Review: The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South

The larderIn his concluding remarks to The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, Ted Ownby hopes it “likely that this book will be one of the last collections of academic essays in which any scholars feel the need to explain or defend their choice of foodways as a topic” (363). Ownby and co-editors John T. Edge and Elizabeth Engelhardt have done as much as they can to realize this aspiration; their collection of essays is timely and scholarly rigorous. By assembling a group of scholars who concentrate “not on food but on foodways”—which comprise the production, preparation, or consumption of food—the editors have delved into questions about food studies and southern studies that bridge boundaries between different disciplines and historical time periods (364).

In five sections—one on “cookbooks and ingredients,” a second on communities, a third on “spaces and technologies,” a fourth on material cultures, and a final section contemplating authenticity—contributors take on a number of methods, places, and eras. Employing ideas from American Studies, English, History, Sociology, and Southern Studies, authors tackle the seventeenth centuries thru to the present, from Barbados to the Chesapeake, Lowcountry, New Orleans, and Texas. On the earlier side of things, Jessica B. Harris studies the hucksters of African descent who “dominated street vending until a new wave of European immigrants made inroads in the mid-nineteenth century” (336). Marcie Cohen Ferris asks how scholars can use material culture to complement more conventional, written sources used to pen the history of the enslaved. Chronicling the failure to produce olive oil in the late-eighteenth century, David Shields turns to a once-forgotten slave staple: sesame seed (also known as benne) oil.

Focusing on later time periods, Rebecca Sharpless describes the emergence of community cookbooks in post-Civil War Waco, Texas. Rien T. Fertel shows how in nearby Louisiana, multiple publications of The Picayune Creole Cookbook allowed people to re-imagine connections between food, race, and gender. Justin A. Nystrom explains how, for Sicilians in New Orleans, food “served as the vehicle by which” immigrants “achieved what they perceived as the American dream” (130). In exploring the mechanization of farming, Wiley C. Prewitt Jr. looks into the practice of wild game hunting. Carolyn de la Peña points to the later technological innovations of Krispy Kreme as an example of successful industrialization in the post-Reconstruction South. Angela Jill Cooley details the appearance of public eating spaces at the turn of the twentieth century and concomitant concerns about customers mingling with different races, sexes, and classes. And in investigating the segregated military of World War II, Psyche Williams-Forson’s analysis of photographs of black male cooks tracks their confrontations with the complicated idea of culinary patriotism.

From a contemporary perspective, Tom Hanchett follows the rise of “salad bowl suburbs” in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, where restaurants serving different types of ethnic food represent the end of segregation (166). Katie Rawson, on the other hand, questions similar narratives of inclusivity as they pertain to Waffle House employment practices. Drawing a line from past to present, Rayna Green talks about the Hopis and Pueblos who grow corn and beans, the Ojibwas who grow wild rice, and the Northwest Coastal peoples who fish for salmon today. Beth A. Latshaw investigates the distinctions between Southern and soul food, and why they matter. Finally, Andrew Warnes contemplates food studies scholars’ uses of terms like “invention” and “authenticity.”

These essays are as engagingly written as they are broad. Readers will enjoy Nystrom’s narrative of the time when Bartolomeo Perrone, according to oral history testimony from his grandson, defended his grocery store against a knife-brandishing robber by picking up a rock-hard piece of stock fish and threatening to beat him over the head with it (134). Others will cringe to learn about early Americans’ search to find a “more suitable” salad dressing “than melted lard,” or a “French Dressing for Guacamole” dip that included “Roquefort or bleu cheese” (57, 42). It is easy to visualize customers in the parking lots of Krispy Kreme, waiting “deliberately for the production machines to run before entering the store” so that they could procure hot doughnuts (203). Historians can reflect on the motivations of Texas women who, in their community cookbook collection, trumpeted their “access to the inside of the kitchen at Buckingham Palace” with their inclusion of a date cake “attributed to Queen Elizabeth II,” and the brown bread recipe “from the sitting first lady of the United States, Frances Folsom Cleveland” (38). After putting the book down, I’m still thinking about the black WWII cooks who, when asked to leave quietly through the back door so that a group of white guests would remain ignorant of their kitchen work, exited through the front door to the “BOOM, BUBBA BOOM, BUBBA BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!” of the kettledrums they defiantly played (324).

These essays do more than merely entertain; they challenge and encourage deep thinking about food. Early Americanists will be grateful that these pieces complement new work in food history, hopefully heralding longer contributions in the form of forthcoming books.[1] Shields’s work is helpful for its acknowledgement of slaves’ contributions to Southerners’ use of benne oil, having brought it with them during forced migrations; indeed, the word “benne” comes from the West African Mende (63). Prewitt’s essay argues that marketing activities allowed enslaved men and women to assert “a measure of independence and resistance through an activity masters had meant for their own benefit” (81). Harris contributes to this narrative by explaining that although Barbados planters made huckstering “punishable by law” by 1708, planters eventually “had to acknowledge the necessity of slave commerce and accept slave vending as legal” (335-36).

