The Edible South: Food and History in an American Region” is a social history of southern foodways---the cultural, social and economic practices that relate to food in the American South. Although valuable sources exist for the study of southern food, the field lacks a comprehensive social history that establishes a methodology for the analysis of food in the region. Responding to this need for a core text, “The Edible South” documents both the mythic and the daily meaning of food in the lives of generations of southerners using rich archival collections on southern history and important publications on southern foodways.

Significance to the Humanities

Jeff MacNelly, William R. Ferris Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC-CH
Jeff MacNelly, William R. Ferris Papers, Southern
Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Food is essential to life. We cannot live without it. But beyond mere subsistence, food is a powerful expression of regional identity and historical experience. French historian Fernand Braudel describes food as the key that unlocks cultural beliefs. He suggests that the “mere smell of cooking can evoke an entire civilization.” The study of foodways- --the intersection of food and culture---addresses a central issue in the humanities: how we connect the great dramas of history with the lives of ordinary people. Through descriptions of food narrated by diverse southerners, we can explore their struggle to become Americans, and in that process reveal how they created a unique chapter in our nation’s history. These struggles are reflected in the region’s food culture. The study of food also reveals the South’s historic ties to a global economy and the impact of its cuisine and culture on the world. Food is also an important theme in the region’s rich literary and artistic heritage. While 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.

Research and Contribution

The field of southern foodways was created by nineteenth century culinary enthusiasts, folklorists, and ethnographers. These writers described and celebrated the region’s rich culinary heritage through cookbooks, food memoirs, and culinary histories of specific foods, places, and eras. Works Project Administration State Guides and America Eats- --both publications of the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s and 1940s---include important foodways documentation in the South by writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy. Recent anthologies such as Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002-2008) and encyclopedias, such as the food volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (2007), continue to document southern food. As invaluable sources for the study of southern food, these works should be read alongside a comprehensive social history of southern food---a core text that interprets the importance of food in southern history.

Hindman Settlement School, Kentucky, 1916
Hindman Settlement School, Kentucky, 1916.
Postcard from ePodunk.com.

The Edible South: Food and History in an American Region” is a social history of southern food that examines the expressive power of food over time. Consider the early writings of Thomas Harriot (1590) who describes the food habits of Algonquian Indians on North Carolina’s Outer Banks; George Percy’s gruesome narrative of the “starving time” at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609; instructions sent in 1833 by Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Secretary of State and Secretary of War for the Confederacy, to a colleague in New York on how to prepare New Orleans “creole” coffee; letters from New England school teacher Ruth Hastings that describe how whites fed discarded scraps to slaves at the plantation where she taught in Society Hill, South Carolina, in 1852; the 1915 Hindman Settlement School diary of Dorothy Stiles that recounts her students’ hookworm and her own typhoid; recipes for “Dixie Cake” and “rations” served at an elaborate 44th reunion dinner honoring Confederate veterans in 1921 at the Hotel DeSoto in New Orleans; photographs that document the disparity of South Carolina’s segregated school lunchrooms in the 1940s; a 1964 news account of white and black civil rights activists’ attempt to desegregate a coffee shop strategically located across the street from the local police station in Laurel, Mississippi; and 1970-80s monthly calendars from “The Basil Pot,” a counter-culture restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, whose emphasis on fresh, organically grown produce and vegetarian cuisine foreshadows the contemporary local food movement in the American South.

In 1992, literary scholar Peggy Whitman Prenshaw edited a special issue of The Southern Quarterly on “The Texts of Southern Food.” In her introduction, Prenshaw argues that southern food is defined by “a complex cultural legacy, a legacy that finally may be most directly approached and deciphered…through an apprehension and analysis of the foodways.”1 Prenshaw notes three classic studies of southern foodways—Sam Bowers Hilliard’s Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840–1860 (1972), Joe Gray Taylor’s Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History (1982), and John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History (1987). Each of these works is a landmark study of southern food history. Thirty years later, however, the field lacks a comprehensive social history that establishes a methodology for the analysis of food in the American South.

“The Edible South” documents both the mythic and the daily meaning of food in the lives of generations of southerners using rich archival collections on southern history and important publications on southern foodways. This work advances current scholarship, and it brings an updated history of southern foodways to a broad audience. Barbara Haber, former Curator of Books at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, suggests that scholars should “follow the food” to important moments in our history. Interpreting attitudes and customs about food, Haber argues, is a “shortcut to understand the deepest or most hidden truths of people and groups.”2 When we study southern history, food leads us to these deeply human experiences. Each of my chapters expands the book’s central theme that food reveals both the enduring strengths and the flaws of the American South.

