Southern Food, Jewish Stomach

I have lived in the South for well over a year now. In my time here, tourism has not been a great way to get to know my new regional home: the pandemic has made travel unsafe and has even closed many tourist attractions. For some people, perhaps a reasonable substitute for traveling to new places would be to sample the foods they might eat in a new locale. Unfortunately for me, this has not been an option either, because Southern food is rich and very dairy-full and I have a very Jewish stomach. 

What do I mean by a “Jewish stomach”? Well, for starters, some of my food sensitivities might be tied to my Ashkenazi ancestry. Also, my stomach complains no matter what I do or don’t put in it – it’s like that old joke: a Jewish guy and his friend eat at a restaurant together. They finish their meal, and the Jewish man has completely cleaned his plate. His friend asks how his meal was, and the Jewish man responds” “Uch, the food was terrible… and the portions were too small!”

All this to say: I can’t properly digest lactose or fructose, the sugars in dairy and most fruits. So much to my chagrin, Southern gastro-tourism (exploring a place and its culture through food) has not been a great option for me.

After all, what’s left of Southern cuisine when you have to remove fried catfish and chicken, hushpuppies and cornbread, tomato pies, pecan pies, peach pies, cheese grits, biscuits, and the list goes on and on…? Even barbecue is a risk for me, because honey and certain other sweeteners and alcohols that often find their way into the sauce, which can mean a no-go for me as well.

But I’ve done my best to try to experience the South through food. I’ve even made my own Southern food at home, doing my best to substitute for ingredients I can’t eat. I made enough gumbo for a party and loved every spicy, smoky bite. I made fried chicken from a vegan buttermilk that I looked up how to make myself. These were both extremely successful forays into Southern cuisine, but I still felt like I was missing out on real, Southern eating.

But most weekends, I go to the Mississippi Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. At the farmers market, I have found a real love for Mississippi-grown produce. I have to skip over the honey vendors and the peach peddlers, and every time it hurts a little to walk right past the lady selling turnovers. But I have found a deep appreciation for the small-scale farmers who bring the best of Mississippi produce to market every week.

I am 100% convinced that the butternut squash from the family farm sold only by the many-pound bag is the best squash I’ve ever had. I love the sun-sweet strawberries and crunchy cucumbers that come from a farm right here in Jackson. A jalapeño from the farmers market helped make the perfect chili, just as sweet onions were the perfect addition to roasted veggies. Plus, the blueberries and blackberries that I picked myself at a local farm this summer were the best berries I ever tasted in my life, and they made excellent scones and jam that I could ensure were edible for me.

I may not have been able to take to Southern cuisine with gusto, but it’s been one of the small, sustaining pleasures of my life here in the South to go to the farmers market and make whatever I can from the in-season, Southern-grown produce.

My version of Southern eating is certainly not what most people think of when they hear Southern cuisine, but I’ve learned to appreciate it all the same. And hey, if you’ve got dairy-free recipes for Southern food, send them my way!

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