Nov. 2, 2012 at 1:16 PM ET
“Deep-fried butter, y’all” is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Southern cooking. But before you start blaming your waist on Paula Deen, know that Southern food has long had its roots steeped in fat. Small-scale hog production in the 18th and 19th centuries introduced lard as an inexpensive way of cooking everything from chicken and pork to okra and collard greens. Mixed with flour, buttermilk and just the right spices, traditional Southern dishes were inexpensive, filling and dense — not to mention mighty darn tasty.
That started to change in 1986, when Atlanta chef and pioneer Nathalie Dupree launched an entire movement with her cookbook, “New Southern Cooking,” offering up alternatives to butter laden, fried dishes, much to the dismay of traditional Southern cooks who didn’t want their family recipes to evolve. The movement persisted, and thousands of copies and cooking shows later, many argue that Dupree changed the map of Southern fare for good by raising the bar with a healthy twist.
These days, Southern farm-to-table cuisine is everywhere, and it has attracted sophisticated palates of foodies worldwide. Across the South, inventive chefs are experimenting with dishes using locally sourced ingredients and leaving the lard aside.
Taking a trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line this year? Keep your jeans buttoned and fear no more when you stop by some of these notable hotspots.
Slate Table and Tap
1132 Canton Street
Located in the historic district of Roswell, Ga., dotted with quaint shops and friendly neighbors, Slate Table and Tap’s menu is the place to go for Southern-inspired upscale bar food plus plenty of beer on tap. Sure, a few traditional (read: unbutton your pants) dishes remain on the menu (the cast iron skillet ‘Smac ‘n Cheese is not to miss), but healthier and scrumptious options include the sesame seared ahi tuna with sugar cane soy glaze, while the house-made spicy black bean burger with avocado corn salsa is another local favorite.
Seed Kitchen & Bar
1311 Johnson Ferry Road
A relative newcomer in town, Seed Kitchen & Bar has infused an edgy Southern pulse to the traditional family suburb of Marietta, Ga. Local produce is a must for executive chef Doug Turbush, making it hard to choose from favorites like the veggie grinder with garlic aioli, local tomato gazpacho, Georgia field peas with tasso (spicy cured pork) or seared scallops with sweet corn sauce. With so many healthy choices to peruse, you can still order a side of their white corn grit fritters without feeling too guilty.
"Southern food is evolving with modern tastes and the demand for a more healthful way of living," Turbush told TODAY.com. "Our challenge is delivering the same flavor profiles without so much of the lard, bacon fat and heavy cream that southern cooking has been known for."
Nashville may be famous for country music but a stop at Cabanain Hillsboro West End is just as worthy as a trip down Music Row. Chef Brian Uhl relies on local farmers to truck in “what’s fresh each week,” changing his menu accordingly. Sure, there’s lots of fatty stuff (we must give a shout out to the lobster brie mac ‘n cheese), but there are plenty of deliciously healthy (or healthier) options to explore as well. Just a few you’ll want to try: the sweet tea smoked chicken, cornmeal crusted catfish sliders and blackened rainbow trout with wilted greens.
The Elegant Famer
262 South Highland Street
Chef and owner Mac Edwards of The Elegant Farmer in Memphis works with more than 15 Southern farmers and vendors to make sure his offerings are as fresh and local as possible. Farm-raised redfish with corn sauteé, basil compound butter and grilled Bok Choy or the ‘Bahn You, Bahn Me’ (your choice of roast chicken, pork or mushrooms piled high on a sandwich served with picked veggies and sesame aioli) are just a few of Edwards’ creative Southern comfort interpretations. Also worth noting, The Elegant Famer is a certified member of Project Green Fork, a local Memphis organization whose goal is to create a "sustainable mid-South by helping reduce environmental impacts, with a focus on strengthening homegrown restaurants."
1310 South Main Street
A former rickety gas station is home to local favorite, Blue Levee, smack dab in the Mississippi Delta, where, according to owner Jimmy Olgesby, “Highway 8 ends and good food begins.” A standout among local Southern restaurants, Blue Levee features healthier options like chicken avocado delight on a spinach tortilla, rounded out by plenty of traditional pork and seafood specials that change daily.
Soby’s New South Cuisine
207 South Main Street
Chef Shaun Garcia of Soby’s in Greenville, S.C., practices sustainable farming on his 10-acre farm, using much of his own produce in his signature dishes. Boiled peanuts make their way into fresh hummus, sweet corn accompanies pan-seared scallops while summer squash and heirloom tomatoes round out the menu of a bountiful vegetable plate. Housed in an old cotton exchange built in the 1800s, Soby’s embodies Southern flair inside and out, keeping tradition alive while introducing something new to each dish.
Tell us in the comments below, what's your favorite place for healthier Southern fare?
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