As the work by early Americanists in this volume indicates, this collection offers new ways to think about food and race by highlighting instances of resistance, exclusion, and control. Williams-Forson calls these forms of resistance “oppositional food practices,” which include “forestalling and huckstering,” crushing dishes, burning food, and refusing to cook (323). Other contributors such as Sharpless hone in on the fact that when white cookbook compilers included recipes from African American domestic workers, they rarely identified those authors “by anything but first name, mirroring daily face-to-face practice in the Jim Crow South” (46-47). Still others track the codified ways in which people used foodways as a means of social and political control: Prewitt, for example, describes how, in the period after emancipation, “restrictive game laws that would in effect disarm lower-class hunters were increasingly aimed at blacks” (81). These laws betrayed white fears about African Americans owning guns—but they also circumscribed blacks’ abilities to feed themselves during a time when access to land was also increasingly curtailed. Yet the story of food and race is not entirely depressing. Green notes that even though Virginia’s political events continue to “exclude Indians (and women)”, as of 2005 Pamunkeys and Mattaponi “could again hunt deer and fish for shad off their state reservations and collect oysters from the bay without a state license” (160). Hanchett, too, finds it “remarkable” that “in the American South, known for so long as a hotbed of racial segregation,” the integration of restaurants within neighborhoods foreshadows a transforming geography (179).

Edge, Engelhardt, and Ownby have also encouraged the writers in The Larder to think about method. The section on cookbooks suggests that food studies scholars have by now agreed that analyses of cookbooks necessitate a firmer hand to keep from getting “stuck in the mire” (7). Sharpless presents a model: “First, I note the table of contents, if there is one, recording the major sections. Next I examine front matter—forewords, prefaces, et cetera—for any information about the project’s creation or the attitudes of the editors. Then I proceed to recipes” (35). Other contributors provide implicit instructions for dealing with problems of sparse or absent sources. Readers can draw parallels, for example, between the Native Americans that Green describes, the enslaved in Ferris’s piece, and the Sicilians in Nystrom’s essay, whose poverty, “along with marginal literacy rates, means that few traditional archival sources are available” (132). Lastly, Andrew Warnes, in critiquing those who treat “authenticity and invention as mutually exclusive and almost as opposites,” worries that people are “drawing up battle lines before discussions can be had” (346). He warns that rather than ignore burgeoning critiques of authenticity, food studies scholars who use unconventional sources to say what Southern food means must engage with naysayers in order to defend “the ethical and intellectual imperatives” of the community (350). By examining kettles, pots, and photographs in efforts to draw on methods of material culture, and using oral history where written records grow thin, these scholars have done much more than fill in missing gaps; they have provided a roadmap for future work on food.

If I were to offer one critique, it would be that although these essays walk an admirable line between foodways-as-a-human-bond and foodways-as-a-breaking-point, they do not go far enough in their considerations of physical violence. In their consideration of how one group of people used food to regulate or otherwise control the actions of a different group of people, these authors stick mainly to cultural or legal means of domination. This tendency is perhaps best exemplified by the Southern Foodways Alliance’s unofficial motto that encourages people to “make cornbread, not war.” Now, I love cornbread as much as the next person, but the historical record contains myriad instances of stolen food stores, maimed domesticated animals, and scorched earth campaigns.

Writers need not focus solely on these concerns, but the good work scholars have done on food’s ability to divide people would gain still more legitimacy by tracing food-related violence to its logical conclusion. Still, this criticism is a minor sticking point that does not detract from The Larder’s importance. In short, this is a collection that requires neither a defense nor a champion; the editors and contributors have made their own case with admirable persuasion.


[1] Without claiming to offer an exhaustive list, recent works within the last decade or so include Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Robert Appelbaum, Aguecheeks Beef, Belchs Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food among the Early Moderns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006); Anne L. Bower, ed., African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Trudy Eden, The Early American Table: Food and Society in the New World (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008); Gerard J. Fitzgerald and Gabriella Petrick, “In Good Taste: Rethinking American History with Our Palates,” Journal of American History, 95 (2008): 392–404; Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008); Frederick Douglass Opie, Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Andrew Warnes, Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food (Athens: The University of George Press, 2008); David Hancock, Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); Ty M. Reese, “‘Eating’ Luxury: Fante Middlemen, British Goods, and Changing Dependencies on the Gold Coast, 1750-1821,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, 66, no. 4 (October 2009): 851-72; Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011); Andrew F. Smith, Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011); Deborah Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); Michael A. LaCombe, Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: NYU Press, 2012); Michael A. LaCombe, “Subject or Signifier?: Food and the History of Early North America,” History Compass,11, no. 10 (2013): 859-68.

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