In the last fifty or so years, Southern food has gotten a bad wrap. Click-baity headlines proliferate, espousing the American cuisine as fat and sodium-laden with few redeeming healthful qualities. "Study: 'Southern Diet' Strongly Linked To Heart Disease" Forbes warns, while Men's Journal takes a more incendiary approach, informing readers: "What a Southern Diet Actually Is, and Three Ways It's Killing You."
And it's true—if you eat a daily helping of a condensed-soup-thickened casserole, it will most likely cause adverse health effects in the long run. However, a look into the history of Southern cooking quickly disproves that Southern food has always been unhealthy, or that it's inherently designed to clog up your arteries. For many generations, particularly before the advent of modern pre-packaged foods, Southerners relied on fresh garden vegetables prepared simply and deliciously.
As John Edgerton writes in his 1987 tome Southern Food, "Southern food at its most appealing is surprisingly simple, relatively inexpensive, and inclusive rather than exclusive. It is suffused with history and continuity."
Moreover, healthy Southern food is not an artifact of the past. Between the global pandemic and the rising prices at grocery stores, more and more Americans are turning to growing their own vegetables, just as those who came before us were required to. Black communities are veganizing beloved and nourishing soul food dishes, while others are committed to recontextualizing the Southern foods they grew up with.
Are you looking to cook more Southern food, but are worried about adding a pound of butter to your potatoes or a piece of salted ham to your greens? Check out these five cookbooks, which highlight the traditional foodways of the South while keeping health concerns front of mind.
And don't you worry your pretty little head—they still taste like home.
Houston-based husband and wife team Eric and Shanna Jones have taken the blogosphere by storm since starting their website, Dude That Cookz. Drawing from their lives growing up in Louisiana and Texas, respectively, the pair love to show case mouth-watering dishes that are easy to make—but don't include pork or shellfish. This spring, they released their first cookbook, Healthier Southern Cooking, filled with light, homestyle meals that are sure to be as filling as they are delicious.
Sound appetizing? Be sure to read Wide Open Eats' conversation with the health-minded cooks, too.
First things first: not all soul food is Southern food, and not all Southern food is soul food. According to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, "The term soul food is a political construct, a remaining and reclaiming of the traditional foods of African Americans, the foods of historical privation, by African Americans." However, because of the often unheralded skills of Black women (and men) in Southern kitchens over centuries, the two cuisines are inextricably linked.
With these complicated tensions in mind, we would be remiss to leave off Soul Food Love, a cookbook and love letter to the health and wellness of Black women. Written by novelist Alice Randall and her poet daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, the cookbook offers beautiful prose alongside delicious, meaningful recipes.
Timothy Pakron was raised on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, with a childhood resplendent in the smells and tastes of Creole, Cajun, and Southern cooking. Although he grew up with a bounty of seafood outside his door, he made the decision to become vegan thirteen years ago and never looked back. In Mississippi Vegan, he seamlessly merges his past and present: "The concept is a celebration of delicious recipes and beautiful photography using plants and mushrooms as the foundational ingredients." Although Pakron is an excellent cook, he's also an artist and photographer, meaning the cookbook is just as beautiful as the recipes are savory.
Victuals is not an explicitly "healthy" cookbook. Rather, writer and editor Ronni Lundy focuses on the bounty of local foods in her exploration of Appalachian eating in this James Beard Award-winning text. She explores the intricate and diverse history, stories, and foodways of the region, focusing on the simple preparation of hardy, delicious food. Alongside the recipes, you'll learn about the traditions, stories, and cultural transformations of the mountain South.
Originally published in 1976 by the godmother of Southern cuisine, Edna Lewis, it is still widely considered one of the most important Southern cookbooks ever published. Full of the simple, seasonal dishes that provided the foundation of Southern cooking—and that covered the table when Lewis was growing up in early twentieth century rural Virginia—the recipes leave behind a blueprint of what simple Southern cooking was, and what it can continue to be.
Although not a new cookbook, the title was reissued in 2006, with a new foreword from Alice Waters, the chef behind the wildly acclaimed restaurant Chez Panisse.