Chef and cookbook author Justin Fox Burks has been a vegetarian for most of his life, but that doesn't mean he always has eaten healthily. When Burks and his wife, Amy Lawrence, started their food blog The Chubby Vegetarian in 2008, they noticed a need to shift from traditional "healthy" eating concepts to new methods that put vegetables and fresh ingredients at the forefront — without sacrificing taste. On Aug. 12, Burks and Lawrence will host a signing for their new cookbook, The Chubby Vegetarian (Susan Schadt Press) and will present a cooking demonstration and tasting at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at 1 p.m. Burks spoke with Gambit about growing up vegetarian in the South and how healthy eating concepts are evolving.
What inspired you to start cooking healthier?
Burks: [My wife and I] are both Southern, and both of us are from Mississippi. Amy is from Jackson and I'm from Greenwood and we grew up in Memphis. I became a vegetarian a little bit in reaction to the sort of overwhelming culture of barbecue here. I was a young and idealistic kid — I've been a vegetarian since I was 12. But we were both overweight. I was 205 pounds as a vegetarian. We started cooking and posting our recipes on the blog in 2008, and it was then when we started looking at what we were cooking. It was clear, right there in black and white: We were making the wrong turns. You can't put everything on bread and you can't put cheese on everything and expect to be healthy. So as we progressed along the way and worked on our recipes we went from more of a meatless diet to a vegetable-forward (concept), something where vegetables are pushed to the center of the plate. It's just a healthier, fresher look at vegetarian food.
What exactly defines "healthy" Southern food for you?
B: We've always had that sort of reputation for fried and "gravy-fied," but I think the South was historically always a place that was just steeped in vegetables — and meat was kind of the side item. I think over the past 50 years it's just gotten a little out of balance. I don't think there's a lot of misconception about the modern Southern diet. I think we know exactly what it is, and I think we know that we need a change.
People say, "You should eat it because it's healthy," and they'll take a head of broccoli or some greens and just cook them to death until they're just mush and flavorless. It's sort of like, "take your medicine." What we try to do is make inventive and creative things that make people want to eat their vegetables. I think if you're attracted to it visually, then you're more likely to give it a chance.
How do you reimagine some of the most typical Southern dishes?
B: This isn't about mock meat. It's about taking vegetables and treating vegetables like most chefs would treat meat. What we try and do is take those (traditional) ideas and turn them on their head, turn them into something that will promote your health, not hurt it.
We do a great turn on a biscuit using almond flour, and they are so good. There's no gluten in them, so there won't be any toughness in them.
One of the most popular recipes in the book is a charred carrot hot dog. It may sound ridiculous, but stay with me: We take these big carrots and char them on the outside like you would a roasted red pepper, then pull that char off ... and use a little salt and pepper and a little toasted sesame oil, throw it in a bun and you're good to go. It's sweet and delicious.
We also do a dish with spaghetti squash where we cut it into ribs, grill it and sauce it — and it's so good. The spaghetti squash kind of pulls apart in the same way that pork does: It's smoky, it's sweet and it's a vegetable.