While this project’s foundation is in book culture and history, given the books we worked with, this project also roots itself in foodways: the intersections where food meets culture, tradition, and history. Foodways explore the how and why of foods and practices concerning food, which is integral to being able to make the connections that we are currently exploring. One of the most instrumental texts in shaping this project is Foodways , a collection of essays edited by John T. Edge, which explores the history that led to grease being in every dish (because hogs have always been easy to raise), why cornbread is so abundant (corn is one of the earliest and easiest crops to work with), and the paint stripper that is moonshine (this is what happens when you don’t let people drink normal alcohol).
In many ways, this book is the Holy Grail for this project. The conversations collected are exactly the types of conversations we have been having with ourselves and others. Even in just the general introduction, the books makes it clear what its purpose is: to paint a better picture of the powerful historical and mythical presence that is the American South and how that presence is greatly informed by history and the food that changed with it. Below we would like to outline some of the essays we found particularly informative and interesting.
Southern Foodways, Joe Gray Taylor & John T. Edge: This essay lays the essential groundwork for talking about foodways and recognizing how the movement of people and societal changes impact the food eaten. The invention of refrigerators for example, is an event that greatly changed the kitchen in an area where pickling, drying, and canning were the primary methods of keeping food from spoiling. Taylor and Edge also talk about the primary Southern foods, like sweet potatoes, and the importance of recognizing where the stereotypes come from and how modern Southern food has evolved.
Appalachian Foodways, Fred W. Sauceman: We were very excited to find this essay as rather than generalizing the South, it focuses specifically on the Appalachian region. The addition of the mountains into the picture changes a lot. Sauceman asserts that mountain cooking “grew out of hard times” which is something we hadn’t necessarily thought about, but it’s true (Sauceman, 20). It also speaks to the unspoken tradition of no matter how many people you feed, you cook enough for an army and then apologize for not having enough food. In an area where hunting/gathering/growing enough food used to be one of the primary problems, it is understandable that a sense of family, community, and needing to over-provide would originate from food. Nods are also made to both how the Cherokee influenced the food here, and how, while an Appalachian spread will be wide and varied, the cooks generally “see no reason to embellish nature’s creations” (Sauceman, 21). Unless of course, you’re adding hog fat. Furthermore, Sauceman discusses the importance of preserving what came off the farm while throwing out mountain jargon like “leather britches” (string beans cooked a certain way). It is a wonderful little introduction to the foundations of mountain food.
Cookbooks, Beth Tartan: This essay details how cookbooks became popular in the South and how food and how “the ritual of setting a good table has been a veritable religion” (Tartan, 41). In the age of the Civil War and the Antebellum South, with houses so far apart, a well-set table and luxurious spread of food was a key part of the entertainment. Additionally, any time food is scarce, it becomes more important. However, cookbooks were not always a part of Southern culture. A sign of a good cook was that all of her recipes existed in her head and the few written recipes were very simple instructions merely meant to jog the memory. The history of cookbooks in the South starts with The Compleat Housewife; or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith, the first cookbook to be published in the colonies in 1742 (although the true first edition was published in 1727 in London). By 1824 the most popular cookbook was The Virginia House-wife written by Mary Randolph, and Tartan asserts that even this early cookbook “reflected a knowledge of regional produce, cooking practices, and overall social context” (41). Tartan goes on to list and briefly describe the most influential and popular traditional southern cookbooks, but perhaps the most important part about her essay is her complete understanding of the important of continuing to work with these books in the 21st century: “Southern cookbooks reinforce a regional appreciation for tradition and encourage southerners to continue to enjoy the old favorites” (Tartan, 44).
Cookbooks, Community, Anne L. Bower: While only two pages long, Bower’s essay describes two very important characteristics of these community cookbooks. Community cookbooks are, she notes, almost always a way to raise money for some cause (a practice that evolved during the Civil War). At the same time, these cookbooks are more than just collections of recipes: they are representations of Southern society and culture, from the way the recipes are arranged to the emphasis placed on the need for the woman to be a gracious hostess in the ritual of serving food. The surface level purpose of these books is to act as a fundraiser while the secondary purpose consists of promoting local recipes, ethnic traditions, and emphasizing southernness. Finally, Bowed also notes that more recent community cookbooks reflect a more open minded culture as they promote equal social values and ethnic pride in addition to retaining an emphasis on regional history and traditional culture.
Religion and Food, Corrie E. Norman: In “Religion and Food” Norman explores the connections between food, community, and the church. From church “dinners on the grounds” to Sunday dinners at Grandma’s to Friday night fish fries, there is a definite flow between the church and family/friends. The practice of going to church is in itself a binding act that creates a stronger, more interconnected community which the practice of eating food afterwards solidifies, especially as special events often warrant “special” foods not made during the regular week. Norman examines these connections in greater detail while also making note of the importance of church community based cookbooks. Yes, the cookbooks are fundraisers, but they are also “important sources for charting preservation, innovation, and devolution in southern food ways as well as women’s history” (Norman, 98). Furthermore, he explores how gatherings based around socialization and food can be excellent ways to introduce and integrate people of different cultures into the community, whether through new dishes at the potluck or food festivals. This essay is one crucial to the formulation of our research connecting these cookbooks to the community and exploring how food and people intertwine.
Note: There are many other essays in this book that were informative and fascinating. The essays are divided half and half between focusing on the historical context of the foodways and explaining the history and use of traditional Southern food. The essays selected above were the ones we felt most pertinent to our research. We highly recommend reading through this entire book at some point, as the information about the food and its history is fascinating.
Bower, Anne L. “Cookbooks, Community.” In Foodways, edited by John T. Edge, 95-100. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Norman, Carrie E. “Religion and Food.” In Foodways, edited by John T. Edge, 95-100. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Sauceman, Fred. “Appalachian Foodways.” In Foodways, edited by John T. Edge, 95-100. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Tartan, Beth. “Cookbooks.” In Foodways, edited by John T. Edge, 95-100. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Taylor, Joe Gray, and John T. Edge. “Southern Foodways.” In Foodways, edited by John T. Edge, 95-100. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.