Trimming the Neo-South | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Trimming the Neo-South

My favorite activity when I get paid is to go to a bookstore and browse the food & drink, and dieting sections. Most of the time, I find myself overwhelmed with the selections, and also the shelf, just because it's much taller than I am.

Most of the books in the dieting section aren't very interesting and generally follow the same format—an intro about how the author used to be fat but has slimmed down because of so-and-so diet, and then information on the diet itself, followed by recipes, which, most of the time, taste pretty terrible. The books may have tips laced throughout.

But after scanning book spines, I often stumble upon some books that pique my interest, whether they be about different diets such as the Paleo diet or "Skinny Bitch" (which I cannot stand) or even just books on healthy southern cooking.

Mind you, I don't use cookbooks as much as I'd like. They're big and bulky, and the pages flip when I don't want them to. I could use my eReader, but I don't have a stand for it. Most of the time, I find myself browsing Pinterest for healthy recipes, which tend to have a pretty iffy outcome. But I like having cookbooks, mainly because everything I want about a particular subject is contained in a few hundred pages. I tend to collect them. On my shelf, I have a couple of Paleo diet books, a healthy recipe from "Taste of Home" and a few other random diet books from the many I've tried.

My favorite cookbook, by far, is "Slim Down South" by dietician Carolyn O'Neill. From the title, you'd think it's nothing but a fad diet (although it does have a meal-plan guideline), but you couldn't be more wrong. While I've seen similar books, I've never seen someone break down healthy southern cooking so easily as O'Neill does.

In "Slim Down South," she takes many of our favorite foods and turns them into something much healthier, and most of the recipes are actually fairly easy and really tasty. My favorite was her mini chicken and waffles with spiced honey.

But the reason I liked the book so much was because O'Neill did something no one else had successfully done before, at least to me. Whether intentionally or not, she used this idea of a Neo-South, or a healthier way of living in our deep-fried culture. She did this without telling readers that, no, they could no longer have biscuits and gravy or fried chicken. She simply gave them a healthier method of make those foods, which is something many of us should start practicing.

With Mississippi second in the United States for diabetes and obesity rates, we all should take a page from O'Neill's book—pun intended. We're one of the unhealthiest states in the nation so something has got to give.

What I like about a "Neo-South" approach is that it doesn't mean turning into a rabbit. It means being more conscious about what goes into our food, which is something I recently started to consider when shopping. Though I have shifted my focus from strict dieting to just eating healthy, something I liked about diets like Paleo is that you could have a lot of your favorite foods, like biscuits and gravy, just made in a different way. And for the most part, the food tasted great. With healthier diets, the major focus is cutting out any of the processed foods, a strategy I decided to keep doing, even though I no longer stay away from grains and sugar. It's amazing what you find on ingredient labels if you just look a little closer. Did you know that almost all the ranch dressing on grocery-store shelves contain preservatives such as MSG? I wouldn't have even thought of that had it not been for my shift in focus.

Besides cutting out processed foods, going Neo-South is about bringing the farm to the table. It's about learning where your food comes from, and how to get it in a more sustainable way. In the last few weeks, I've learned about the different farms around the state, and I have to say that I'm surprised at their existence. Maybe it's just part of the culture I grew up in, but I never knew where my food came from, and never thought about it until now. I knew that the food came from somewhere, but I only ever saw it in bins and on shelves at local grocery stores.

Over the last few months, I've learned of restaurants growing their own gardens and using their produce, and people buying chicken from places such as Pickett Farms in Terry, right inside Hinds County. It's incredible what you find when you think to look for it.

While it's a slow-moving process, I can tell you that the South is slowly shifting its focus from unhealthy, processed plates to wholesome, tasty meals. We are changing, whether or not we realize it. You can now go to places such as Palette Cafe at the Mississippi Museum of Art and La Finestra and Parlor Market and Table 100, and find great dishes with a strong focus on products from Mississippi.

At the Mississippi Farmers Market, which, by the way, is open all year, you can find local purveyors selling food they made with their bare hands, and also the most in-season produce. That's what's going to save us. While dieting and exercise help, what'll make the greatest change is actively buying local, seasonal food. If we adopt the mindset of people like O'Neill, I'm confident that we will no longer be one of the fattest states in the U.S.

For this fall food issue, Jackson Free Press chooses to focus on the idea of neo-southern eating. From pages 19-24, you'll find southern foods turned healthy, local restaurants focused on bringing local farms to the table (literally, in one restaurant's case) and then to the forefront of southern cuisine, and you'll find recipes you can make with local produce.

With this year being the "Year of the Creative Economy," why can't it also be the year we find ourselves in a new, healthier South. The changes won't be easy, but our lives will improve because of it.

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