- Cornbread Nation 7: The Best Southern Food Writing ed. by Francis Lam
The seventh installment of Cornbread Nation, a book series edited by Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge, is a valuable cultural document, yielding not only insights into the history of southern foodways but also into the values and anxieties of today. Francis Lam, the editor of this individual volume, grew up in suburban New Jersey but received a crash course on southern food after moving to Biloxi, Mississippi, to aid in the post-Katrina recovery. His experiences inspired him to curate a collection that captures the culinary journeys of outsiders discovering the South. He broadens the focus to “include stories of Southerners as they move through the world, changing [the South] as it changes them” (2).
The compilation ranges from artful, self-aware pieces that first appeared in publications like The New Yorker to transcriptions of oral history interviews to stories originally printed in regional periodicals. Readers seeking a more scholarly framework will be pleased to see articles reprinted from Southern Cultures as well as an excerpt from food historian Jessica Harris’s most comprehensive study to date, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. The collection makes good on Lam’s promise to highlight encounters between southern food and the larger world, and it includes the food memories of immigrants from Vietnam, Liberia, and Korea among other places. Predictably, the volume is thick with nostalgia, including Julia Reed’s effusive recollections of the cornbread, Ritz Cracker crumb-covered casseroles, and salted summer tomatoes of her Mississippi childhood. Gluttony also abounds, for example, in Vogue food critic Jeffery Steingarten’s account of his obsessive quest to sample the best coconut cake and in Todd Kliman’s equally impassioned retelling of his journey through southern strip malls following the career of Sichuan chef Peter Chang. Some essays are concerned with issues of social justice and, to a lesser extent, food ethics. Barry Estabrook describes the plight of enslaved agricultural workers in the tomato fields of Florida, and several contributors grapple, at least temporarily, with the moral quandaries embedded in carnivorism.
Readers specifically interested in Texas food traditions will be glad to encounter Nikki Metzgar’s portrait of Houston chef Chris Shepard as well as Sarah Hepola’s poignant account of her youthful struggle with weight-gain and drinking. When she was a student at the University of Texas, temptation was particularly severe because delectable queso “practically ran like a river through town” (180). Dan [End Page 319] Baum’s “Hogzilla” contains a grisly account of hunting for feral pigs in East Texas. Baum, “an agnostic East Coat Jew” (125), was guided by a trigger happy local who explained: “It’s primal; we like to kill things” (130). Robb Walsh, a Houston-based food writer, recalls a visit to the Arkansas Delta on a quest for perfect barbecue. He warns himself—in the words of his art critic wife—to avoid “exoticizing rural southern poverty” (136) for the voyeuristic pleasure of well-to-do outsiders. Some passages from this work will fulfill the expectations of those looking for a down home culinary “other” to feel superior to. Mercifully, the collection transcends the idea of a singular southern way of eating thanks to Lam’s thoughtful commitment to documenting complexity and diversity.