The Nutrition (or Lack Thereof):Traditionally Fattening, Soul Food Is Turning to Whole Food in Some
By Leah Blewett
Philadelphians have been gaining girth ever since General Washington and Co. first started brewing beer and baking pretzels—so it’s no surprise that we loves us some soul food. But with our self-coronated Country Cookin’ Queen (that would be you, Mrs. Deen) a diagnosed diabetic and the irresistible FLOTUS Michelle Obama championing children’s health, has the heyday of heart-stopping cuisine passed us by?
“We literally don’t move around as much as our ancestors did,” says Delilah Winder, author of Delilah’s Everyday Soul and owner of four restaurants that have locations in Reading Terminal Market and 30th Street Station. “So, I’m absolutely trying to put out a healthier product.”
It turns out Philly soul food may not be as unhealthy as it appears: Winder has been seasoning her collard greens with smoked turkey, rather than fatty ham hocks, for years—“since before it was all the rage,” she says. “You don’t have to use pork to season your food. You don’t even have to use meat. I rely on herbs and spices so that my dishes aren’t laden with as much fat, and people still enjoy them.”
Winder also insists on fresh ingredients, even in traditional recipes.
“I don’t use processed foods,” she says. “When I make red beans, I use dried beans, not canned. I use whole, fresh product. When I serve corn, it’s fresh corn. Fresh food. That’s how I live my life.”
That sentiment is echoed by Carman Luntzel of Carman’s Country Kitchen (1301 S. 11th St. 215.339.9613).
“There’s no reason to regress to the old menus that would kill you before you started eating,” says Luntzel. “You can make those flavors even better using fresh ingredients. My salmon loaf is from a recipe that calls for canned salmon, but I use Scottish salmon instead, with fresh peas, onion, grated carrots ... I only have one can opener in my kitchen, and it’s so old that if I used it, it would fall apart! There’s nothing like the taste of real fish. I just talked to my fish guy, and he’s bringing it in directly from Scotland for me.”
(Note to savvy PW readers: Luntzel changes her menu weekly—sometimes daily—but volunteered to prepare and serve her salmon loaf from Saturday until Monday for those who want to taste the difference Scottish salmon makes.)
Luntzel says she tries to preserve “traditional tastes ... the soul of the dish,” when she cooks, often working with seasonal ingredients to punch up the flavors without adding fat and calories. “When I make cornbread, I don’t use sugar. You don’t need it,” she says. “I like the old-fashioned recipes, but I use raw foods instead of cans.”
She also has a few choice words for proponents of deep frying (keep in mind, this is the woman whose business card reads “She put the c-u-n-t back in c-o-u-n-t-r-y,” y’all): “I don’t like fried food. People don’t like fried food. All that oil? They gag! Why would you put beautiful fresh fish in all that shitty oil? But if you lightly fry the fish in fresh oil, it can be just wonderful.”
Lightening up greens and fish is one thing, but what about the nutritional kryptonite that is macaroni and cheese? Emmy winner Christina Pirello, host of PBS’s Christina Cooks! and author of I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Eat It Anymore!, has a solution for even the gooey-est and perhaps most sacred of all soul food dishes: go vegan.
“There is a whole discussion to be had on substitutions for things ... and how long to cook collard greens rather than the traditional 45 minutes until there are no nutrients left,” says Pirello, a vocal advocate of whole foods and meatless eating. “There are lots of vegan recipes for mac ’n’ cheese, but a lot of them have ingredients that I don’t really like. They’re complicated, and the results make the dish seem unfamiliar.” Mad as Hell features dozens of recipes and tips for healthy eating, including the vegan mac ‘n’ cheese recipe below.
But soul food, after all, is a splurge. And while it’s heartening to hear that some chefs have our health in mind, these comfort foods can be almost impossible to resist. So after a meal of collard greens, salmon loaf, fried fish and mac ’n’ cheese, why not make like Mrs. Obama and grab that potato sack?
People, you may have noticed, are fat. Real fat. And getting bigger every day. But lost in the endless conversations about the no-longer-new obesity epidemic that threatens to sink our country into a pit of health-care debt we can never pay is a very real and glaringly obvious fact: We’re all a hell of a lot skinnier than we could be.
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