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A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender & Southern Food by Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt (review)
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In A Mess of Greens, Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt offers an engaging study of the centrality of food to the formation of women's identities in the American South. Englehardt unravels the dynamic history of the social and cultural meanings of southern food in defining local, regional, and national identities. This is the "mess" to which the title refers—the complex, fragmented, and multiple meanings that food (or the absence of it) held for the diverse people who called this region home. If the adage "we are what we eat" rings true, then Engelhardt shows us that for southern women how, what, and where food was prepared, consumed, and discussed tells us much about how the South was defining itself in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s, and who Southerners themselves aspired to be in specific times and spaces. Debates over gender, race, class, and region were embedded within the daily practices of preparing and eating a meal.

The book consists of five overlapping food "moments" where notions of gender and women's roles were negotiated and defined. Engelhardt devotes one chapter to examining representations of women involved in moonshine, illuminating how these real and fictional women found freedom and defined region and nation through their connection to the illicit drink. Another chapter on literary accounts of pellagra victims shows how malnutrition and the lack of food was as much a part of the southern food story, one intimately connected to the vast economic shifts and the growth of factory and mill work during this period, in which young southern women played a vital role. While these chapters offer a thoughtful analysis of southern food and gender in literature, where the book truly shines is in bringing a critical eye to previously unexamined sources and voices. Separate chapters on Progressive-Era reform efforts to impose beaten biscuits on the cornbread-baking women of Appalachia, on the educational and economic opportunities presented to young women in tomato clubs, and on the interracial and cross-class conversations hidden in community cookbooks and curb markets reveal how women crafted discrete spaces within which they navigated powerful constraints in their lives. Making creative use of sources, including women reformers' journals and letters, tomato club girls' reports and records, community cookbooks, and newspapers, Engelhardt brings to the fore women's voices that have long been silenced. For the women of what she calls the "broad middle"—poor white, rural, and working- and middle-class African American women—food was a site of power and social control but also of possibility and opportunity. Engelhardt skillfully teases out these possibilities—of interracial cooperation, of friendship across rural-urban divides, of educational opportunity, and of access to consumer goods—encouraging the reader to linger in the messiness, and asking us to consider the different ways that women used food to make sense of their lives in light of increasing industrialization, expanding consumer culture, and shifting social and race relations in the South. A short conclusion on Elizabeth Lawrence's Gardens of Love, a sort of social history culled from southern market reports, underscores how different methodologies and sources offer a new perspective of women's critical roles in the evolving food culture and identity of the South. This all-too-brief and provocative glimpse into women's lives hidden in the market reports left this reader wanting seconds.

Engagingly written and compellingly argued, A Mess of Greens is accessible for general readers, while offering the academic audience a sophisticated analysis of place, food, and gender. This work is an excellent example of the rich possibilities found in food studies, and it makes a significant contribution to women's, U.S., and southern history.

Monica Perales  

Monica Perales is an associate professor of history at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas. She is author of Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community (2010) and is currently working on a book manuscript on the history of Mexican-American women, labor, and food in the American Southwest.

Copyright © 2011 Kentucky Historical Society
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Monica Perales. "A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender & Southern Food by Elizabeth S. D.
Engelhardt (review)." Register...

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