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  • "The Deepest Reality of Life":Southern Sociology, the WPA, and Food in the New South
  • Marcie Cohen Ferris (bio)

"Thus, the way of the South, as the way of culture, has also been the way of history and the way of America."

—Howard W. Odum1

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Roy Stryker oversaw the Farm Security Administration photo-documentary project in Washington, D.C., in 1939, and when serendipity brought Dorothea Lange to D.C. for a couple of weeks, he was eager to convince her to work with sociologists Margaret Jarman Hagood and Harriet Herring in North Carolina. Within the month, Lange was on a train bound for North Carolina. Gordonton, 1939, photographed by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

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Avast network of reform spread across the South in the first decades of the twentieth century as an army of progressive southerners, white and black, struggled to bring social justice, public health programs, improved diet, Prohibition, scientific agriculture, and education to the South. Private and public battles were waged between the "southern way of life" and a vision of a more ordered, cohesive, and humanitarian South. New domestic science departments, agriculture experiment stations, home and farm extension programs, industrial colleges, settlement schools, and university departments symbolized a cautiously changing South, but one still struggling under the chokehold that race and class had on the region. High rates of tenancy and sharecropping, unhealthy work environments in textile mills, and relentless poverty made the South a virtual laboratory to examine illiteracy, public health issues, and substandard living conditions in rural America. Food provides a window on to this transitional time as southerners struggled to embrace modernity. The following essay explores one "moment" in this historical sweep: the 1920s to 1940s New South era of social science research and New Deal programs that identified "southern diet" and "southern cookery"—two distinctly different views of the region's food—as both the South's greatest problem and most beloved treasure.2

Southern Sociologists and the "Geography of Nutrition"

In late February 1920, Columbia-trained sociologist Howard Odum, a native of Georgia, arrived at the University of North Carolina, where he founded the university's and the South's first Department of Sociology and School of Public Welfare. As North Carolina's extension service and home demonstration agents traveled county to county to preach the gospel of vegetable gardens and diversified, small-scale agriculture in the 1920s and '30s, Odum and his colleagues introduced the discipline of "regional sociology," which brought the tools of social science to address contemporary problems. He joined documentarians, government officials, public health physicians, revenuers, reformers, scholars, and statisticians, who turned their attention to the Depression-era South and responded to President Franklin Roosevelt's infamous designation of the region as the "Nation's No. 1 economic problem."3

Odum's new Institute for Research in Social Science (IRSS), founded in 1924, assembled a diverse group of scholars, including UNC-trained sociologists Rupert Vance and Arthur Raper, and Guy B. Johnson, who studied black folk culture in the South. In his massive ethnography of the South, Southern Regions of the United States (1936), Odum identified diet and folkways as important aspects of regional culture. He described "two contrasting pictures" of the culinary South, a world of [End Page 7] plenty and a world of deprivation: "One portrays the excellence of southern cooking with its contributions to the art of living; the other the subsistence diet of the masses of marginal folk, commonly ascribed as a major factor in deficiencies of vitality and health." Odum connected the substandard diet of the "masses" to the South's problems in health, politics, race relations, and leadership and argued that knowledge of regional folk culture was essential to charting a progressive future for the South. These issues, and more, were at the center of Odum's commitment to regional planning, and his dream to end the South's insularity and successfully integrate the region into the nation.4

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In the late 1930s, Stryker sought less depressing photographs focused solely on poor, struggling Americans. Stryker wrote photographer...