Food serves as a useful lens for examining race, economics, gender and class in the South, from plantation days to the present.
In this authoritative social history, Ferris (American Studies/Univ. of North Carolina; Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, 2005) draws on a rich trove of material, including oral histories, journals, sketchbooks, letters and diaries, as well as cookbooks and published scholarship. In the 19th century, New England–born women, working in the South as governesses, described in detail new culinary experiences: breakfasts featuring several kinds of breads, succotash, hominy and ham; desserts of stewed cherries; peaches finely sliced and served with cream. In letters home, they became “ethnographers of a sort, documenting and critiquing southern society, manners, food, and institutions, including slavery.” One governess, seeing slaves eating their owners’ leftovers, admitted uncomfortably, “I haven’t learned yet how to give my leavings with a good grace.” After the Civil War, plantation owners, unable to farm without slaves, rented land to tenant farmers and sharecroppers, insisting, though, that they grow only cotton or tobacco, profitable cash crops. Forbidden to raise vegetables, the farmers and their families subsisted on a diet of cornmeal, salt pork, beans and molasses, which caused severe malnutrition. Federal relief programs, home economics classes in schools and the advent of industrial farming slowly revived agriculture. By the 1940s, fashioning itself as a tourist destination, the South looked back nostalgically to its “rich culinary heritage,” luring visitors with the attractions of “southern hospitality, culinary artistry, authenticity, and antiquity.” Food was also central to civil rights protests in the 1960s, with sit-ins often staged at restaurants and lunch counters. Ferris sees a true transformation today: Southern cooking, influenced by cosmopolitan chefs with strong ties to the region, revives the use of fresh, local produce from small-scale farms.
In this colorful and well-researched history, the author shows persuasively how food has shaped and nourished Southern identity.