- History, Place, and PowerStudying Southern Food
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Two “moments” help explain my interest in bringing food to the pages of Southern Cultures. The first is a conversation I’ve had more frequently than I can recall as I worked on my recent book, The Edible South, which explores the intersection of southern food and social history. Them: “Wow, southern food! How come they fry everything?” Me: “Excuse me?” Them: “You know, southern food is SO BAD for you. BAD. BAD. BAD. They fry everything. Why do they do that?” Me: “Oy.” The second experience was a request to speak to a lively group of UNC undergraduates who study local sustainable food systems. Them: “Could you briefly speak about the role of southern culture in local food?” Me: “Oy.”
Why all the oys? Because the southern history embedded in southern food has somehow disappeared. In contemporary worlds of popular and consumer culture, southern food has become untethered from the complex historical narrative responsible for this cuisine. Think buckets of southern fried chicken and cathead biscuits like culinary spacecraft set adrift from the mother ship of southern history, [End Page 2] culture, and experience. A multi-layered past and present underlies these foods and explains why southerners eat the way they do, and why we think of these foods as deeply southern. Food is history. Food is place. Food is power and disempowerment.
When we examine the history of food in the American South, we encounter the tangled interactions of its people over time, a world of relationships fraught with conflict, yet bound by blood and attachment to place. We viscerally experience this in Bernie Herman’s exegesis on Spot, a fish “uncommonly common in the lower Chesapeake and North Carolina’s sounds.” In this convincing fish story lies a many-layered narrative of place, taste, and memory that emanates from the docks, marketplaces, gill nets, and tables of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There are more fish tales—and those of the region’s beloved pig, too—shared throughout the South, as seen in Tom Rankin’s evocative photographs of the daily rituals and work that bring food to the table, from rural southern fish markets to hog killings. Here, the contradiction between the realities of plenty and deprivation, of privilege and poverty in southern history resonates in the region’s food traditions. In these worlds the ordinary becomes extraordinary, as a hand-painted sign advertising “FISH” becomes art, and a good catch, a fat pig, and, ultimately, a satisfying meal bring joy and satisfaction to southerners drawn together by food-related labors passed down between generations.
What is southern food? Can we define it? Can there be one southern cuisine when there isn’t one southern culture? The South is a region of cultural, historical, geographic, and demographic complexity. As Sarah Spencer (‘14), a student in our “Introduction to Southern Studies” course noted at the end of the spring 2014 semester, “The South is MESSY!” Marianne Gingher conjures this messiness in her essay of new love, then lost love, and the persuasive power of classic southern cooking, in particular, the culinary big guns of grandmother-authenticated, irresistible cakes and pies. Amy Evans evokes these feminine worlds in her portraits, evocative foodscapes filled with familiar culinary icons and ephemera of southern life. We are honored to include her work again on these pages—a powerful photo essay from Amy appeared in a previous food issue of Southern Cultures. Today, we recognize Evans’s twelve years as the visionary lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, where she built the documentary program and oversaw the collection of more than 800 life stories “behind the food.”
The South is a world so shaped by history and memory that it is difficult to separate myth from reality. The same is true for southern food. Fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea, too—the icons of southern food—are so “super-sized...