- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — When Becky Cleaveland is out with her girlfriends, they all pick at salads, except for the petite Atlanta woman. She tackles “The Hamdog.”

The dish, a specialty of Mulligan’s, a suburban bar, is a hot dog wrapped by a beef patty that is deep-fried, covered with chili, cheese and onions, and served on a hoagie bun. Oh yeah: It’s also topped with a fried egg and two fistfuls of fries.

“The owner says I’m the only girl who can eat a whole one without flinching,” Miss Cleaveland said proudly.

Amid a national obesity epidemic and the South’s infamous distinction as the “Stroke Belt,” health officials have been trying to get diners to flinch, at least a little, at the region’s trademark fried and fatty foods.

But nutritionists have found it is hard to teach an old region new tricks. How can Southerners give up such delicious staples as fried chicken, fried seafood, fried green tomatoes and cornbread slathered in butter?

Even at the Atlanta headquarters of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leader of the nation’s anti-obesity campaign, the cafeteria serves up such artery-clogging regional favorites as biscuits and gravy.

CDC nutritionist Annie Carr said the agency is working to get its house in order by pushing the cafeteria to serve popular foods in healthy ways. The broader goals of the anti-obesity campaign are to educate people to cook with less fat and sugar, and to promote the idea of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

For the South, that doesn’t mean vegetables and greens flavored with bacon and meat drippings.

“I don’t think anything is wrong with the kind of vegetables we eat in the South — it’s the way they are prepared,” said former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, the interim president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, who grew up eating traditional Southern staples on a farm in Alabama.

“Flavor is a big issue — when you modify Southern cooking, then you lose a lot of the flavor,” said Laurita Burley, a clinical nutrition instructor at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “The reputation of the Southern cook is at risk when you begin to modify it.”

Back at Mulligan’s in Decatur, owner Chandler Goff points out that the bar also offers healthy alternatives, such as salads and sandwiches that aren’t deep-fried.

But he acknowledged that the “Hamdog” and the “Luther Burger,” a bacon-cheeseburger served on a Krispy Kreme doughnut, draw attention.

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