt to introduce culturally alien low-fat and Mediterranean diets. Meanwhile in the cities in the North, svelte urban folks dine on butter and pork fat. It's kind of hilarious that I can find pimento cheese made with good pastured local eggs and dairy in Chicago, whereas the stuff I knew growing up in Georgia was often processed store-bought stuff. Lard? I can buy pastured lard at the corner store here. It would be a big effort to get that in the South these days in many places, particularly outside major cities where it is now popular with the bourgeois. Most hog farmers in the South are the Smithfield factory farm sort. 

It isn't helped by what I would refer to as industrial pseudo-tradition, the same phenomenon responsible for fried bread being "traditional" Native American food. In the South I would say Paula Deen would be the perfect example of that. Her recipes are those of a region in decline, one in which processed flour, canned food, and refined sugar replaced the foods of the woodlands and rivers. 

Even worse, many Southerners I've spoken to seem to firmly believe the Southern diet is "bad" and that foods like offal, game and animal fat are for "low-class" uneducated people. 

As for fried foods, I also don't think deep fried food was that common. A good lard breed pig, which is what most families had back in the day, gives you a lot of lard, but that was precious and often had to last a year. These days, many families in the South use a deep fryer daily, mainly reliant on cheap processed reusable oil. In the Virginia Housewife, frying seems to mainly refer to pan frying. 

I'm looking forward to exploring more about true traditional Southern cooking. I'll probably need to take a trip down South to see some family, including some distant relatives of mine who live mainly off of local fish and game.