Monday, October 1, 2012

My Day in Athens, Grease

It all started when UAB media rep Bob Shepard (“Shep” to those who know him well) emailed me with a request to talk to a reporter from Alabama Public Radio about fat.  But this was no typical media request on the rising obesity rate.  This was a story on the inaugural Athens Grease Festival in Athens, Alabama on Saturday September 29.  The festival has much going for it: a clever geographic play on words, a charming Mayberry-like downtown square with plenty of municipal buildings sporting Greek columns in ode to its ancient Mediterranean namesake, Alabama “Athenians” dressed in togas, and of course, lots of fried foods.  Who could resist?

The reporter, Maggie Martin of Alabama Public Radio, brought up the obvious conundrum: should we be celebrating fried foods in a state that is one of the fattest in the fattest nation in the world? “Sure” I said as I headed toward the fried green tomato booth.  The fried green tomatoes were crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside. This was going well.  As we moved on to the fried candy corn booth, I elaborated on my position:
Fried Candy Corn: A delectable
combination of Bisquick, Corn
Flacks, buttermilk, and
chopped up candy corn. 
  •  I am not a killjoy. It is not my job to play food and fat cop. I have no interest in calling people out with a wag of the finger and a disapproving glare for eating funnel cake. And really, how motivating is that anyway? Paternalistic proclamations demanding that you drop the funnel cake and back away immediately only serve to turn people off and ignore you.
  •  I would be a hypocrite to criticize others when I did not drive up to the festival to window shop. I went with every intention of chowing down on some of the best fried food in the country.
  • Fried foods are part of our Southern Food Culture.  I was born and raised in the south. But growing up the child of an Italian-American mother and German-English father both from the northeast, my food culture was northern. When I moved from Virginia to the deep south, I had never even heard of fried pickles (I pictured a whole dill pickle deep fat fried on a stick) or fried green tomatoes (this was before the wonderful book by Fannie Flagg).   And while I still can’t stand sweet tea, it was love at first taste when it came to fried foods.
  • You can be healthy and have your fried foods too.  I actually catch a lot of flak from people when they see me eating a burger, fries or chocolate. But being a healthy eater does not mean that every single thing you eat must be wholegrain, organic, or free of preservatives, trans fats, sugars, and red dye.  I eat fried foods and red meat three or four times a month – not a day.  I recommend the “80/20 rule”: if you eat healthy stuff 80% of the time and not-so-healthy stuff 20% of the time, you’re probably doing pretty well. But portion control is a constant key to having your favorite foods and being healthy too.  Leaving some on the plate is a good idea.
  • Food is social and emotional. We don’t eat for sustenance alone. Food satisfies something emotional and psychological in us. This is only unhealthy if we turn to food as a way to cope and it keeps us from reaching our health goals. As Rhoda Morgenstern once said to Mary Richards on my favorite show of all time The Mary Tyler Moore Show:  “. . . cottage cheese solves nothing; chocolate can do it all!”
Fried Ribs
So, that’s why in my interview with public radio about the Athens Grease Festival I defended the celebrations of fried foods.  And as the festival website states: "Organizers are not worried about encouraging others to indulge as long as everyone eats responsibly the other 364 days of the year". 

Grilled swordfish, asparagus,
potatoes, and squash. 


 I finished off my afternoon at the festival with a basket of fried fish, fries and hushpuppies. Well, one hushpuppy – I left the other behind along with most of the fries. I was definitely hitting my limit. When I got back to Birmingham, I went for a run and that evening my boyfriend cooked me a delicious meal of grilled asparagus, potatoes, squash and swordfish.  Hey, it’s all about balance.

Now to prepare for next weekend when I serve my yearly duty as a judge (third straight year!) at the Cahaba River Fry Down. So, if you see me eating fried catfish, please don’t judge me.  It’s all in a day’s work. 

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham