I just returned from spending a week in Mississippi. It was a great trip: relaxing, lots of laughs, I’ve learned a few new great expressions and have come away with a much better understanding of why diabetes is an epidemic in America–to a great degree it’s the ubiquitous fry up.
I was touring Mississippi with three girlfriends. A kind of “Ya Ya Sisterhood” on insulin. When my New York friends asked before I left, “Why on earth are you going to Mississippi?,” I told them, “Because I can.” I have always wanted to see part of the South with a Southerner. One of our Ya Yas grew up in Mississippi, so that was it: four diabetic women in a car soaking up the local life, comparing blood sugars every few hours, noticing how differently we all react to food and exercise, and in-between being charmed by the South’s hospitality and shocked, by how difficult it is to find healthy food. I didn’t realize, but Mississippi has been ranked “fattest state” for three consecutive years.
Now hearing “Yes, maam,” repeatedly is admittedly some compensation for the lack of health-friendly food. Trust me, you will never hear it in New York. And my favorite new expression, “Bless your heart…” I’ve learned is extremely useful when you’re bad-mouthing someone but want to maintain a polite demeanor. And, yes, the pleasantries unrolled like an unfurling flag, and this troupe of women were lovingly and graciously hosted to lunches and toured through town after town. Tana, a fabulous cook, whipped up an incredible melange: cream of spring soup, shrimp Louie, southern mayonnaise biscuits with home-grown herbed butter and chocolate pots ‘specially for this Yankee, and actually welcomed me with my own signboard, boa and special guest, Marilyn Monroe.
While I didn’t know (or care) what we would do in Mississippi, other than soak up local life, I found our tours revolved around visiting university campuses and churches. Initially, I kept looking for downtown and charming stores to poke my head into, being the New Yorker that I am, and it took me the first several days to realize depressed downtowns were not where life was any longer. It was on college campuses and at church.
I experienced my first Baptist service, complete with a children’s choir, baptisms in what looked like the bell tower, singing, singing, singing and your requisite fervent preacher. Walking through a Presbyterian church, we lucked into hearing an amazing organist, and left with his CD gifted to us. We toured several antebellum houses learning about the history of the families that owned them and plantation life. Admittedly, when I walked into anyone’s house afterward I expected a tour.
I was introduced to the very funny and bawdy series of books, The Sweet Potato Queens by Jackson, Mississippi author, Jill Conner Browne. Our Tennessee gal-pal, Ann, read passages to us in her rich Southern drawl, with tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks, as we drove past tractors and catfish ponds. I ate one of the best meals ever at J. Broussard in Colombus, pecan-crusted catfish and a nutty buddy (you figure it out!). I sampled thirty different types of pecans (peecaaahhns) in a pecan (peecaaaahhn) store in Indianola, which was all of three streets long but seemed to be experiencing rush hour traffic while we were there.
The friends and family of my native Mississipian asked me what I found surprising about Misissippi and I told them. It’s much more rural and green than I expected…people are very friendly and welcoming…many have been to New York — and love New York.. everyone goes to church, and the food, outside of a few truly fabulous restaurants, is growing our increasing population of diabetics.
I, in fact, had a very earnest conversation about this with the President of Jones college in Laurel, Mississippi, Jesse Smith. Jesse Smith is a sort of President Obama–young and vital and making tremendous changes to the university to expand students’ potential and opportunities, and that includes healthier meals on campus. But throughout our trip my companions and I had to work really hard to eat healthy. Fried in Mississippi is a food group: fried chicken, fried steak, fried green tomatoes, fried pickles, fried okra, fried crawfish and on and on. If it was edible, it was fried. Then of course there are the staples: biscuits n’ gravy, chicken n’ dumplings, overcooked vegetables in lard and sweet tea, 1/2 cup of sugar in 1/2 a gallon of tea.
My eyes were open widest looking at the aisles in the little superettes at each gas station where we stopped. Aisle upon aisle of chips, crackers, fried pork rinds, soda, fried meats, and, perturbingly nothing else. Except in one, which harbored a stand of books. “Bible Cure for Diabetes” intrigued me enough to buy it but also made me think: Would we really need a bible cure for diabetes if there were more fruits and salads available?
So what will I remember from my trip? Outstretched hands and open hearts and the knowledge that all the segments I hear on the morning news about healthier food choices aren’t going to happen where it’s so hard to find them. As Dr. Smith explained to me, there was a time when the livelihood of Mississippi was based on people working the land. That required a lot of calories and a lot were burned off in their labor. Today, however, few people labor in the fields, yet the foods have not changed. Further, education about food and its consequence on health doesn’t seem to have reached many people, including the young people I saw working in the gas station superettes.
On the last day of our trip we talked about how much opportunity there is to bring education to areas like this where it’s so vitally needed: A grass roots movement to teach people about the benefits of healthy eating like Governor Mike Huckabee is doing for Arkansas. So if anyone wants some wise women to consult on this, please do let me know, and, really, bless your heart.