Is Katie Lee Our Own Homegrown Goddess of Good Food? (Q&A)

If you've got your doubts about whether those corndog-diggin', nugget-lovin' French fry fanatics in Huntington, West Virginia have the capacity to rediscover the joys of real food, look no further than Katie Lee. And I mean, really look at her. Get past the pretty face, the famous former husband, and all that superfluous stuff. This native daughter of Huntington could be Jamie Oliver's greatest ambassador to the Appalachians and beyond; she's on a mission to reacquaint America with the kind of comfort food that's life-affirming, not death-inducing.

In her books The Comfort Table and The Comfort Table: Recipes for Everyday Occasions, Lee makes a tasty case for "conscious consumption." You'll find her on CBS's Early Morning Show whipping up fresh foods with ingredients your Grandma (and hers) would find reassuringly familiar--not like the slop that got Jamie Oliver so distraught when he descended on Huntington.

Lee is proof positive that back in the day, people in West Virginia knew how to make wholesome meals from scratch and took the time to sit down to savor them with friends and family. And so did the rest of us. What's truly extraordinary about the people of Huntington is really how ordinary they are, a microcosm of the rest of the country, by and large (as it were.) I asked Lee if she would share her thoughts with me about her hometown and her passion for good food, and she graciously obliged:

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Kerry Trueman: What was your first thought when you heard that Jamie Oliver had chosen your hometown of Huntington, West Virginia in which to launch 'his' Food Revolution?

Katie Lee: I met Jamie in London last summer, just a few months before he launched his revolution. A mutual friend, chef Adam Perry Lang, introduced us when he realized I was from the Huntington area. As a long time fan of Jamie Oliver, I was so thrilled to hear he was taking his ideas of healthy living that had worked so well in the UK and bringing them to my hometown.

Listening to him speak so passionately about his ideas was very inspiring. Huntington may be statistically the most unhealthy city in America, but it's not far off from most areas in our country. I think it's an opportunity for people in Huntington to not only get healthy, but also be role models for the rest of the country.

KT: Can you tell us how the food that Jamie's show depicts the folks there eating now compares to how you ate as a child?

KL: I was very blessed to grow up in a family that appreciated good food. My mom and I lived in the same neighborhood as my grandparents, my great grandmother, and my great aunt and uncle. My grandfather had a green thumb and grew all kinds of vegetables, he had a cousin that raised cows, and a cousin that raised pigs, and everyone shared their food. At any given time, you could go in my grandma's kitchen and find her cooking up something delicious.

We had a handful of fast food restaurants in the area, but more "mom and pop" local restaurants that served homestyle food. It wasn't necessarily low-fat, but it was real. It wasn't the processed crap that you get in a drive-thru. People cooked at home more, too.

Nowadays, most of those locally run restaurants are nowhere to be found, replaced by one junky fast food restaurant or chain after another. I watched cafeteria food change while I was growing up too -- while in elementary the cooks actually cooked and by the time I got to high school, the cooks were reheating frozen chicken nuggets and pizza.

It really makes me sad. I believe everyone can cook if they set their minds to it, and their lives would be enriched by it.

KT: What did your friends and family have to say about Jamie and his show when you went home for the holidays last week?

KL: Jamie's revolution is the talk of the town. It was in the local newspaper every day that I was there. I think the feelings on the premise of the show are mixed -- some people really believe he can help the town, others think it's impossible to change, much like Rod the DJ. I was so incredibly disappointed when I watched that first episode and saw Rod's reaction. Jamie is there with the best of intentions and it's important to be open-minded.

I was in Huntington for the taping of the final episode and Jamie had a street fair. People were out and about, enjoying eating healthy food and celebrating the revolution. I'm hoping as the show progresses, we will see more people like Rod have a change of heart.

KT: Given that you're known for your prize-winning Logan County Burger (which is really more of a patty melt) and your meatloaf recipe, it might come as a shock to some people to hear that you were once a vegetarian. What role does meat play in your meals these days?

KL: Yes, the burger queen was once a vegetarian! I went meat-free for about five years, during high school and part of college. As you might imagine, I caught some grief in high school, as I was the only vegetarian in our class.

I do eat meat now, and I enjoy it very much, but I am very conscious of where I get my meat and how it was raised. My diet is not meat-heavy, so when I am cooking meat I seek out the highest quality.

I also participate in Meat-Free or Meatless Mondays, an initiative to not eat meat one day a week. Going without meat just one day can make a huge environmental impact.

KT: Your pug Fionula is quite the lucky pup--you make all her food from scratch. What inspired you to start making your own dog food?

KL: I started making much of Fionula's food because she got pancreatitis a few months ago. I've always been very strict with her diet, only feeding her organic dog food, but after her sickness I decided to cook her food myself. She eats mostly organic chicken, rice, and veggies.

KT: Your definition of comfort food is based on the notion that since we are what we eat, we ought to know what we're eating. Would it be fair to describe you as a kind of homegrown cross between Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver? A populist Michael Pollan? A 21st century Edna Lewis? A lean Paula Deen? All of the above?

KL: All of the people you mentioned are people I greatly admire for what they have accomplished. The world of food is so consuming that there is room for all different opinions and personalities. I always think that comfort food starts at the source. To be truly comforted by your food, you need to know where it comes from and be comfortable with the way it was raised and how it got to your plate. I believe in eating healthy, real food and being comfortable.

Cross posted from The Green Fork