Craveable Southern classics you can feel good about
When Virginia Willis decided she wanted to lose weight, she knew she loved food too much to live her life on a diet of tasteless substitutes. Instead, she turned to her extensive food knowledge and rediscovered the healthy side of her beloved Southern cuisine. In Lighten Up, Y’all, Virginia shares her personal health journey through wonderfully rethought Southern recipes, offering hints and tricks she’s learned along the way to help you stay mindful of what you eat. With recipes like Oven-Fried Okra, Smothered and Covered Chicken and Gravy, and Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Pie, Virginia leaves no plate unfilled in her effort to make healthy, delicious Southern food accessible to all.
Tell us how you got started in the kitchen.
I have always loved to cook—I was practically born in the kitchen. My grandmother would sit me in one side of her double sink while she shelled peas in the other side. My earliest and fondest memories are in the kitchen, where I cooked with her and my mother. Family memories are just a part of why I love to cook— when food is cooked in the home, it just tastes better.
What made you want to write Lighten Up, Y’all?
I found myself in a place where I realized I wanted to lose weight—I was not healthy, and I was not happy. So I started making changes in my life. I exercised more, ate more healthfully, and lost weight. Then the book idea came about. I thought, “If I can do this, then others can as well,” and I wanted to share this with people who like my recipes.
How is food central to the South’s personality?
Food and Southern culture are very intertwined. So much of Southern celebration and Southern sadness revolves around food, from weddings and baby showers to funerals. This is a part of what makes us known for our hospitality—what is more kind or hospitable than to ask somebody if they would like something to eat?
What is different about the way we eat now compared to how we ate in the past?
People got off base in terms of cooking after World War II, when prefabricated and processed foods became popular and spending time in the kitchen became less so. And while convenience items and fast foods help us fit into our tight schedules, I think we got lost on the way to the drive-thru.
You discuss a link between poverty and unhealthy diets.
The South has had economic issues, as well, which affect what people eat. People became reliant on cheap processed foods and fast foods. Hunger and obesity go hand and hand, but with income and education, people tend to eat better. I wanted this cookbook to be very accessible in terms of recipes, ingredients, and information to show that you can have good, fresh food that is affordable, tasty, and good for you.
Tell us about the nutritional information you included for each recipe.
I wanted to show just how much we actually lightened these recipes. I was specific about what information I chose to include because I wanted to give people the tools that they need to be mindful of what they’re eating, or even to use in conjunction with different healthy eating plans.
You say healthy eating is less of a diet and more a way of life.
Humans don’t naturally sign up for deprivation. Deprivation can lead to depression and pain—it’s not good for your brain. If you want healthful eating to be a part of your life, then you have to use moderation. Using a judicious amount of ingredients is key, and these recipes will help you do so.
How have you lightened up your recipes?
I started with my basic Southern recipes and then made them healthier and more nutritionally dense. I took away some of the unnecessary fats and unhealthy aspects and amped up the nutrition so that every bite is really good for you. The best part is that if someone didn’t tell you, you may not even realize these recipes are lightened up versions.
What misconceptions do people have about Southern food?When traveling around the country, I constantly hear people talk about the unhealthiness of Southern food. But Southern food has so much to do with vegetables and historically is such a fresh cuisine. The South is more than fried chicken, despite what is sometimes represented in the media. And that’s the heart of this book—Southern food can be healthy as well as flavorful.
RECIPES AND PHOTOS REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM LIGHTEN UP, Y’ALL BY VIRGINIA WILLIS (TEN SPEED PRESS, 2015)
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF ANGIE MOSIER