A Mess of Greens: The Story Behind Southern Cuisine

Combining food and gender studies, UT professor Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt’s new book,  A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food, lies at the intersection of two of history’s often overlooked—but fruitful—genres.

Examining the ways in which Jim Crow-era policies shaped Southern choices about food, Engelhardt’s book uses perspectives from historical, literary, environmental, and American studies to show how different races and classes came together during Reconstruction (sometimes as servants and mistresses, but also often simply around a kitchen table) to shape Southern cuisine.

Southern foodways are often portrayed as stable, timeless sources of nostalgia—as revered for their culinary excellence as the static traditions they are meant to represent.

But as Engelhardt shows in a text that takes into account industrialization, environmental degradation, and women’s increased role in the work force, Southern food (and notions of what constitutes proper Southern food) is remarkably dynamic.

The book focuses on five different moments in the history of Southern cuisine, starting with moonshine—not the drink itself, but rather the narrative surrounding it and the Prohibition era in American society. Anxiety over moonshine reflected a national worry over the increasing sexual, financial, and personal liberation of women.

After the moonshine era, Engelhardt moves on to the reform movement revolving around cornbread, which was seen as a coarse holdover to be replaced by beaten biscuits (which represented modernity and refinement). Following that is a discussion of the tomato canning clubs of the 1910s, which represented yet another campaign to empower young girls and promote self-sufficiency.

The next topic in the book is the South’s persistent struggle with pellagra, a disease of malnutrition that afflicted mostly poor factory workers, which proved a lack of proper food can also shape a cuisine.

The fifth and final historical moment examined by Engelhardt is the phenomenon of curbside markets and cookbooks. Both represented a forum for women to discuss social issues, in addition to providing a vehicle for the transmission of culinary knowledge.

As Engelhardt demonstrates, as frozen and unchanging as the canon of what constitutes proper Southern food may seem today, it wasn’t always this way. By parsing out the industrial, environmental, and social causes of how it came to be how it is, we can learn a lot about about what it meant to be a Southern woman—and a cook—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Photo by Marsha Miller.


Tags: , , , ,


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment