Introduction: The Edible South
Southern food is many things to many people—a valuable commodity represented in vast fields of rice and soybeans and brimming nets of oysters and shrimp, commercial pound cakes and pralines sold by the millions to tourists, a television chef, a beloved barbecue cafe, an industrial hog farm, a culinary history grounded in slavery, a vast world of meaning and symbolism to generations of southerners and visitors to the region. For some, southern food is simply a plate of catfish, field peas, and cornbread washed down with sweet iced tea.
Hopkinsons' Plantation, Edisto Island, South
Carolina, 1862. Photograph by Henry P. Moore.
The New York Historical Society.
Why consider foodways in the great canon of analysis of the American South? The answer is simple: food is entangled in forces that have shaped southern history and culture for more than four centuries. The cultural processes associated with food—production, consumption, regulation, and identity—are embedded in topics as disparate as agriculture, civil rights, decorative arts, domesticity, economics, horticulture, malnutrition, memory, obesity, poverty, property, reform, segregation, slavery, and terroir—the literal taste of place. EchEacWhen we study food in the American South, we unveil a web of social relations defined by race, class, ethnicity, gender, and shifting global economic forces. Even as southern populations (and landscapes) have evolved, food and place remain indelibly linked in the southern imagination, and food continues to have a tenacious hold on regional identity.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys,
"That's What I Like About the South," 1942.
Photograph from HallCountyTexas.com.
Eudora Welty observed, “the art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly, and passionately from its own place of origin will remain understood the longest.” The “sense of place” that Welty describes here is revealed in the expressive quality of food in the region’s arts and culture, which will be woven into each chapter of “The Edible South.” From the earliest period to the present day, the South’s decorative, folk, and visual arts have reflected the importance of food to the region. Southern writers such as Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Elizabeth Spencer, and Eudora Welty use the language of food to evoke sense of place and to capture the South’s unending struggles with race, class, and gender. In fiddle tunes, blues lyrics, hip hop poetry, country music, beach music, and in films, newspapers, and television programs, food signifies regional identity.
Chapter 1: Food Landscapes of the Native and Colonial South
Village of Secoton, Theodor de Bry's "A Briefe
and True Report of the New Found Land of
Virginia," 1590. Picturing the New World: The
Hand-Colored De Bry Engravings of 1590.
Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at
The story of food in the early South began over 13,000 years ago when the First People (rather than the first Europeans) arrived on the American continent. These earliest southerners were nomadic tribes, small groups of people who foraged for food, gathered native plants, hunted wild game, and fished. The tribes were also the South’s first intensive farmers. From the first exploratory expeditions to the Carolina coast by Europeans in the late sixteenth century, to the temporary settlements of the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, to the sturdier farm houses and plantations of eighteenth-century Virginia, Europeans wrote about the food that they observed and consumed in the American South.
Communication with and ultimately conquest of the region by Europeans began with food. English settlers established the first permanent community in Jamestown on May 14, 1607, at the southern end of Chesapeake Bay, and colonists hoped that forced trade with the Indians for food and the marketing of natural resources would bring a good profit. The central problem for colonists was not the imagined cache of gold and other riches, but getting enough food, especially after the Indians withdrew and left the English to manage on their own. Now remembered for its “starving time,” the colony of Jamestown experienced several years of drought that was exacerbated by strained relations with the Indians, intense summer heat, and late supply ships.
Chapter 2: Culinary Codes of the Plantation South
Mary Randolph's "The Virginia Housewife,"
1824. Feeding America: The Historic American
Cookbook Project. Michican State University
Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1836) is the first regional cookbook in America and includes recipes for Apoquiniminc Cakes (a type of English beaten biscuit, with its curious and much-debated Indian moniker), “barbecued shote,” field peas, “curry of catfish,” and “ochra soup.” Nineteenth-century prescriptive works like Randolph’s southern cookbook included a mix of recipes and household tips. Written by both white and black southerners, these “how to” manuals attempted to order an increasingly disordered southern society that was shaken by agricultural transformation, industrialization, and racial strife. Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book (1866) describes the changing position of African American women after the Civil War and during Reconstruction.
Descriptions of food in nineteenth-century letters and diaries reveal the texture of daily life, including the racial codes between white and black southerners. In the early 1850s, Ruth Hastings, a young, white schoolteacher from New England, wrote home to her family and described the South Carolina cotton plantation where she taught. Mealtime practices reinforced her sense of alienation from the “foreign” world of the elite white southerners for whom she worked: “You can’t imagine how strange it looks to me to see the children and Serena give the negroes about the house a biscuit or a wafer, or piece of gingerbread half eaten or a piece of melon from which all that I call good had been eaten. They give the children Amy, Ellen, and even to Nelly, bones half picked and bits of meat or anything they happen to eat at lunch. I haven’t learned yet how to give my leavings with a good grace. I am trying to learn.” Hastings’s view of southern slavery was largely defined at the table and in the home.
Chapter 3: The Malnourished South
Despite Scarlett O’Hara’s declaration, “I’ll never be hungry again,” the majority of poor and working-class white and African American southerners remained hungry and ravaged by diseases associated with contaminated food and water well into the twentieth century. Dorothy Hancock Stiles, a Massachusetts teacher at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky, described her diminishing weight when she contracted typhoid during her stay in 1915: “Nearly two weeks since I last wrote in which time I have been engaged in participating in the Hindman local sport of having typhoid . . . I don’t look much thinner in the face, though my hands and arms are sights. On the whole I have macaroni legs and spaghetti arms.” Stiles came to the Mountain South as an educated “New Woman” during the height of the Progressive Era.
Seemingly worlds away from Appalachia’s settlement schools, but in reality separated by only a few miles, the great inns and resorts of western North Carolina tell a different story of privilege, wealth, class, and leisure in the early twentieth century. Here the worries and struggles of the South’s working class were blocked from the view of affluent, white Protestant customers. Menus and business correspondence from the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina--- established in 13---describe the elite world of fine food and mountain elegance that Fred Seely, the first general manager of the Inn, created for guests.
Living quarters of tobacco workers, near
Fayetteville, NC, March 1941. Photograph
by Jack Delano. Farm Security Administration
Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
During Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, the photographers of the Farm Security Administration captured the poverty in which working class southerners lived. Roy Stryker, manager of the FSA’s photo-documentary project, created “shooting scripts” that specified images his team should capture with their cameras, many of which included food. Stryker sent photographers Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Marion Post Wolcott into the South to document America’s “indomitable” spirit. Rather than create patriotic propaganda as first intended, their FSA photographs forced America and the world to view the appalling living conditions of hard-working southerners.
Chapter 4: Food and Social Justice
Lewis Mountain Picnic Grounds for Negroes,
Shenandoah National Park, 1939. National
At its core, the intersection of food and history in the American South is about power. Those who control food—its quantity, its taste, its access—control everything. Until the 1930s, lodging and concessions in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, for example, were for “Whites Only.” Under pressure from Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes, the National Park Service was forced to develop facilities for African Americans, such as the Lewis Mountain Picnic Grounds for Negroes, which opened in 1939. The 1940 edition of The Negro Motorist Green-Book, prepared in conjunction with the United States Travel Bureau—a federal agency—cost twenty five cents and listed tourist businesses such as the barber shops, beauty parlors, garages, hotels, restaurants, service stations, taverns, and tourist homes that served African Americans.
Lunch counters and cafés, the seemingly benign settings of everyday life in the South, became battlegrounds of the Civil Rights Movement. “Food means power, power means food,” wrote historian Warren Belasco. “And power means conflict, even violence.” The February 1, 1960, sit-in of four black college students from North Carolina A&T who protested a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, had repercussions across the nation.
Food also played a role in the labor activism by southern mill workers, as seen in Spindles and Spatulas Cookery, a fundraising cookbook published by the South Carolina Brown Lung Association in the 1970s. Throughout the South, whether in national parks, at lunch counters, or in community fundraising dinners, white and black southerners struggled against racial injustice and labor exploitation, and their causes were often expressed at the table.
Chapter 5: The Future of Southern Food: Agribusiness, the Environment, and the Locavore South
Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Arkansas.
Photograph from the Russ MacNeill Collection.
The tenacity of its foodways derives from the South’s agricultural economy. The last American region to replace its mules with tractors, the South was an economy so committed to cotton that industrialization and urbanization were slow to arrive in the region. In the agrarian South, residents maintained strong connections to the land and to traditional foodways. That tide has turned today, as agribusiness giants such as Tyson Food, Inc. in Arkansas and Smithfield Foods in North Carolina dominate the region’s food production, processing thousands of chickens and pigs, respectively, each day. While these advances in production have contributed to a decrease in hunger, the environmental impact has been significant.
UNC-Chapel Hill FLO (Fair Local Organic)
Farmer's Market, Polk Place, Spring 2009,
Photograph by Marcie Cohen Ferris.
Today, there is a large social movement in the South that focuses on food. Led by activists, chefs, community members, farmer’s market organizers, and small farmers, the movement is rooted in the political activism of the 1960s and the back-to-the-land movement. During the 1960s and 1970s, co-operative food markets and vegetarian restaurants in university communities throughout the South became centers of food activism. “The Distaff,” a feminist newspaper published in New Orleans in the 1970s, reported on feminist farming outposts in the Arkansas Ozarks, court battles against the city’s private men’s dining clubs, and potluck suppers for the National Women’s Political Caucus. In Columbia, South Carolina, the Basil Pot, a “gourmet vegetarian restaurant,” offered cooking classes in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the University of South Carolina’s Center for Non-Traditional Studies.