By the end of the '80s, the comfort-food trend, which celebrated homey dishes such as mashed potatoes and pecan pie, found its way into the hearts of sophisticated diners fed up with the latest gourmet-this and nouvelle-that.
These down-home flavors soothed the soul, but their loads of fat, calories, salt and cholesterol were hardly a comfort to the health-minded. Now, professional food watchers see signs of a move toward slimmed-down versions of "mom" dishes--comfort foods even a nutritionist could love.
Nowhere have the results been more mouthwatering than in the hands of Southern chefs, and Southern touches are turning up in surprising places.
"The Russian Tea Room in New York City now serves chicken paillard on a mess o' collard greens for lunch," reports Manhattan-based food and restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. "And chefs are serving mashed potatoes made with olive oil or pureed or mashed turnips rather than carloads of butter and sour cream."
Experts on Southern food say this new way of cooking stems from traditional Southern home cuisine, which emphasized fresh vegetables and used meats sparingly. Like all Southern cooking, these lighter versions are based on the region's rich gastronomic heritage.
Southern hospitality has always been reflected in cooking dished out in third-helping portions. Most of the ingredients have come from the South's own fertile pastures and teeming coastal waters.
The first Southern cookbook, "The Virginia House-Wife," written in 1824 by Mary Randolf and reissued by the University of South Carolina Press in 1984, was enormously successful in its day and remains a valuable study of the roots of modern Southern cuisine.
According to food historian Karen Hess, who edited the reissue, most of the book's recipes were basically British, altered by the use of local produce and staples such as grits, and by the exotic styles of the African slaves who actually prepared the meals.
"The near-mythic quality of so much Southern cookery is due in large part to the African presence," Hess says. "Above all, this is what differentiated it from cooking in the North."
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, currently at work on a book of African-Atlantic coastal cuisine and author of "Vibration Cooking: The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl" (Ballantine Books, 1986), agrees. "You can't have African people come and cook for over two centuries and not feel their influence. You can't even talk about Southern cooking without taking into account the Native American and African flavor of it."
This flavor is especially evident in South Carolina's cuisine, where some of the most important ingredients--okra, eggplant, watermelon, sesame or "benne" seeds, black-eyed peas and sorghum--are all transplants from Africa. In the low country (lower coastal South Carolina and the area around Savannah, Ga.), cooking was also heavily influenced by the slave trade, reflecting a variety of cultures while mostly using foods that thrived in the area--seafood, rice, figs, peaches, tomatoes and muscadine grapes.
A Caribbean touch was also introduced throughout the South due to the slave trade, Hess says. "Some black cooks had passed through way stations in the West Indies--or knew others who had. There they picked up a number of dishes and tricks of seasoning, primarily with peppers and tomatoes. Once in America, they adapted the dishes of their masters--whether French, Spanish or English--with marvelous results."
From Louisiana, the melting pot of many nationalities, came Cajun food--gastronomic mingling at its best. A spicy combination of French-Canadian cuisine blended with that of the Louisiana Indians and Africans, Cajun recently became one of the hottest food trends to sweep the country. Its more refined relative, Creole, adds touches of traditional French, Spanish, Caribbean and African cookery.
Though traditional Southern home cooking can be full of nutritional pitfalls, its ingredients are rarely to blame, says dietitian Martha M. Jones, director of the division of nutrition at the Ochsner Medical Institution's Outpatient Clinic in New Orleans. "The food itself," she says, "fish, chicken, dark leafy greens and all the other things that grow in Southern gardens, is wonderful to start with. The problem comes in how it's prepared."
Southern greens cooked with salty meat, "fried everything" and rich sauces made with cream and butter are completely inconsistent with today's lighter, heart-conscious eating.
"In Louisiana," says Jones, "every recipe begins 'Start with a roux,' which is flour browned in equal parts of fat. Then we add salt--either from the shaker or from salty, fatty meat."
"At Ochsner," she says, "we work with local chefs to encourage restaurants to offer meals prepared with less fat that still taste good. And we've persuaded many chefs to demonstrate heart-healthy methods at the New Orleans School of Cooking."