In South, it’s sweet, deep-fried

There’s no lack of fat or sugar in the foods we cook, sell and eat

Nobody does fattening like Southerners.

Whether we’re making it or eating it, the Southeast is the Silicon Valley of all things glazed, scattered, covered, smothered and deep fried. Health care reform, we seem to say, be damned.

Maybe we just can’t help ourselves. Try going anywhere within a 400-mile radius of Atlanta and not finding food that’s deep-fried or drenched in fat or grease. Snack food alone is a multibillion-dollar business in these parts, which are also home to a certain soft-drink giant and several fast-food titans.

Quick, high-calorie food has been a part of Southern culture since the first field hand walked off the farm and into the mills a century ago, stopping only long enough to load up on packs of peanut butter crackers and Coke. It’s no accident that bottlers and snack-makers sprung up around mills to keep the plants and people going.

“The machines didn’t stop. So you needed to be able to eat something on the go,” said Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, whose favorite snack is “seconds.”

When sprawl spread across the South, so did the assortment of snacks and fast foods, thanks to the car and drive-through. Break-time snacking morphed into a multibillion-dollar industry churning out everything from MoonPies to Moose Track ice cream, Krystal burgers to Krispy Kreme doughnuts, cheese straws to Goo-Goo Clusters to fruitcake. And what 3 a.m. craving hasn’t been satisfied by waffles and a side of hash browns?

While it’s hard to put an exact number on the size of the snack food market in the South, Packaged Facts estimates U.S. sales of packaged sweet and salty snacks, alone, hit $68.1 billion in 2008, up from $60.5 billion in 2004. That number is expected to reach $81.6 billion by 2013.

A good portion of that will come from the South.

“Snack food manufacturing in the South is a multibillion-dollar business and it continues to grow,” said food product developer Wilbert Jones, president of Healthy Concepts, a food and beverage consulting firm in Chicago. Jones admits he’s never been one to pass up a good MoonPie, a holdover from his north Mississippi childhood.

“When you look at all the manufacturing, fast foods or snacks and cakes, they’re based [in the South] for a reason. Southern cooking is the heartbeat of America.”

And all snack roads seem to converge in Atlanta. The region is home to the country’s third largest fast-food chain and the world’s largest beverage company. Six of the nation’s 50 largest restaurant chains call Atlanta home. (See the accompanying chart for details.)

“That’s how we do it in the South,” said Jasper businesswoman Cathy Cunningham Hays, who took a family snack recipe of cheese straws and turned it into a business in the mid-1990s. “It’s all about food in the South. You don’t go to a funeral or anybody’s house without thinking about food or bringing something.”

Cunningham Hays is quick to admit her snacks aren’t for those who count calories. “It’s high in fat. But let me tell you something, fat equals flavor.”

To the tune of $3 million a year in sales for Cunningham Hays’ company, Geraldine’s Bodacious Foods Co.

While many American businesses have struggled to hang on during this recession, many of the snack purveyors have done well.

It just goes to show: a Southerner’s sweet tooth is recession-proof.

The snack-filled South

Georgia is not alone as a center of snacks, beverages and fast food. Here is a sampler of products and restaurant chains from neighboring states:

Company

City

Product(s)

Tennessee

Chattanooga Bakery Krystal Co. Mayfield Dairy Farms Inc McKee Foods Corp Standard Candy Co..

Chattanooga Chattanooga Athens Chattanooga Nashville

MoonPies hamburgers ice cream Little Debbie snacks Goo-Goo Clusters

North Carolina

Carolina Beverage Corp. Carolina Country Snacks Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc. Lance Snacks

Salisbury Henderson Winston-Salem Charlotte

Cheerwine pork rinds donuts snacks

South Carolina

Blenheim Ginger Ale

Hamer

ginger ale

Florida

Checkers Sonny’s Real Pit Bar

Tampa Maitland

hamburgers barbecue

Other products with Southern roots:

Pepsi Cola: Birthplace was New Bern, N.C. Royal Crown Cola: Created by Columbus, Ga., pharmacist Claude A. Hatcher Stuckey's Pecan Logs: Originated in Eastman, Ga. Candy canes: First successfully mass-produced by Bobs Candies in Albany, Ga. in 1919