- The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region by Marcie Cohen Ferris
The South is a place of contradictions. Its food reflects that. All too often, though, the contradictions are hidden, and portrayals of southern food celebrate romanticized, homogenized, and whitewashed views of the past and the culture. The region undoubtedly has a rich culinary heritage, but it is one that grew out of harsh realities of systems of oppression and the ongoing struggles of individuals within those systems.
This eloquently written volume addresses those contradictions, demonstrating how food can be used to read history in a deep and insightful way by giving voice to the diverse ways [End Page 232] that individuals have experienced that history and the impact it has had on their personal lives. Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offers a remarkable window into the development of the region and its food culture as a constant interplay of political, economic, religious, social, and personal forces. Drawing from a wide range of primary sources—letters, diaries, slave testimonies, cookbooks, advertisements, photographs, and more—Ferris places that development within larger movements in American society, then identifies the distinctively southern reactions to those movements while also recognizing diversity within the region. That diversity is not only the obvious one of race. It also includes class, religion, gender, and ethnicity as well as geography and the urban-rural divide. Ferris offers a unique perspective. She grew up in the South and is a current resident there, but she also grew up Jewish, experiencing the region as both an insider and outsider, a stance that serves her well as a scholar. Her earlier work, Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), brought attention to a facet of southern culture not widely known. Her own voice appears throughout her new work, both personalizing it and grounding it in lived experience, without diluting her scholarship or analyses.
The book is organized into three parts that follow, not surprisingly, the major historical events around race in the South: the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement. Ferris demonstrates that while race has defined these eras, there are other forces shaping them as well, and the individual “moments” that we realize later are pivotal to history often-times result from individuals acting as best they could within the circumstances they faced.
Part 1, “Early South—Plantation South,” covers European exploration and settlement through the Civil War and Reconstruction. While this span of time might seem too vast to be inclusive, Ferris ties it together with the thread of slavery, exploring how that institution was both expressed and shaped by food. Certain ingredients came to define southern cuisine, and hospitality, performed through generosity at the dinner table, was established as a hall-mark of southernness. Race figured significantly in food practices, and Ferris teases out the ways in which implicit rules represented a larger social order dependent upon individuals knowing their place and eating accordingly.
Food shortages during and after the Civil War—some historians have suggested that the South was not so much beaten on the battlefield as starved into defeat—shaped relations between races, genders, and classes. Both Black and white southerners developed nostalgic myths of the abundance of the pre-war South, which vied with the perceived realities of the past. Food clearly was used to both empower and oppress.
Part 2, “New South,” covers the early twentieth century and makes up the bulk of the book. Ferris demonstrates in this section that the shift in southern agriculture from cotton plantations to sharecropping meant the rise of a new class consisting of the poor of both races. Reformers in national movements such as home economics and domestic science who saw food as a way to bring people into mainstream “American” society tried...