Reclaiming the Traditional Southern Diet

(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

My roots go deep into the land.

My people toiled the land to survive as they migrated to and began to settle here in the South. Their paths took them through the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and into Alabama – and along the way they were connected to the land. Every limb I touch when I climb my family tree has a story to tell about the land. I hear of the Porters farming the land and tending animals in the southwestern corner of Virginia and continuing that work in Fayette County, Alabama. I hear first hand accounts from my mother of the Porters subsisting on a tenant farmer’s bounty during the Great Depression, the Second World War and for many years after. I see this connection in my Brown family history as I hear of the fields they owned, the ground they worked, the lives they lived. I see faded photos with men, my ancestors, Real Southern Men, with a harvest of fish, or deer, or rabbit, or squirrel. My roots go deep into the land – as most of ours do.

But somehow we lost that.

Our Real Southern Men ancestors were intimately acquainted with life on the land. They grew things and harvested things. They hunted game. They fished. They raised livestock and poultry. They traded these things with others for what they needed. If it couldn’t be grown, harvested, raised, hunted or bartered for, they just didn’t need it. What is labeled as “organic food” at the health food store our ancestors simply called “food.” Our ancestors were the original hipsters – eating “free-range” meat, organic vegetables and fruits, drinking milk from pastured cows. Their food came from the land; it was there that it originated. It was consumed close to the land, and they loved the land and respected it.

But somehow we lost that.

Joel Salatin holds a hen during a tour of Poly...

Joel Salatin holds a hen during a tour of Polyface Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many folks point to 1946 and the birth of the first “supermarket” as when this loss happened. Food started becoming a lab creation, instead of “creation.” We began to look to boxes and packages on store shelves instead of to the fields, forests and rivers. Real Southern Man farmer and activist Joel Salatin says it this way:

“The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.”

-Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

But somehow we lost that.

In 2008, I turned 40 years old. I weighed 315 lbs. I subsisted on a diet of processed foods, convenience meals, restaurant staples, and very few fresh, real foods. Even when I cooked at home (and my wife and I did often), it was still food that was very far from the land. I declared at my 40th birthday party that it was time to lose some weight. I joked that I was going to write a book entitled “Diary of an Angry Fat Man” that chronicled that journal.

I didn’t do anything for 2.5 years.

Then it hit me. If I maintained my current relationship with food I was heading to an early grave. A myriad of health issues lay certainly in my path. I wanted to see my children grow up. I needed a new relationship with food.

(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

What followed for me was a long journey filled with many twists and turns. I began to read about food and weight loss. I began to feed my interest in suburban gardening. I began studying nutrition. I began to explore many different approaches to relating to food. I began to eat differently. The result was life-changing – 80lbs lost, running regularly, participating in organized road racing, obstacle runs, and trail running, tons of energy, disappearing health problems and a whole new wardrobe. I am often amazed by what has changed in my life in 18 months.

The questions I most regularly get are: “How much have you lost?” and “How did you do it?”

People want to know the secret, the “diet,” the prescription. I always had a hard time answering. What is it that did it for me? Would I accept the labels that others have for my new relationship with food? Or would I make my own categories.

A lot is being written these days about the Paleo Diet. Many think of it as eating bacon at every meal, rare steaks for snacks, high fat content and cardiac issues waiting to happen. Some accuse it of being elitist because of its preference for organic foods and pastured, free-range, high quality meats. Others say it is inaccessible to the common person with a job, a home and children because of the emphasis on preparing your own food. Some accuse it of only being for the wealthy. It is for these reasons that I have stayed away from such descriptions of my diet. Not because I don’t understand, but because others misunderstand.

But stop for a moment and think about this:

The Paleo approach to food emphasizes a closeness to your food.
The Paleo approach to food emphasizes fresh, real foods instead of processed lab creations.
The Paleo approach to food emphasizes fruits and vegetables of all sorts.
The Paleo approach to food emphasizes wild, clean meat that has not been factory farmed.
The Paleo approach to food emphasizes local dairy from pastured livestock (if eaten at all).
The Paleo approach to food emphasizes eating locally sourced food.


(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

That sounds very familiar to me. That’s because that is how my ancestors, your ancestors, ate! They grew it, harvested it, hunted is, tended it, found someone close by who had it and cooked it themselves. They didn’t have processed/refined foods. So they prepared it themselves from fresh, real food.

This approach to eating is not some elitist diet. It is accessible to the common man. Our farmers still produce some of the best fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy in the world. Our waters, fields and forests are teeming with organic, free range fish, meat and fowl. This is not a diet that can only be realized in the aisles at Whole Foods. It is equally (and I would argue more so) at home in the fields, farms and forests of the American South.