5-gallon Face Jug by Burlton B. Craig, Lincoln County, North Carolina, 1914-1920
5-gallon Face Jug by Burlton B. Craig, Lincoln
County, North Carolina, 1914-1920. Ackland Art
Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Food is entangled in forces that have shaped southern history and culture for more than four centuries. 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. To examine how food shapes these worlds, I divide my work into five chapters, each of which analyzes the food experiences of southerners over time. The outline of these chapters is: The Edible South: An introduction to the study of food and history in the American South, 1) Food Landscapes of the Native and Colonial South: The foodways of contact between Native Americans, European settlers, and enslaved Africans, 2) Culinary Codes of the Plantation South: Nineteenth-century cookbooks, letters, and diaries reveal the texture of daily life and demonstrate how food reflects power structures and social change, 3) The Malnourished South: Southern foodways at the turn of the twentieth century viewed through Progressive era settlement schools, the growth of tourism, and the commercialization of southern food products, 4) Food and Social Justice: How kitchens and lunch counters in the segregated South became battlegrounds during the Civil Rights Movement as activists waged a war against racial injustice and labor exploitation, 5) The Future of Southern Food: Agribusiness, the Environment, and the Locavore South. Changes in contemporary food production and the impact of agribusiness and the growth of small-scale, local, artisanal food production on the region’s culinary worlds. The expressive quality of food in the region’s literary and visual arts will be woven into each chapter.


The methodology I propose for my study of food in southern history is informed by scholars Warren Belasco, Judith Carney, Hasia Diner, Donna Gabaccia, Bernie Herman, Harvey Levenstein, Lucy Long, James McWilliams, Frederick Opie, Ann Romines, David Shields, Andrew Smith, Janet Theophano, Amy Trubeck, and Psyche Williams- Forson, each of who examine American history through the lens of foodways. Historians Fitzhugh Brundage and David Blight contend that while the South is no richer in history and memory than any other region, southerners devote more of their collective energy to defining the past through historical narratives. Foodways are critical elements of these southern narratives. As historians Gerard Fitzgerald and Gabriella Petrick explain, “To understand a culture, past or present, we should endeavor to understand how a society feeds itself. It is the ubiquity and everydayness of eating that makes understanding it historically so important.”3

My work is also shaped by the theoretical work of Fredrik Barth, Roland Barthes, Fernand Braudel, Pierre Bourdieu, Carole M. Counihan, Mary Douglas, Clifford Gertz, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Sidney Mintz---all of whom argue that food is invested with symbolic meaning. They suggest that each food-related activity---from a simple meal at home to the most elaborate public celebration---is an act of metaphoric communication. I draw upon this model to explore the symbolic meaning that is embedded in southern foodways.

UNC-Chapel Hill, Spring 2009, American Studies 375: Cooking Up A Storm: Exploring
Food and American Culture
UNC-Chapel Hill, Spring 2009,
American Studies 375: Cooking Up A Storm:
Exploring Food and American Culture.
Photograph by Marcie Cohen Ferris.

The study of food in the academy has grown dramatically in the past ten years. Yale University offers nineteen food and agriculture courses---up fifty percent from five years ago.4 Indiana University recently announced a new Ph.D. program in the anthropology of food---the first program of its kind in the world. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, faculty in American Studies, anthropology, comparative literature, English, environmental studies, folklore, geography, history, nutrition, sociology, and the honors program examine the cultural history and significance of food in their courses. In 2010, University of North Carolina faculty created a “Food Studies Cluster” which identifies core courses for students interested in studying food from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. A new Triangle University Food Studies organization was recently organized to bring together regional food studies faculty and graduate students at UNC-CH, Duke University, and North Carolina State University. Given the rapid growth of these academic programs on foodways around the nation, there is a pressing need for interdisciplinary foodways scholarship—especially core texts as I am proposing—that examine regional foodways through the lens of social history.

Materials and Work Plan

The concept for this book developed when I taught courses on food and American culture at the University of North Carolina and when I served as president of the Southern Foodways Alliance from 2006-2008. My earlier award-winning book, Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South (UNC Press, 2006, James Beard Nominee, 2006) examined Jewish history and culture in the American South. I have completed my research for “The Edible South” through work with archives at the Radcliffe Institute- Schlesinger Library and the Library of Congress, and with collections in Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina. I recently edited a special foodways issue for Southern Cultures (Winter 2009)---the quarterly journal published by UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. My introductory essay is an overview of the field of southern foodways and the basis for chapters one and two in “The Edible South.” I am currently co-editing a related work on the foodways of North Carolina, a collection of essays by scholars, food writers, and journalists who examine the state’s history and culture through its distinctive regional foodways.

Final Product and Dissemination

With support from UNC research awards since 2007, I have completed the research for “The Edible South.” A fellowship for 2011-2012 will provide a full-year of leave time from teaching, instead of one semester, to complete the manuscript for submission to the University of North Carolina Press, which recently granted me an advance contract for the book. “The Edible South” has crossover potential, as it will be useful in the undergraduate and graduate classroom, as well as an informative text for a general readership. In addition to the published book format, UNC Press has proposed creating a multimedia version of “The Edible South” for use in a variety of technological platforms.

1 Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, introduction to “The Texts of Southern Food,” special issue, The Southern Quarterly 30, Nos. 2–3 (Winter-Spring 1992): 12.
2Barbara Haber, “Follow the Food,” Through the Kitchen Window: Women Writers Explore the Intimate Meanings of Food and Cooking, Arlene Voski Avakian, ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997) 69.
3Gerard Fitzgerald and Gabriella Petrick, “In Good Taste: Rethinking American History with Our Palates,” Journal of American History (September 2008): 395.