On stage, the famous jazz pianist Thelonious Monk wore a collard-
leaf pin in his lapel - an act of solidarity, in the guise of a key
Southern food, with his sharecropper roots.
Standing in front of Selma High School the other day, principal
Roosevelt Wilson broke with Mr. Monk and proclaimed war on the
humble but proud collard, the leafy green usually cooked with lard,
and all the other unhealthy Southern foods it evokes.
"If I could, I'd tell them never to eat collards again," says the
appropriately lean Mr. Wilson, as he surveys gossiping gaggles of
students after a recent day of school.
Wilson is part of a growing crusade to cinch a few notches on the
nation's Barbecue Belt. He and others are breaking with the
tradition of Southern grub - fried chicken, pulled pork, crawfish
pies - not to mention school-lunch pizza and french fries to help
stem a national obesity "epidemic."
In black communities across the South, the healthy foods movement
is finding converts who want to replace bacon-soaked beans and corn
pone with baked chicken and steamed broccoli - all in the name of
keeping people, particularly young people, healthy.
But as they do, critics say it undermines a central element of
Southern culture - one shared by both blacks and whites. "If you
look at the aspects of Southern culture that we ... can celebrate as
a joint creation, they are music and food," says John Edge, director
of the Southern Foodways Alliance in Oxford, Miss., a group working
to to preserve food traditions of the South. These are "byproducts
of a multiracial culture, something in which we can take pride, not
something we should be ashamed of."
Eating one's way across the South yields a trove of treasure or
trouble, depending on your point of view: red link sausages, pig
pickins, chicken fried steak, red-eye gravy, even, as at Big Ed's in
Raleigh, N.C., "brains with eggs." It's a culture of food tied in
part to the provincial survival of the South: collards and other
field greens provided the necessary nutrients to a population that,
in the early 20th century, had suffered deficiencies from the "Three
M diet:" meat, meal, and molasses.
From the fried chitterlings at The Varsity in Atlanta to the
fried chicken with gravy at Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill, N.C., it's
popular fare - and increasingly controversial in a health-conscious
Alabama's Black Belt Action Commission, a group formed to improve
living conditions in the state's poorest counties, is among those
trying to change dietary habits. It is pushing to replicate Wilson's
efforts at Selma High across the state. Last year, the school
started doing health screenings on students and brought in older
blacks to talk about how their "harmful" food choices impacted their
health in later years. That led to a revamp of the cafeteria menu to
favor baked foods over fried, as well as the removal of soda and
snack machines from the halls.
For Wilson, it's a broader philosophical battle, one backed by
top doctors in the state. As a health major in college, Wilson says
the causes of problems in his city - recently deemed the "fattest in
the state" - are obvious: an older generation cooking rich foods
that contribute to obesity and health woes.
He's quick to note that lard-soaked Southern foods are adversely
affecting black people more than whites: Statistics show African-
Americans gaining weight faster. …