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82 3 TASTE AND REGION The Constitutive Function of Southern Cookbooks We have fallen, too, upon a new device. We keep a cookery book on the mantelpiece, and when our dinner is deficient we just read a pudding or a crême. It does not entirely satisfy the appetite, this dessert in imagination, but perhaps it is as good for the digestion. Miss Middleton, quoted in C. Vann Woodward, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War ONE OF the most powerful illustrations of how food discourse can nourish and define both an individual and a community appears in a letter included in a journal written during the Civil War.In the final revision of her Civil War journal, Mary Chesnut includes this letter from her friend Miss Middleton in the entry dated April 5,1865.In the letter,Middleton describes the deprivation experienced by wealthy southerners. The idea that a dish can be “read” implies the complex definition of consumption in Victorian society, described in the previous chapter. It also suggests the necessity of the cookbook for survival and self-definition. It belies the role of luxury in southern identity, suggesting that dessert must be present in imagination if not in physical form. Thus, tastes of the southern elite did not change because of the Civil War; the methods of consumption changed. The printed food text became integral to one’s regional identification when its physical manifestation was unavailable. After the war, as poverty remained and rebuilding began, the cookbook’s role in constituting a regional identity became even more central to southern domestic writing. Southern cookbooks cut a slightly different path than their northern counterparts . Due to the rural, agrarian nature of the South, cookbooks remained in manuscript form well into the early nineteenth century. Although a few published cookbooks existed, the boom in domestic advice literature came about only after the Civil War. After the war, when much southern infrastructure had TASTE AND REGION 83 been dismantled, southern authors often had to rely on northern presses to publish their works. Thus, the works had to appeal to a broader audience. This history makes southern cookbooks unique in American domestic print culture.While cookbooks published in the Northeast sought to naturalize middle-class tastes as a cultural standard,southern texts gradually incorporated taste discourse to constitute a larger, more cohesive regional identity. As chapter 1 has argued regarding Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, one is often tempted to read a cookbook labeled “southern” and impose upon it a set of regional characteristics. This chapter argues that southern cookbooks in part constitute, rather than merely represent, southern identity. Certainly the cookbooks examined in previous chapters also perform a constitutive function. Southern cookbooks,however,which still appear primarily in manuscript form at the start of the time period under examination and are slow to participate in taste discourse as a normative rhetorical mode, demonstrate the extent of this process.Moreover,southern cookbooks are often read as though they represent a cohesive culture, rather than a culture that is gradually becoming aware of itself as a unit, what Benedict Anderson would call an “imagined community .”1 Anderson writes that “the development of print-as-commodity is the key to the generation of wholly new ideas of simultaneity.”2 I would add that taste discourse facilitates these ideas by serving as a metaphor linking the individual to the community. The emergence of print commodities and taste discourse in the American South is a revealing demonstration of this process of imagining. This chapter examines the constitutive function of southern cookbooks in three parts: prewar, Civil War, and postwar texts. Each group expands the southern public from its local beginnings to its wartime regional awareness to its promotion of itself as a national ideal. The antebellum period in the South saw the slow emergence of the published cookbook. Few southern cookbooks were published before the Civil War; even fewer of those remain today. That most southern cookbooks “were published locally and in limited edition”further indicates the South’s emphasis on rural and local, rather than regional and centralized, identities.3 The published cookbook gave readers the ability to identify with a community outside of one’s own family or kinship networks. While this happens in part through shared ideas represented in the text, in fact, the text itself, as Chesnut makes clear in her journal, represents the body. As the domestic publishing industry was booming in the Northeast, the South was just beginning to emerge...


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