Southern Meals: Can They Go on a Diet?

I was on vacation last week in the South, specifically Wilmington, NC. It never fails – after a week-long visit I feel like I have gained ten pounds. Between biscuits and sauces and desserts, I eat more rich foods than my body is accustomed.

So my intention today was to write a third post in my series of putting recipes on a diet (the first two covered shrimp ‘n grits and muffins). Last week as I sampled dishes, I tried to think of a good recipe to dissect. Instead, I found a list of delectable dishes that are near impossible to slim down in their truest form. Let me explain.

Hush puppies. It’s hard to take one bite of a hush puppy and stop. How could deep-fried cornbread not taste good, after all? If you add butter and/or honey for flavor, you’ve made them all the more addictive —and fattening! A better option is basic cornbread, the un-fried version. Or or possibly baked hush puppies. Every now and then, however, you may have to break down and sample the non-diet version.

Biscuits. Biscuits have the same problem as hush puppies, but for different reasons. Until you have actually made home-made biscuits, you are probably unaware of how much butter or lard is used to make them. And like the aforementioned, a big slab of butter is typically added when served. But I’m here to tell you I have tried to put biscuits on a diet by cutting the amount of fat in half, and they looked and tasted like a dog biscuit. You simply can’t put biscuits on a diet and end up with a dish worth eating at all, so I recommend limiting the number you consume (if at all possible, as they are very tasty).

Fried catfish, shrimp, oysters and other seafood. I don’t deny the South can produce some tasty fried food (particularly oysters!), but I honestly think the succulent flavor of seafood is better enjoyed if not battered and deep fried. One evening this past week, I had a platter of steamed seafood at Dock Street Oyster Bar and it was magnificent. Another night, a pan fried catfish with crawfish succotash from Deluxe Restaurant was “deluxious.” And my last night, at South Beach Grill, I ordered a pan fried sheephead fish (yes, this is a locally caught fish) with crab bread crumbs. Fabulous and not fried.

P.S. Note that I have also found a way to put fried okra on a diet — and it tastes GREAT!

Grits. Most of the time, grits are prepared with water, and even I admit these can be bland. To add flavor, a big ‘ole scoop of butter is often added. This is all wrong! If you prepare them with skim or 1% milk, you don’t need the butter! They’re creamier and tastier and less fattening, too. How’s that for a diet?

Sweet tea. If you put sweet tea on a diet by using less sugar, it’s not nearly as tasty as its richly flavored counterpart. Again, if you ever make sweet tea at home, you will be acutely aware of exactly how much sugar is needed to make it taste anywhere near as good as what you might sample at Chick fil A. The moral to the story is to avoid this one altogether and use a sugar free sweetener or Stevia instead. Your body will thank you for it.

Barbecue. I didn’t actually sample any barbecue on this trip, and truthfully, I don’t see anything wrong with the occasional serving of pulled pork cooked the good ‘ol North Carolina way. But the problem with barbecue is that it’s usually served with hush puppies (bad!), cole slaw (loaded with mayo) and baked beans (usually made with sugar and possibly more pork). By the time you’ve eaten the entire meal – and possibly added sweet tea and dessert – you haven’t eaten a morsel of anything with nutritional value. Can you imagine if you walked into a barbecue joint and saw steamed broccoli or asparagus as a side dish? Not likely. (No one would buy them anyway).

Bacon. I do love bacon, and I recognize that bacon adds tremendous flavor to just about anything. But many Southern dishes include bacon, from an egg biscuit to a tossed salad. You’ll find them sprinkled on top of shrimp and grits, and loaded onto a baked potato. They come with burgers, steaks and even mixed in baked beans. Sadly, there are no health benefits to eating bacon, so try to pick and choose wisely and delete it from the diet altogether if at all possible.

Desserts. It’s hard to imagine key lime pie made with half the sugar, but you could use less whipped cream or meringue on top. Likewise, pecan pie or cobbler could forego that extra scoop or two of ice cream. I really think decadent Southern desserts are hard to surpass, so choose wisely, minimize the number of servings and avoid the toppings. Then enjoy! ‘Cuz they don’t get much better anywhere else in this country!

Melinda Hinson