Southern comfort food queen Paula Deen took a beating last month when she revealed she has Type 2 diabetes, three years after her diagnosis and after an endorsement deal with diabetes drug-maker Novo Nordisk.
Listening to the fallout from the Food Network personality's announcement, one might think all Southerners eat is fried chicken, Twinkies and bacon- and-fried-egg-topped burgers between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Not so, say Southern chefs and cookbook authors, who counter that the extremes make good television but don't reflect the cuisine or how Southerners eat today.
"Over the top sells. This is what the Food Network wants. This is what Paula is serving up. I don't think she's maligning Southern food. I think she is misrepresenting Southern food," says Chapel Hill, N.C., cookbook author Jean Anderson, who wrote the award-winning "A Love Affair with Southern Cooking."
"There are many Southern recipes, classic recipes, traditional recipes, that are nutritious, that are not overloaded with sugar, butter or eggs," Anderson says.
For example: Fish muddles with fish, tomatoes and onions. That classic dessert of ambrosia made with fresh oranges, fresh pineapple and freshly grated coconut. The Southern love affair with pickling all kinds of fruits and vegetables, a process that adds no fat. Vegetable dishes celebrated during our yearlong growing season: long-simmered greens, field peas over rice, juicy tomato sandwiches.
"Vegetables are so important in the South," says Charleston author Matt Lee, who with his brother, Ted, cowrote "The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern."
"Edna Lewis was doing that back in the 1970s. You would think the more educated foodies would have absorbed that information. But the enduring image of fatty, lardy Southern down-home cooking has been the dominant image of the foods of the South."
Adds Ted: "It's so hard to sell a television show on delicious Southern vegetables. Lord, we have tried."
If all this attention to Southern food has any silver lining, Atlanta cookbook author Virginia Willis, author of "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all," hopes it is this: "It's been exciting that all these people have been talking about Southern food. It's an opportunity to educate."
> Go lighter, stay Southern
Replace the smoky flavor that bacon or ham offers by using roasted Serrano peppers. Blake Hartwick, chef at Something Classic catering company in Charlotte, N.C.
Another ingredient that can add smokiness to dishes: smoked Spanish paprika. Matt and Ted Lee If you must have meat as seasoning, use smoked turkey wings or necks. Or try a little bit of smoked salt. Virginia Willis
If you must have pork, use a country ham slice instead of a ham hock. It's leaner and smaller. Jean Anderson
Try flavoring vegetables with sauted shiitake mushrooms to create the rich flavor called umami. Jay Pierce, executive chef at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Cary and Greensboro, N.C.
Instead of a mayonnaise-based dressing for coleslaw, consider an oil and vinegar dressing or try a red slaw using barbecue sauce as a dressing ingredient. Anderson
If a recipe calls for mayonnaise, replace half with low-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt. Willis
Many vegetable dishes call for a white sauce, which can be made with 1 cup fat-free evaporated milk, 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon flour. It makes enough for 4-6 servings of vegetables. Anderson
Instead of cheddar cheese in casseroles, use Parmesan. It has better flavor and less is required. Anderson
Instead of thickening a sauce with a roux of flour and oil or butter, try cornstarch dissolved in water. Or for creamed spinach, try cornstarch dissolved in Pernod, a licorice liqueur. Pierce
Acid and salt work the same way by enhancing flavors. Use acid such as lemon juice or vinegar first, then taste. You will end up using less salt. Pierce
Opt for angel food cake. Bake in muffin tins, split apart and serve with fresh summer berries for a leaner shortcake. AndersonInstead of a graham cracker crust for a pie, try spraying the pie plate with vegetable oil and then sprinkling graham cracker crumbs. It removes the fat from the crust and works just as well. Anderson