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Contemporary Food Studies of the American South: A Guide to the Literature (July 2019): Southern Foodways: Various Approaches

by Skye Hardesty

Southern Foodways: Various Approaches

Southern food studies is a highly interdisciplinary field, and much of its current literature uses approaches from history, social history, rhetoric, literary criticism, gender studies, anthropology, identity scholarship, economics, law, and personal narratives, among others. Given the fluidity of this topic, this essay groups works that take similar approaches rather than defines them in a particular academic area. The major threads running through contemporary southern foodways research explore the diversity of the South, reconstruct the past and discover the voices of those eliminated or marginalized from history, challenge the ideas of authenticity and identity in the South, and examine the intersection of race, gender, and class. The selected works represent both the major scholars in the field and the variety of approaches using food to redefine, reconstruct, and reconsider the history and culture of the American South.

Marcie Cohen Ferris emphasizes social history and the everyday individuals involved in southern foodways in The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Ferris starts with plantation life and moves all the way up to twenty-first century southern cuisine as she seeks to “examine a cultural conversation found in the historical interactions of southerners across time … [and] examine an assemblage of evocative voices as they have spoken, written, eaten, celebrated, reformed, and fought for food across the centuries of southern history” (p. 4). Ferris uses cookbooks, diaries, and oral histories, among other sources, for her history of southern food. John T. Edge takes a similar approach but starts in the 1950s in The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. Edge intends his work to be a continuation of John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History and to give voice to those excluded from the southern story. Edge accomplishes this through a variety of profiles of individuals he sees as central to modern southern foodways, as well as his own thoughts on the contemporary South and its relationship to food.

Food production and the creation of a regional cuisine are the focus of Karen Hess’s The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection and David S. Shields’s Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine. Hess and Shields both use the cultivation, production, extinction, and revival of Carolina Gold rice to discuss the creation of Lowcountry cuisine. Hess focuses entirely on rice production, whereas Shields uses the revival of Carolina Gold rice as a jumping-off point for his discussion of food production in the South. Shields’s work is more extensive, focusing on the economic and agricultural impact of a variety of foods on the southern plate, whereas Hess delves specifically into rice production and the role of enslaved Africans as the foundation of Carolina cuisine.

Recent scholarship has shown that there is still more to explore in the history of southern foodways. The Federal Writer’s Project provides the basis of Herbert C. Covey’s What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives, which presents ex-slave narratives gathered as part of that project, among other primary resources. Covey’s work focuses on the history of food in slavery and the slave experience; in addition to slave nutrition, he covers African food traditions and how these were adapted in the American South. Extensive lists of foods and corresponding recipes are included. Kay Moss takes an entirely different approach to reconstructing early southern foodways in Seeking the Historical Cook: Exploring Eighteenth-Century Southern Foodways. Moss uses personal manuscripts and published recipes of the eighteenth-century South to reinterpret the historical cuisine for contemporary cooks. Kelley Fanto Deetz is also interested in the cooking methods and cooking life of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Virginia, but she addresses the importance of African American  plantation cooks in Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine. Deetz’s work is to educate the reader about the role of plantation cooks and their influence on twentieth- and twenty-first-century southern food by organizing her book around various aspects of the cooks’ lives, such as the physical space of the plantation kitchen, daily routines and struggles of slave life, famous individual enslaved cooks, and the role of African cooks in white southern culinary culture; she also discusses the omission of enslaved cooks from plantation historical sites. Angela Jill Cooley uses legal studies as well as historical methodologies to discuss segregation in 1900s to 1960s restaurants in Atlanta and Birmingham in To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South. Cooley’s work is notable for discussing the legal challenges that came out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the impact on restaurants in these two cities. Justin A. Nystrom rewrites the history of Sicilian influence on New Orleans food in Creole Italian: Sicilian Immigrants and the Shaping of New Orleans Food Culture. Nystrom explores the economic, social, and cultural influence of the Sicilian population in New Orleans from the 1830s through the 1970s, arguing that the impact of this group went beyond influencing dishes.

Some scholars have endeavored to uncover the history of a specific southern food tradition, and what could be more southern than barbecue? These two works offer, on one hand, a deconstruction of barbecue in American culture, and on the other a reconstruction of barbecue history. Andrew Warnes argues in Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food that barbecue is an invented tradition based on violence and racism. His explorations into the history of barbecue and its contradictory view in American history and popular culture are based on his cultural criticism readings of primary sources. Savage Barbecue makes an interesting companion piece to Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, by Robert F. Moss, and Cornbread Nation 2: United States of Barbecue. Moss’s book is a history of barbecue, beginning with the Native American tribes in the South through pit-masters and the modern barbecue renaissance. Moss doesn’t shy away from the racial complexities of barbecue, but for him barbecue is a real rather than invented tradition.

