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 


  1. Thanks for coming to our festival. You understood our intent exactly. We love the way our mothers and grandmothers cooked without recipes, and we believe Southern cooking is an art form. As we said, you just need to splurge occassionally.

  2. Thank you for making the trip to Athens, AL. I've shared your post with the steering committee of the Grease Festival and Spirit of Athens Board members. Hope to meet you on your next trip up here.

    Trisha Black, Executive Director, Spirit of Athens

  3. I enjoy you so much on Fox 6 but I am going to have to disagree very strongly with you on this mornings segment about how vitamins and minerals do not help you much with colds. My husband is 67 and he has his tonsils. The wind would blow and we both would get very sick. Stayed sick with cold, flu, pneumonia every year to the point we would miss work. We started going to the McMinn Clinic for our hormones and other issues. Dr. McMinn upped our vitamin D levels to 5000 Iu's daily and in 4 years we have not had as much as the sniffles. My Aunt uses a very old doctor in Gadsden. He told her he was at a convention in New Orleans and 3 nursing home doctors were there from the same nursing home. One doctors patients NEVER got sick with colds and flu during the winter and the other two doctors patients nearly died being so sick. They went to him to see what magic he was working. He upped their vitamin D to a huge amount during the cold season. I think sometimes people are quick to say something does not work when it does. IT SURE HAS WORKED FOR US.. My husband has not been sick ONE Time in 4 years and before that we stayed in the doctors offices with sore throats down to pneumonia.

  4. thank you for your comment and for watching the show. It's great to hear that you and your husband are doing so well!

    Keep in mind what this study showed. As I said on the show, the researchers studied people who already had enough vitamin D in their systems - not people who were low on vitamin D. What they looked at was whether adding more vitamin D lowered the chances of getting a cold. They actually exposed them directly to the cold virus. They found that the extra vitamin D did not prevent people from catching a cold.

    But that is very different from looking at people who are deficient in vitamin D - which is very common in nursing home patients and older people. In that case, it could very well be true that getting the levels of vitamin D up to healthy levels and keeping them there could lower your risk of getting a cold or the flu. It is very possible that you and your husband were deficient in vitamin D - I find this in a lot of my patients - and getting your levels up was truly helpful and you noticed a difference. We advise all of our older patients to take vitamin D and I take it regularly myself.