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  • Food for ThoughtRace, Region, Identity, and Foodways in the American South
  • Beth A. Latshaw (bio)

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Its sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch are thought to evoke reminiscences of childhood, stir up emotions from the past, and aid southerners in creating new memories around the modern dining table. In the hearts and minds of southerners from the past and present, only one thing could possibly embody such traits and induce such sentiment: southern food. Outside Chapel Hill’s famed Crook’s Corner, courtesy of D. Shaw. [End Page 106]

Southern writer John Egerton has called it “central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character,” naming it as “an esthetic wonder, a sensory delight, [and even a] mystical experience.”1 It is said to be innovative, artistic, and inspiring. It has been described as everything from diverse, distinctive, and delectable to proud, persistent, and at times, even controversial. Most certainly, its sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch are thought to evoke childhood, stir up emotions from the past, and aid southerners in creating new memories around the modern dining table. In the hearts and minds of southerners from the past and present, only one thing could possibly embody such traits and induce such sentiment: southern food.

Indeed, it takes little more than a glance around a local bookstore or a short drive across any state in this vast region to witness just how central southern food is to southern culture in the twenty-first century. From barbecue joints to soul kitchens to country cookeries and church picnics, food certainly appears to lie at the heart of southern hospitality, tradition, and heritage. Moreover, this food is said to possess meaning and symbolism far surpassing what some view as simply a tasty meal. Just as sociologist Larry J. Griffin notes that the southern region has been “celebrated and vilified with a fervor absent from meditations about other sections of this country,”2 so too has its food, making it a frequent subject of contemplation, fascination, and inquiry. Moreover, in a time when what it means to be a “southerner” is increasingly ambiguous3 and vast industrialization, commercialization, and in-migration reshapes the southern landscape, the preparation, consumption, and celebration of southern food is looked upon as a cultural medium one turns to when expressing a regional identity today.

While scholars and writers intricately detail the rich history of southern foodways, black and white southerners also explicitly reference the present-day links between southern food, culture, and identity in a broad array of cookbooks.4 These works, housing detailed passages on the origins, meanings, and memory-making utility of foods, clearly propose a direct connection between southern food and regional identity. For instance, one author states that southern food is “intricately woven into the fabric of Southern culture,” while another asserts that “food is part of [southerners’] cultural identity.”5 This is consistent with the work of John Shelton Reed, Kenan Professor Emeritus of Sociology at unc and authority on southern culture, who states that when seeking to define the “cultural South” today, one plausible strategy involves simply finding those people who, for example, eat grits, listen to country music, and attend Baptist churches more often than other Americans. According to Reed, southerners often see themselves as different, distinctive, and possessing “shared ethical understandings about what is good . . . true . . . beautiful . . . and even what is edible,” culminating in a common “cultural style” that defines and delineates the boundaries of what he calls a southern “ethnic group.”6 Following Reed’s notion, the consumption of southern [End Page 107] foodways, like ethnic foodways, might be interpreted as a modern-day expression of one’s southern identity.


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Southern food is “intricately woven into the fabric of Southern culture.” Sunday school picnic, Penderlea Homesteads, North Carolina, 1937, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

This idea that foodways are the modern vehicle through which one’s “southernness” is expressed is particularly pertinent because, as John Egerton explains, in a time of declining regional identity, when southern accents and lifestyles become increasingly rare, southern food is one of few authentic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 106-128
Launched on MUSE
2009-11-12
Open Access
No
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