There are people who love to eat food, people who love to make food, and people who love to talk about food.
I am all three of those people.
I think there’s something in the primordial recesses of my Southern-ness that partially contributes to this. Yes, Mississippi is an obese state, but that’s mostly because we’re an impoverished state. Obesity has little to do with what I’m talking about—although my food obsession has certainly not made staying slim any easier for me.
If you’ve spent any time down South, you know that we are a bit obsessive about food—not only of the fried kind. We eat the food we grow or that our grandmothers grew. We eat black-eyed peas and collard greens and okra and grits. We made Slow Food when Fast Food was all the rage. We ate grits and sorghum molasses and Hog’s head cheese and heirloom tomatoes, before the rest of the country caught on that those foods were cool.
I know I’m not the only Southerner who feels this way about food. Southern Cuisine has virtually exploded all over the United States in the last ten years, largely due to the popularity and influence of the Southern Foodways Alliance, headed by the renowned food writer John T. Edge and based out of Oxford, Mississippi.
Films like The Help have also, in their own way, helped to popularize Southern cuisine. I’ve had three friends write me separately to see what I could tell them about chicken fried in Crisco. The food in that film was styled by Martha Foose, a fellow Yazoo City native and acclaimed chef and food writer herself.
Last week, I helped host four students and one teacher from Scotland at our school. One of the most frequently discussed items was Southern Cuisine. Partly because it seems that food is one of those things it’s easiest to talk about when you are talking with people from “somewhere else.”
But I also think it was partly because the Scots were speaking to people from the South, and people from the South love food. They love to eat it. They love to talk about it. They love to make it. That’s partly how I know they’re my people, because they are food people.
In a Q&A session last week, one of the Scottish students made a slightly disparaging comment about the amount of fried food Southerners eat. I suddenly got very defensive, but before I could even comment, about eight hands shot up all over the room, all of them Southern teenagers.
“Well, one of the reasons we have fried food is because most of Mississippi is poor. You can reuse oil and frying’s a tasty way to improve the taste of cheap food,” one of my students said.
Another replied, “AND not all our food is fried. We eat peas and greens and garden vegetables.”
And so they went on and then in the tactful and gracious ambassadorial spirit to which I am heir, I made the comment that I didn’t notice too much plant-based food consumption while in the United Kingdom and that Scotland has the highest obesity rate in the European Union, but I had later to apologize for that. So oh, well.
We like food down here.
But there could be lots of other things, besides my Southern-ness, that have contributed to my food obsession—the explosion of food-related media in the last fifteen years, the rise of a celebrity chef culture, the wider accessibility of formerly difficult to find ingredients, or the ever-increasing number of excellent restaurants springing up all over the United States.
Friends who know me well tease me, sometimes not so gently, about my food obsession. When I returned from Rwanda, I spent at least fifteen minutes of the first conversation that I’d had with my boyfriend in three weeks describing in detail how good the food was at the Guest House and what we ate for breakfast before we went out in the mornings and how great the coffee was in Addis and what the African cheeses tasted like.
At every major juncture in my life, I seriously re-consider culinary school. I’d rather talk about, watch shows about, or think about food than just about anything else. It’s not just gluttony (though I’m sure some part of it probably is), it’s that I love thinking about food.
When I was in high school and my mind would wander to new ways I could combine my favorite ingredients. When my really smart friends send around their fantastic fiction lists and their impressive journal subscription lists for comparison, I am forced to admit that 75% of my actual reading consists of old cookbooks and cooking magazines.
I spent two solid weeks worth of evenings at the end of this past spring semester hand-writing a summer recipe journal collated from all my archived cooking magazines—trying to figure out inventive ways to eat things like kohlrabi and ramps.
I hardly ever feel strange any more about how much I care about food. People need good food. Most people rarely eat good food. There are times when I suppose I even consider myself something of a food evangelist. “Have you heard the good news about raw vegetables? Let me tell you about all the amazing ways you can prepare them so they actually taste good! You’ll feel so much better!”
Often when I think of food, I think of one of my favorite Mary Oliver quotes, “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
So all you other soft animals out there, eat something good when you go home this fall day. Eat something good, and when next we meet over a cup of tea, please tell me all about it.