One of the many justifications for studying food is that cooking and eating are often personal acts that become cultural. The intersection of food, memory, and personal experience can provide a foundation for scholarly study. Marcie Cohen Ferris speaks of her own upbringing in Blytheville, Arkansas, as the foundation of her exploration of Jewish southern foodways in Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. Ferris researches the complex intersections of Jewish and southern cultures through their separate and merged culinary traditions. She begins in the eighteenth century with the roots of Jewish and southern food in Savannah and Charleston, and moves through history to discuss the Jewish influences on the southern urban food cultures of New Orleans, Atlanta, and Memphis, as well as the food of the rural Mississippi–Arkansas Delta. In addition to historical research, Ferris interviews many Jewish southerners on their experiences and provides their stories and recipes. Jessica B. Harris is considered by many to be the foremost scholar of, and expert on, African American food, and she is the author of dozens of cookbooks and academic works on the subject. In High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, Harris uses her personal experiences to provide a history of African American cuisine. She begins each chapter with a personal story, then writes of the history and food history of the period she is discussing and closes with a discussion of particular food from the region or period. For example, in the chapter “In Sorrow’s Kitchen: Hog Meat, Hominy, and the Africanizing of the Palate of the South” Harris recounts a visit to the plantations on River Road in Louisiana with her mother, discusses the history of food and slavery and the impact on the foodways of the South, and closes with the African traditions of hospitality and manners enslaved Africans kept during slavery that influenced the South. Perhaps the most personal journey in this section is Michael Twitty’s impressively far-ranging The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Twitty’s narrative contains many lines of inquiry and exploration—personal history, genealogy, historical research, oral history—each unfolding in topical rather than chronological chapters, about the African American  experience in the South and how important food and memory is in elucidating that experience. Twitty uses his family’s history and his personal life to challenge the mythology of the South, to discover how an African American food tradition was born, and to recover that tradition.

The study of African American  foodways is not regionally limited to the South, but no discussion of southern food can exist without the research of scholars who tirelessly work to define African American  cuisine. The starting point for contemporary research on the history and representations of African American  food should be the collection of seven essays edited by Anne Bower in African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture. Anne Yentsch’s “Excavating the South’s African American  Food History” is of particular interest in detailing the important role that African Americans played in shaping food traditions in the South, while William C. Whit’s “Soul Food as Cultural Creation” argues that African American  foodways are an example of the creation of a culture to adapt to the world. Frederick Douglass Opie expands on the concept of soul food as a cultural construct in his book Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. Opie researches the concept of not only “soul food” but “soul” by focusing on the history of African American  food, as well as the African American  food cultures of Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia, the Caribbean, and New York City. Opie uses a variety of academic approaches to explore the cultural identity of “soul” as it pertains to the African American  experience and food from the Atlantic slave trade to critics of soul food in the 1960s and 1970s. Adrian Miller’s Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time is a history of “soul food” as well, but Miller’s goal is to celebrate a misunderstood cuisine. Miller organizes his book around his idea of a representative soul food dinner and provides the history of each food to explain why it is a quintessential part of African American  foodways. The collection Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama, edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach, is intended to build on the research presented in the aforementioned African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture. Articles are organized around archives, representations, and politics; many explicitly investigate the intersection of African American  and southern foodways and food history. Some examples include Robert A. Gilmer’s “Native American Contributions to African American Foodways: Slavery, Colonialism, and Cuisine,” Gretchen L. Hoffman’s “What’s the Difference between Soul Food and southern Cooking? The Classification of Cookbooks in American Libraries,” “Theft, Food Labor, and Culinary Insurrection in the Virginia Plantation Yard,” by Christopher Parrish, and “Freedom’s Farms: Activism and Sustenance in Rural Mississippi,” by Angela Jill Cooley.

What is authentic southern food? Who defines southern food? These are the questions that form the basis of two rhetorical approaches to questions of identity and authenticity in southern food. Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins Sayre’s Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South use rhetoric to examine how southerners communicate about food as a means of cultural identification and how food creates identity. Stokes and Sayre acknowledge that while southern foodways are diverse, the notion of “southern food” provides cultural inclusivity, which contributes a unique perspective to their argument. In Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity, Carrie Helms Tippen also uses a rhetorical approach to investigate southern food and identity. Whereas Stokes and Sayre use a variety of sources, Tippen focuses exclusively on cookbooks. Tippen approaches cookbooks as a literary genre and organizes the texts she investigates as different types of narratives: historical, citation, personal, and “beyond narrative,” which focuses on marketing as it relates to authenticity. Tippen makes intriguing and powerful arguments about the role of cookbooks in defining and redefining southern food.

Gender plays a large role in food studies, and the following works explicitly explore gender and southern foodways. Psyche A. Williams-Forson’s unique and wide-ranging Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power “examines the roles that chicken has played in the lives of black women from the past to the present. It is an inquiry into the ways black women shaped vital aspects of their lives with food” (p.1). Williams-Forson brings an African American  feminist approach in reading representations of African American  women in cookbooks, archaeology, and other historical sources to give those women a voice in the scholarship and study of African American  foodways. Williams-Forson also uses oral histories to examine the relationship between race, gender, and food. By organizing her book around the ways in which “black women (and men) have used chicken to express and define themselves over time” (p.7), she is able to powerfully dissect this cultural stereotype. Rebecca Sharpless’s Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960 is a study of how African American  women in the South used employment as cooks to “bridge the old ways and the new, from slavery to employment of their own choosing” (p. xii). In addition to the study of labor and domestic work of African American  women, Sharpless also argues for the influence of African American  female cooks on the tastes of southern food culture as well as dispelling stereotypes of African American  women in that role. Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt uses specific southern food “stories” to discuss the role of gender in southern foodways in A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food. Engelhardt chooses specific aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century southern food history to discuss gender, such as the role of women in moonshine literature, class and gender politics in choosing cornbread or biscuits, the girls’ tomato club movement, the relationship of women’s labor and pellagra, and community cookbook authorship.

Works Cited