Southern kitchens are known for their love of processed foods. In an essay called “Eat Here,” Mississippi-born author Julia Reed praises the South as the only place in the country that provides “the opportunity to consume an entirely gelatin-based menu.” A series of cookbooks by chef Robert St. John pokes fun at the South’s affinity for all things canned, boxed, and powdered with titles like “Deep South Parties: How to Survive the Southern Cocktail Hour Without A Box of French Onion Soup Mix, A Block of Processed Cheese, or A Cocktail Weenie” and “Deep South Staples: How to Survive in a Southern Kitchen Without a Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup.”
When Diane Claughton, a British transplant who first moved to the mid-South with her Texas-born husband in the 1970s, set about trying to start a Slow Food chapter in the Gulf Coast region last summer, she found the Southern palate more confounding than amusing. According to its manifesto, Slow Food, an international organization with more than 80,000 members, aims both to celebrate local food traditions and promote sustainability and biodiversity.
Claughton reached the part of the Slow Food application that asks would-be chapter-leaders about their region’s traditional cuisine and was stumped on how to reconcile the South’s processed food fixation with the organization’s commitment to sustainability.
“I thought, can I say cake mix and Velveeta cheese?” Claughton remembers.
As Claughton soon discovered, though, traditional and sustainable do not have to be mutually exclusive in the South, as the region has a rich growing and eating culture that existed long before the invention of fake cheese. Thanks to a combination of green-minded chefs, farmer’s markets, and Claughton’s Gulf Coast Slow Food chapter, more and more people are celebrating Southern-style sustainability.
Claughton’s training as both a librarian and a chef gave her tools to uncover and then promote the food traditions of the South’s past. Using the skills she honed as a London research librarian, Claughton discovered that before industrial crops like cotton, corn, and soybeans took over Mississippi’s agricultural landscape in the mid-twentieth century, the state’s farmers grew asparagus, satsumas, and pecans that they marketed across the country. Mississippi’s abundance of wildlife once allowed people to base their diets on deer, duck, and seafood they captured themselves.
“There was never high-end cooking, let’s face it, but the ingredients were good. That’s gone by the wayside because it was too hard or too expensive, I’m not sure of the reason,” says Claughton. “I’m trying to find that out.”
Claughton’s background as a chef — she’s worked in restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic, and she now teaches cooking classes in and around Mobile, Alabama — has also allowed her to foster a revival of those older, slower growing and eating traditions. While hunting for ingredients to use in the menus she prepares, she’s found shitake mushroom-growers, and farmers who raise the cattle breeds that once roamed on the lower half of Mississippi. Through the farmer’s market she started in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, she promotes local blueberry growers, goat-cheese makers, and hydroponic tomato cultivators. The farmer’s market was one of the first places to sell the Louisiana-based Cousins Salad Dressing line of condiments, which are now sold across the region in supermarket chains like Winn Dixie and Whole Foods.
“That’s one of our big success stories,” Claughton says.
Claughton takes the most pride in turning area consumers onto the joys of local eating through her Slow Food chapter. In a region with high poverty rates and strong suspicions against “outsiders,” Claughton has had to fight the perception that Slow Food is exclusive or European. “Slow Food isn’t elitist, anyone can join,” she tells people. “Everybody eats.” She’s also had to reacquaint people with the idea of seasonal eating; she says customers come to her farmer’s market and express shock when they can’t get blueberries all year round.
The area’s spread-out population has also posed a challenge. Slow Food Gulf Coast encompasses both Alabama and Mississippi, so its members have to travel up to four hours to attend events.
“Getting anything done is difficult,” Claughton says.
Despite the demographic and geographical challenges, Slow Food Gulf Coast has grown from five founding members to more than 30, a group large enough that they are able to split up into three mini-chapters to minimize driving distances. Last weekend, Claughton helped host the second annual “Feast of Flavors” in Ocean Springs, an event that more than 25 local vendors attended to sell foods ranging from quail to honey to fresh — not canned — mushrooms.
Claughton is not alone in her mission to reacquaint Mississippi with fresh, local foods. Chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts has provided the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood with simple, local fare since 2005, first through her combination restaurant-upscale food store, Delta Fresh Market, and now through the Delta Bistro. The Mississippi Department of Agriculture sponsors nearly 50 farmer’s markets across the state, drawing weekly crowds of people who want to replace some of their processed foods with whole ones.
Claughton hopes to use her Slow Food chapter as a way to get even more people in touch with Mississippi’s old food traditions.
“I want to get the members motivated to get more people in their area,” she says. “I’m thrilled to be in Slow Food, to have something going on.”
Now that she’s established a farmer’s market and a growing Slow Food chapter, Claughton has her eye on a new project: a Slow Food cookbook filled with recipes that prove a chef can, indeed, survive in the South without a can of mushroom soup.
Story by Eleanor Barkhorn. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in October 2008.