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  • The Edible South
  • Marcie Cohen Ferris (bio)

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Southern food is many things to many people—a vast world of meaning and symbolism and plain old eating to generations of southerners and visitors to the region. Greensboro, Alabama, c. 1935, photographed by Walker Evans, courtesy of the FSA Collection at the Library of Congress.

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My mother-in-law, Shelby Flowers Ferris, has kept a daily journal for over forty years. These are not personal diaries in which she shares her “feelings”—which I imagine seem self-indulgent to such a practical woman—but rather carefully recorded details about daily meals, celebrations, family comings and goings, and social obligations surrounding life on a farm near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Food provides much of the descriptive detail in these yearly-annotated calendars. An April 22, 1972, entry, for instance, notes the following menu at noon: “baked ham, beaten biscuits, stuffed eggs, potato salad.” The same meal could have been served in Vicksburg in 1872, was eaten in the spring of 2002, and will likely be enjoyed as long as the Ferris Family gathers together at the farm.

Shelby Ferris is quick to dismiss her journals as commonplace—the sort of record any organized woman would keep—but the contents suggest otherwise. Like generations of women before her who oversaw households, her journals document an intimate history of southern family and community history interwoven with world events, suggesting the powerful connections between the local and global South. Entries for the week of September 10, 2001, are obscured by a news story she cut from the front page of the September 12 Wall Street Journal and taped into her leather-bound journal. The upper-case headline reads, “terrorists destroy world trade center, hit pentagon in raid with hijacked jet.” On Friday of the same week, at 2:00 p.m., Shelby wrote: “Martha drives me in station wagon down to watch Grey and men cut and bale hay in big field below tractor shed—a beautiful sight.” At 6:00 p.m. that evening, she noted: “Martha cooks a delicious salmon supper for Kos and me.” With her daughter Martha by her side, Ferris watched as her son Grey and a dedicated crew of farm employees brought in a late summer crop of hay. Later that evening, a simple meal shared between mother, daughter, and son-in-law provided some sense of comfort for one family during a time of national crisis.

Southern food is many things to many people—a vast world of meaning and symbolism and plain old eating to generations of southerners and visitors to the region. We know southern food is important—who could live without a hot piece of cornbread?—but why consider foodways in the great canon of analysis of the American South? The answer is simple: food is entangled in forces that have shaped southern history and culture for more than four centuries. The cultural processes associated with food—production, regulation, representation, identity, and consumption—have taken on aliases such as agriculture, animal science, civil rights, consumption, decorative arts, domesticity, drink, economy, exchange, garden, horticulture, hunger, malnutrition, marketplace, nutrition, obesity, pottery, poverty, property, reform, segregation, slavery, starvation, sustenance, terroir, trade, and wealth. When we study food in the South, we unveil a web of social relations defined by race, class, ethnicity, gender, and shifting economic forces. [End Page 4]


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When we study food in the South, we unveil a web of social relations defined by race, class, ethnicity, gender, and shifting economic forces. Weighing chickens before sale in a produce market, 1939, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Even as southern populations (and landscapes) have evolved, food and place remain indelibly linked in the southern imagination, and food continues to have a tenacious hold on regional identity. While writer Michael Pollan describes a “national eating disorder” in which “whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety,” southerners, at least, still eat their region’s iconic foods. Like their grandparents and great-grandparents before them, they consume large quantities of fried chicken...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 3-27
Launched on MUSE
2009-11-12
Open Access
No
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