Southern food and Paula Deen might not typically be associated with healthy eating, but since Deen's diagnosis with type 2 diabetes, she's lost 40 pounds and has signed on as a spokesperson for Diabetes in a New Light.
Naturally, her two sons Bobby and Jamie Deen have also signed on to help out, so we talked to the Deen brothers about Southern cooking, making traditional foods healthy, and the battle against stereotypes.
The Daily Meal: It seems like there's a trend of making Southern food "new," or trying to make it healthy, even though it has a bad rap.
Bobby Deen: It’s easy to point at Southern food. Traditional Latin food, traditional Italian food, anything that’s traditional is probably going to be flavorful and high in fat and calories. I don’t think we get enough credit for vegetables we cook in the South. If you look at the traditional Southern plate, it’s going to be fried chicken, maybe, collard greens, lima beans, black-eyed peas, maybe potatoes, maybe corn, maybe Brussels sprouts.
Jamie Deen: If you take traditional any kind of food you’re going to find, for the most part, the original was higher in fat. There are just generational changes, like applying new techniques, and people are just getting around to Southern food.
TDM: Why do you think traditional Southern food gets such a bad rap?
JD: Because it’s heavy cream and it’s fried. And it’s butter.
BD: And it’s easy because of the way that we talk. The way that my mama talks makes her an easy target.
JD: And Southern encompasses so many states, there are so many jokes; it’s the low-hanging fruit.
TDM: Well we heard that your mother, Paula Deen, lost 40 pounds?
JD: She’s as healthy as I’ve ever seen her. The healthiest probably in the last, 25, 30 years, since getting into the business.
BD: Our mother is not a woman of vice at all. But she likes sweet tea, she’s a Southern person, and she gave up sweet tea altogether and is drinking more water. She’s 65 years old so she’s not bench-pressing, but she's embraced a lot of exercise and doing the things she needs to do to manage her type 2 diabetes.
JD: I think we’re very fortunate that my mom has been able to step into a role where she can inspire other people.
TDM: Right, and it's interesting because she's so connected to traditional Southern cooking, and that donut burger...
JD: You know what’s funny is that’s not her recipe. That was a Minor League Baseball thing, and my mom did like a spoof on it. That’s the only thing that really bothered me was they gave us credit for that recipe but it wasn’t even our recipe. The Minor League Baseball team did one of those things, you make the craziest things you can think of. So they made a cheeseburger on a donut. And it was on the national news cycle for about five minutes and somebody from our production team put it together. I have never tasted or seen my mom ever make a Krispy Kreme cheeseburger in my life.
BD: It's true, and people don't know.
JD: And I've never said anything about it before.
TDM: Well she's so connected to that type of cooking; has she learned anything from you since you focus on healthy cooking?
JD: I think my mom’s probably learned more about diet from her doctor, but mom knows that I don't give my kids soft drinks, and I would never give them a sweet tea, and Bobby and I would drink sweet tea growing up. My parents weren't wrong to do that, and we weren't the only kids doing that, and there are still kids doing that today, but I bet there are less people doing that than there were in the '70s, It’s just a generational thing, an awareness thing.
TDM: So both your books are focused on healthy eating. What did you guys learn from your mother?
BD: Well, I learned how to cook from my mother. She also taught that there are no rules in the kitchen. The question that I get more than anything about this light cookbook I put out is, "Is your momma mad at you for doing this?" She’s totally not. As a young person she gave me creative license in the kitchen. She always said go exactly by the recipe the first time so you know what it's supposed to be, and after that throw the rules out. Do whatever you like to do. That gives you freedom to go either direction; you can either amp it up and create a donut cheeseburger or you can take traditional Southern foods and find simple ways to lighten it up.
TDM: Right, so your book is all about cooking dishes that are less than 350 calories.
BD: I love my heritage and traditional Southern food, but I know you can’t eat that way every day so this was a labor of love for me, to discover foods that I love that you can eat more often. And I'm not a huge bragger but I’ve got to say, number one on The New York Times best-seller’s list when it came out... and my brother’s got a book coming out in a couple of months and we’ll see.
JD: My momma’s been number one on the list, my brother’s been on the list, so I’m changing my book to "Please God Buy This Book," because number two on The New York Times best-seller list for me would suck.
TDM: Well yours is also on healthy eating, right?
JD: I have a book coming out in October which is for a real family, so all the recipes are healthier by nature. We’re taking something like butternut squash, it’s traditionally been scooped out, covered in butter, cinnamon, brown sugar. Instead we cube it, roast it, and put it on a salad. It's getting people home for dinner, and that speaks to trying to be not only home for dinner but also getting family into the kitchen and sharing that space.
TDM: Is there a lot of sibling rivalry between you two? You did start out working together.
JD: Probably not as much as you might think. We had a challenged childhood growing up, and I’ve always kind of been protective of Bobby, still guilty of it now, so I would never begrudge him. Now, does that make me want to...
BD: Be number one on The New York Times best-seller list? Yes, but it’s in fun. Like if we’re playing pool? It burns me up, I don’t want to lose.
JD: That wouldn’t bother me. I feel like if I just had a book come out and you had a book coming out in October, I feel like if he made it to number two, I would not tell him number one is my favorite number. But if I make it to number two, Bobby would tell me number one is my favorite number.
BD: I'm the little brother, I’ve always been the little brother.
JD: Well I’m going to win the first James Beard Award, so I don’t care what number I get.