You know the Southern rule, if you can’t slap a bow on it — then fry it. It’s our traditional duty to begin the rhythmic ritual of picking, dipping, dredging and finally submerging the freshest of vegetables in scalding oil. Nothing tastes better and it smells like the area of heaven where the angels say, “Hey y’all, come to the table, we’ve fixed a place just for you.”
But with the fried feast, comes the diabetes, heart disease and too-tight pants. Eventually, the rolls (of fat) are called up yonder.
We knew God loved us when he gave us air-conditioning, hot rollers, Aqua Net, and college football, but he outdid himself with the recent gift of the air fryer. Oh, how he loves you and me.
I’m in the transitional generation of Southerners who have one hand on a fried chicken leg and the other on a beet/yogurt/kale smoothie. It’s a culinary schizophrenia unique to our region.
The air fryer is a miracle machine that combines the best of both worlds, “fresh” and “fried.” Reaching temperatures hotter than a two-dollar pistol and circulating the air makes food seem fried without the unhealthy addition of oil. Who knew squash could taste healthy and not have to be glistening in oil or drenched in creamy-soup and sprinkled with Ritz Crackers?
After polling the readers of my blog, I purchased the Cuisinart model that also works as a toaster and convection oven. The first batch of fried pickles, lightly breaded, turned out delicious. They weren’t totally like the real thing, but close enough to satisfy a craving. They were so good, I made more, but the second batch needed to be rushed out the door and tossed under the Crepe Myrtle, because just like most women my age, they were smoking hot. A little bit of screaming PG-rated words while running turned it into dinner and a show.
But then I became brazen. Would I really dare fry the ultimate Southern garden delicacy without oil? Half-crazed and expecting to be haunted by 10 generations of excellent cooks, I started chopping the okra.
I love okra so much I once dried the pods to perch atop my Christmas tree. People loved it and thought it was a collection of exotic woodland fairy wands.
First, I locked the doors to keep Paula Deen from bursting in and chasing me with a wooden spoon. After three different tries, I perfected a fried okra snack, kind of like Southern popcorn, yet without any oil. You’ll want to sit down for this, because it gets worse. After a quick dip in buttermilk, I breaded the okra with a mixture of cornmeal and. . . . wheat germ.
I know! Crazy, right? Beneath my pearls, I think there dwells an inner hippie who wants to grow her own food, sew her own clothes and repair the wobbly screen door herself. In other words, I think I’m becoming my grandmother — the healthier version, of course. But no matter how much wheat germ, kale or oil-free appliances I have, I’ll always keep a jar of bacon grease on hand, because what kind of Southern woman would throw out perfectly good bacon grease? We know life is too short not to be properly seasoned.
This story first appeared on AL.com in the Mobile Press-Register, Birmingham News and Huntsville Times.