John Egerton writes in Southern Food: On the Road, at Home, and in History that “the [U.S.] South, for better or worse, has all but lost its identity as a separate place.” However, Egerton quickly turns to food as one of the last distinct markers of Southern identity: “But its food survives — diminished, perhaps, in availability and quantity, but intact in its essence and authenticity — and at its best, it may be as good as it ever was” (3). For many folks who identify as Southern, cuisine is all that remains that makes Southern culture unique after cutting out all the problematic elements of an economy and culture built on enslaved labor, a history of racial violence and poverty, and other regressive politics that Egerton neatly wraps up in the euphemism of a “checkered past.”
In The Slim Down South Cookbook, registered dietician Carolyn O’Neil opens the introduction with a cinematic preview of the pleasure of Southern culture and cuisine: “Bees buzz, shadows lengthen on the lawn, and the sound of chopping mingles with a little humming in the kitchen. You might be in the French or Italian countryside. But step inside to hear pecan shells cracking, smell sweet onions hitting a hot pan, and watch an armful of collard greens disappearing under a steamy lid, and you’ll realize this scene isn’t set in Florence or Provence. This is the American South” (10).
In diet cookbooks representing U.S. Southern cuisine, like Slim Down South, one compelling argument for following the book’s advice is that readers can restrict their eating without separating themselves from their cultural practices and regional identity. To eat differently at a communal table is to stand out and apart from the community. However, according to the logic of the argument in these diet cookbooks, dieting is not only compatible with performing their cultural identity, but the most “authentic” version of Southern foodways and Southern character is synonymous with healthful living. This argument promises the pleasure of authentic community through eating – a pleasure promised by almost all cookbooks that welcome the reader to enter into a culture through cuisine.
The Slim Down South Cookbook, published and endorsed by Southern Living magazine is an example of this kind of rhetoric. Because readers of this cookbook identify as Southerners, O’Neil assumes they still want to publicly practice that part of their identity with authenticity. Throughout the introduction to Slim Down South, O’Neil presents a method by which “authentic” Southern food and identity are defined so that readers may simultaneously be both an authentic southerner and a person on a diet.
In my book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity, I argue “authenticity” is not evaluated by comparing a specific dish to any sort of objective criteria or origin but by how effective an author can be at convincing their audience of a dish’s authenticity. I approach “authenticity” as a set of arguments that a speaker can make to persuade an audience to action. Some arguments are more effective than others or offer more opportunities for an open and inviting community, but I reject the notion that any one definition of authenticity is “correct” or that any one authority on the subject has the final say.
The authenticity argument in Slim Down South works like this:
- The Southern cuisine you’ve been exposed to is actually not authentic. It is an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the whole cuisine. You can easily leave this inauthentic food behind.
- The real Southern cuisine is vegetable-centric and always has been. The writer hasn’t reversed what is authentic. The real authentic was always already there.
- The Southern personality is an asset to weight loss. You can behave like a Southerner and maintain full membership in the community while you lose weight.
- If you have a fat body, you have been living and eating inauthentically, and you cannot consider yourself a real Southerner.
Real Southern Foods
O’Neil starts by acknowledging the disconnect between the popular image of Southern foodways and the general understanding of healthful eating. The author contrasts a caricature of Southern food with a more authentic version waiting just behind it. A hyperbolic dinner of “[f]ried chicken and biscuits followed by an SUV slice of pecan pie” combined with “vegetables overcooked with handfuls of salt and fatback, grits gussied up with gobs of butter, and iced tea laced with sugar,” is dismissed as “only one small corner of the true Southern repertoire” (10). The argument relies on changing the reader’s mind about what is authentically Southern, what they consider to be central to their performance of an authentic identity. The first step in the logic of the argument is to take down a misconception about what Southern food really is.
From this new point of view, O’Neil goes on to convince readers that her Southern food is both compatible with weight loss and authentic. The unique Southern tradition of the “meat-and-three” plate – she argues – is heavy on vegetables, just as in Mediterranean cuisine (14), touted as one of the world’s healthiest cuisines (12). Here, O’Neil introduces the figure of the “[g]ood Southern cook,” a moniker she repeats multiple times in the introduction. The authentic Southern cook, she writes, knows how to let natural flavors shine without adding salt, sugar, and fat (14). The fried chicken that seems to pervade Southern foods is dismissed with an argument of traditional authenticity: “historically, it’s only served once a week” (15). O’Neil leans on the rhetoric of “true Southern cooking” to argue that her way of eating aligns with a more authentic Southern food.
Real Southern Character
The next level in the logic of this argument is that the Southern personality and cultural practice are compatible with weight loss. O’Neil argues that an authentic Southern character leads to slimness. First, O’Neil suggests that Southerners “linger longer,” eating slowly and enjoying their food, living with a “slightly slower rhythm of life” (7). This “leisurely pace” (18) and the “laid-back Southern mind-set” (19), combined with a climate that makes outdoor activities comfortable most of the year connects an authentic Southern personality with healthy exercise and attitudes (16).
Southerners also have a will power and “tremendous inner strength” that is “one of the most powerful secrets to success no matter what your goals” (20). Authentic Southerners are equipped with “a sassy ‘can-do’ attitude” (20), a “Southern backbone,” and “grace and grit” for “tackl[ing] those obstacles” (21). If there is a flaw in the “authentic” Southern character that might lead to weight gain, it is the curse of good manners and concern for the feelings of others, leading them to accept second helpings and sweet treats (21). Readers are assured that while they follow the advice of this cookbook, they can trust their authentic Southern character to lead them to the “right” choices.
On the Outside of Community
O’Neil builds the argument of the cookbook’s introduction on the premise that authentic Southern food and character are already healthy. On the one hand, this argument motivates readers to change their behavior through taking pleasure in “authentic” Southern cuisine and in being part of the Southern family. Slim Down South offers an invitation into community. In fact, O’Neil assures her readers that they can use the cookbook to share “healthy Southern cooking” with family and friends at essential Southern experiences like “tailgating parties”: “The food’s so good, they’ll never know you’ve trimmed the calories and boosted the nutrition” (22). Readers can be sure to continue to eat culturally significant food at socially significant events, even as they try to lose weight.
While this argument for authenticity is softer and gentler than the typical inducements for weight loss, it does not completely disrupt the underlying assumption that the fat body is something in need of repair. A subtler suggestion created by this rhetoric is that fat bodies aren’t authentic members of the Southern community. They eat inauthentic food. They don’t have authentic character. They lack essential grit and grace to be in the community as they are. Rather than ostracizing the dieting person from communal eating, these arguments ostracize the fat body from community belonging. This example demonstrates that there may be no way to persuade a reader to participate in diet culture without some kind of rejection of fat as “out of bounds,” out of control, and unwelcome. The suggestions become more implicit and therefore more insidious in the ways that they continue to motivate readers with shame to find their “authentic” Southern slim body hidden just beneath the surface of fat.