Monday, May 14, 2012

Part of the Community - Orange Mound Grill

If you want to see what real community spirit looks like visit the Orange Mound neighborhood in Memphis before a Melrose High School football game. During the late 1800s Orange Mound was the first neighborhood in the United States built for black people by black people. Most of the Mid-south is dominated by neighborhoods full of recently transplanted residents who barely know their neighbors. Orange Mound has a large number of residents who can trace their family ties to the neighborhood back for generations.

When Melrose plays a football game, there are plenty of parents and grandparents of current students who attended the school and still live in the neighborhood. You'd probably have to visit a small town in Texas to find somewhere that a high school football game is as big a deal to the community as a Melrose game is in Orange Mound. When asked where they are from, people from there will say "Orange Mound" instead of the generic "Memphis" response you get from people from most other parts of town.

Orange Mound has been through some hard times in recent decades, but the area has recently seen some of the revitalization that is possible when longtime residents stay devoted to a community. As suburban sprawl marches outward it is harder to revitalize newer neighborhoods when they start their inevitable decline since people don't have the same desire to step up and support them. Historic neighborhoods and the local businesses woven into their landscapes are instinctively valued by people while newly thrown together developments seem inherently disposable to the people who eventually leave them behind.

The Orange Mound Grill has been serving soul food in the community since 1947. It's the kind of little neighborhood restaurant, like Melanie's in North Memphis, where enough customers know each other that people in line, eating at tables and waiting for food at the counter tend to mingle with each other and the staff.

The restaurant had a huge dry erase menu board. Ms. Daisy is the Grill's matriarch who has been cooking there every day for decades. I overheard her telling a customer that she is even there every year on Christmas. When I complimented the large selection on the dry erase board she actually apologized and said she tries to keep it even more full of different options.

I picked the meatloaf, turnip greens and black-eyed peas for my plate. I also noticed that macaroni and cheese was on the vegetable list, like it has been at every other soul food place I've visited. Memphis has been the butt of plenty of jokes recently, since Newsweek named us the fattest city in America. Most media coverage of the rankings have made the standard knee-jerk comments about all the barbecue we eat. But I have to give Newsweek credit for solid journalism since the magazine accompanied the rankings with an extremely well-written piece by science writer Gary Taubes that gets down to the real facts behind what is driving the obesity epidemic and why public policy attempts to turn it around are failing so miserably. It's an article that should be read by anyone who is concerned about their personal health or the health of this nation.

There is a strong link between poverty and obesity. Orange Mound has its share of poverty, but it is interesting to sit in the Orange Mound Grill and note that weight problems are obviously more prevalent among people in their 30s through 50s than older customers, most of whom look relatively slim. If traditional Southern foods that we have eaten here for centuries are making us fat, why did they suddenly start doing so within the last few decades? If it is a problem of lazy people not getting enough exercise,why are some of the largest concentrations of obesity seen among working-age people in working-class neighborhoods?

All the food was well-seasoned. The greens already had plenty of vinegar, so I didn't add any from the bottle on the table. I scraped most of the ketchup off my meatloaf. If I'd known I would have asked for just a little of it on the side. I don't understand the impulse to cover well-seasoned meat with ketchup.  

The obesity epidemic didn't take off until the government started to demonize fats while promoting grains and other starches as health foods. The more we've cut animal fats from our diets while increasing our intake of grains and vegetable oils, the fatter and sicker we've become.

My meal at the Orange Mound Grill probably looked very similar to what most of the older customers grew up eating, and still enjoy today. But a customer can also select chicken and dressing as their "meat" with macaroni and cheese and spaghetti as their "vegetables." People who get on a cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes from eating starchy foods are instinctively drawn to the exact foods causing the problems by those crashes.

And that's before you even bring sugary drinks into the equation. Sugary drinks are such a staple of the Southern diet that a lot of people around here won't even consider drinking plain water. Kool-Aid, lemonade, sweet tea, Coca-Cola; Southerners put down some liquefied sugar. I drank Kool-Aid constantly as a kid up through my senior year of college when I finally swore off the stuff when I suddenly started gaining weight and realized calories from liquid sugar were a major factor. Before then I'd always been able to eat or drink whatever I wanted without gaining weight.

The drink options at Orange Mound Grill include "red," "purple," and lemonade. High fructose corn syrup deserves all the bad press it gets, but the demonization of it has caused a lot of people to assume that cane sugar is somehow healthier.

I assumed that I suddenly started gaining weight because I was getting older and needed to cut calories. And the empty calories in Kool-Aid seemed like an easy place to start. In the United States we associate creeping weight gain with age, even though you don't routinely see that in a lot of other countries. Many people can consume lots of wheat and sugar for decades before insulin resistance suddenly sets in. When that happens, people realize their metabolism is slowing down. They normally don't realize that their metabolism can be sped back up by simply avoiding foods that spike blood sugar.

A young skinny person consuming piles of sugar is causing their body to need increasing amounts of insulin to cope with the resulting high blood sugar. Sometimes this makes them get fat. In some people it leads to diabetes or heart disease without any visible weight gain. There is a strong correlation between obesity and type 2 diabetes, but there are also a lot of people with high blood sugar who stay skinny but still end up with type 2 diabetes.

The problem is escalating now because pregnant women with constantly high blood sugar can have babies who are already insulin resistant when they are born.Feed that insulin resistant baby most of the infant almost any of the garbage infant formulas that line store shelves, and get provided to poor mother through the government's WIC program, and you will end up with a fat infant with metabolic problems before it is even ready for solid foods.

Our country is currently seeing a dramatic increase in overweight babies. The media's traditional villains in the obesity epidemic are overeating and lack of exercise. Have babies suddenly become more sedentary than they used to be? Are mothers feeding them too much? Throughout history, when babies have cried due to hunger, mothers have fed them until they were satiated. But what a lot of babies are consuming has changed. The next time you are in a grocery store, stop by the formula aisle and read some ingredient lists. You'll see list after list of the same industrial garbage like soy protein, corn syrup and vegetable oils that are making adults fat and chronically ill. These food-like industrial garbage products are made from crops that are subsidized by the government. This makes them seem incredibly cheap, since so much of their true cost is hidden in your tax bill, which explains how we've ended up having a country were there is a strong correlation between poverty and obesity. 

Kids who are born with high blood sugar then get fed formulas full of junk before moving on to a diet of chicken nuggets and deep dish pizza never develop a taste for real food. And they are why the overweight people in their 40s and 50s we see today are just the tip of the iceberg in the obesity epidemic. I guarantee that if you watched the people ordering at the Orange Mound Grill the turnip greens will be ordered far more frequently by people from older generations who grew up eating actual food.

When you look at pictures of the south from as recently back as a few decades ago, almost everyone is slim. Everything changed when Southerners moved away from pork fat and real butter towards corn syrup, vegetable oils and refined starches came to dominate the Southern diet. The answer to the obesity epidemic is right there on the menu board at the Orange Mound Grill. Which foods would have been on the board, and made from the same ingredients as today, when the place opened in 1947? Waistlines and rates of Heart disease, cancer and diabetes have increased steadily as Americans have shunned natural animal fats in favor of sugar, grains, soy and vegetable oils. You hear foolish calls for the government to be more active in trying to halt the obesity epidemic when in reality it is an epidemic largely caused by the terrible dietary advice and agricultural subsidies coming from the Federal government. 

Orange Mound Grill on Urbanspoon

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