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  • "She Ought to Have Taken Those Cakes"Southern Women and Rural Food Supplies
  • Rebecca Sharpless (bio)

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White women, mostly the wives of farm owners, and fewer African American women sought to enhance their family income through petty sales of everything from chickens to caramel cakes. The sales ranged from peddling foraged items such as blackberries to organized curb markets with firm rules of engagement and pricing. Curb market in Durham, North Carolina, 1948, courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library.

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Buying local food is all the rage today. Serious students of food tout the advantages of produce from nearby regions both for flavor and environmental advantages. Long before the word locavore entered the national vocabulary, however, southern women developed their own regional food networks, both as producers and consumers. During the first third of the twentieth century, enterprising farm women produced and sold eggs, chickens, butter, fruit, and vegetables, and discerning urban housewives bought these products, sometimes from local stores and sometimes directly from the growers. That both groups tried to gain advantage in the exchange demonstrates the complexities created by people with disparate goals and by urbanization, which led to an increasing divide between town and farm people. Women showed their acumen in supplying food for the market and for their families, locally grown and purchased.1

The market relationships between rural and urban women were on the minds of many southerners in the 1920s and 1930s. Two fictional examples show the dual sides of the interplay. In William Faulkner's 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, Cora Tull, a quintessential good wife, takes the advice of a Miss Lawington, probably a home demonstration agent, and scrapes and saves to buy some purebred chickens which produce superior eggs. Cora then contracts with a woman from town to buy her homemade cakes. After Cora has lavished her finest ingredients and enormous care in their production, the unnamed woman then decides not to have the party and declines to purchase the cakes. As Cora ministers to her dying neighbor, she ruminates over the rejected cakes: "So I baked yesterday, more careful than ever I baked in my life, and the cakes turned out right well. But when we got to town this morning Miss Lawington told me the lady had changed her mind and was not going to have the party after all." Cora's daughter Kate, who serves as something of a Cassandra figure in the novel, speaks bluntly: "She ought to have taken them . . . But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can't." The town woman is condemned by the country women (and perhaps by Faulkner) on several levels. First, she is frivolous, hosting parties which country people cannot afford. Second, she is capricious, changing her mind about the party at the last minute. Third, she is unscrupulous, refusing to buy the product for which she has contracted. For Cora, the producer, this unnamed woman is a consuming nightmare. Her perfidy casts a further note of gloom over the hot room where Addie Bundren lies on her deathbed.2 In the battle between town and country, the town dweller holds all the cards.

In Dorothy Scarborough's 1929 novel Can't Get a Red Bird, a wealthy urban woman becomes the patron of a poor country woman. Honey Carr, whose family could not keep a milk cow on their sharecropper's farm, is determined to escape the life of a cotton sharecropper. She borrows cows and makes good butter, which her husband Johnny sells to a local grocer who is the vendor of choice for [End Page 46] Mrs. Blank, the wife of the mayor of Dallas. Mrs. Blank inquires of the product's source. When she expresses her delight with Honey's superior product, Johnny boldly asks the mayor's wife if she will buy directly from him, and she agrees, also requesting eggs and lamb. Mrs. Blank then arranges to sell the surplus to her neighbors and relatives. Johnny and Honey make enough money from this production to pay off their grocery debt. Through sheer luck, the young couple sells to...