This is a relationship to food that we must recapture. It takes a little work, a little more time, some planning and some will power, but you may just find that your life is changed for the better.

Start looking at hunting and fishing as a way to feed your family in a healthy way instead of just a hobby. Start making visits to the farmers market or U-Pick farm a regular part of your shopping. Grow something yourself. Get a few chickens for your yard. Can, store and preserve foods during the fruitful times to feed your family in the lean times. Reclaim this great way of relating to food that our ancestors perfected. Reclaim this Real Southern Diet.

It’s not about labels that some perceive as elitist. It’s not about pricing ourselves out of good health. It’s about celebrating the bounty of the land and living as close to it as is possible. Our people have roots that go deep into the land. I think I’ll live and eat as close to that land as I can.

3 Responses to “Reclaiming the Traditional Southern Diet”

  1. Jerrod is one of my best friends, so I’m excited to be the first to reply here. I’m so proud of you my friend!! Your journey is inspiring and proves that the “common man” can do it. What a great gift to you family, friends and just as important yourself.

  2. Jarrod, you’re not gonna like this, but “Southern ‘FRIED’ Chicken” was one of the most revered Southern food at any meal.

    This is an excerpt from something I’m writing about my life. I’ve lived in the “South” for a long, long, time.

    “American by birth. Southern by the Grace of God. Had this not been true, there’s no doubt I’d have gotten to Dixieland as fast as my little legs could have carried me. My story begins about mid-morning on the twenty-fourth of June in 1939, in the front bedroom of my granddaddy Turner Bailey’s farm house in the pine barren red clay hills of North Louisiana. The community was known as Bear Creek, and it was located south of Bryceland and north of the village of Bienville, in Bienville Parish. The distance by gravel road up to Bryceland was three miles, and down to Bienville was five. Two miles to the East, and across the Bryceland to Bienville highway was the Bear Creek Methodist church, and graveyard.

    According to a children’s rhyme written in the early 1800’s, I was born a “Saturday’s Child,” and pre-ordained to “work hard for his living.” No, I wasn’t born in a manger with a bright star shining above, or in a stately plantation home with tall columns, nor in a palatial manor. My birthplace was a simple white frame farmhouse with gallery across the front, and an enclosed dog trot in the middle. It was typical of most farm homes built in North Louisiana in the early 1900’s….”

    “The 1930’s and 40’s have often been described as being much simpler times. And, I agree. In the Bear Creek Community during those simpler times, there were no telephones, no electricity, no running water, no central heating, no air conditioning, no television sets, no tractors, no prepared foods to purchase, and no indoor bathrooms or toilets. And, not every family had a car. Well, we did have an air conditioned outhouse—It was really air conditioned in the winter months. Many farm families raised most of their own food – eggs and chickens, milk and beef from their own cows, pork from their hogs, and vegetables from their gardens….”

    “Back in the day, the country folk usually reserved fried chicken for Sunday’s. In fact, I can never remember having turkey for Thanksgiving when I was a kid. Chicken was it for Sunday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and for every other special occasion during the year. If the preacher was invited to come over for Sunday dinner, he got fried chicken, too.

    Fried chicken was always served as the “dinner” meal. For the younger generations, and city folk, understand that dinner was the noon meal out on the farm. Supper was the evening meal. I can remember being confused when the “modern generation” changed dinner to lunch, and supper to dinner.

    During the 1940’s and ’50’s it was customary for rural church families to invite the preacher home with them for dinner after church service each Sunday afternoon. I always imagined that the preacher got tired of being served friend chicken. Inviting the preacher to dinners was the right thing to do since there were no restaurants for miles and miles around. The nearest restaurant to Bear Creek was in Arcadia, around twelve miles away. Thinking back, I don’t even remember eating at a sit down restaurant until I was a teenager. Fast food places like Church’s Chicken, Popeye’s Chicken, and Col. Sanders Chicken were unheard of.”

    There’s a lot…lot…lot…more.

  3. I’m a South Alabama girl transplanted into Wisconsin. What you described something that is near and dear to many people in this area as well. It’s sometimes called the slow food movement. It reminds me of how I lived as a kid. Veggies from the garden. Chickens and eggs from the yard. Beef from one of the steers my dad raised. All this supplemented by rice, potatoes, milk, etc. from the store. I never realized how expensive food was until I left home! I keep a jar of dirt from my Papa’s farm to remind of where I came from and to keep me close to the “dirt”.

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