The Edible South: A Review

If you care about the culinary history of America, then The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region by Marcie Ferris is a necessary addition to your library. The scope of this work, its scholarship and its pervasive voice of authority provide a much-needed center of gravity for the study of Southern foodways as well as a panoramic portrait of the society and culture of the South through the lens of an essential element: food.

The quality of Ferris’ scholarship is undeniable, but The Edible South can in no way be described as bridging a gap between academic and popular writing. It is a thoroughly academic work, insightful of course, but calling it approachable is a stretch as well. This is not a book you pick up lightly and not without a solid grounding in American history, otherwise you will soon find yourself awash in a sea of dates and names, events and entities. In her introduction (following four pages of acknowledgements) Ferris states that The Edible South is an examination of “visceral connections” involving the “realities of fulsomeness and deprivation” and the “resonance of history in food traditions”, and, borrowing Zora Neale Hurston’s reference to food as an eyepiece for the examination of history, an “evocative lens” into the various aspects of Southern culture and society. The text is peppered with phrases such as “culinary exceptionalism”, “cultural conversation”, “historical interaction”, “Jim Crow paternalism” and “racial balkanization”, thoroughly saturated with information (as well as footnotes) and for the most part unrelentingly didactic, an almost incessant record of racism and misogyny, poverty and oppression in one of the most fertile regions of the globe. The narrative is occasionally gruesome: the slaughter and cannibalization of a young pregnant bride at Jamestown; the torture of a slave by being suspended with a piece of pork fat over an open flame; and the rats, cats and dogs prepared for the table during the siege of Vicksburg in addition to constant accounts of hunger, malnutrition and want, evocative to be sure, but far more often of the darker aspects of the human condition.

Ferris is vigorous and precise, as befits a writer intending to inform if not to say instruct. While she professes a passion for food, this passion is rarely evident in her prose; instead, it shines forth in her scholarship, which as noted is astoundingly thorough. The key word here is information, and The Edible South is informative on almost every level, but this is a social history (as opposed to political or economic history), focusing on the experiences of everyday people, resulting in “a ‘History from the Bottom Up’ that ultimately engulfed traditional history and, somehow, helped to make a Better World” (Paul E. Johnson). The emphasis is on race relations, gender issues, inequality, education, work and leisure, mobility, social movements and the character and condition of the working class. This is to say that food is a raison for her larger agenda, which is an examination of the social history of the South itself. While Ferris says that her approach is not encyclopedic, the result is undeniably, mind-bogglingly comprehensive. The bibliography is exhaustive, beginning with three and a half pages of primary source materials from archival collections in fifteen cities spanning fourteen states (including Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio and the District of Columbia), followed by forty pages of secondary sources. Somewhat surprisingly, Ferris mentions Zora Neale Hurston only in connection with the reproduction of her folk tale “Diddy Wah Diddy” (1938) in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent work, The Food of a Younger Land (2010), disregarding her longer non-fiction works. I should hope to find some agreement by noting the glaring omission of Wilbur Cash’s The Mind of the South (1929). While not genre-defining—John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987) defined the genre—The Edible South is authoritative and comprehensive, an indispensable reference.

The academic institutionalization of Southern food is if nothing else thorough. Southern foodways studies have kept university presses rolling in recent years: Andrew Haley, an assistant professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi, was awarded the 2012 James Beard Award in the Reference and Scholarship category for Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920, another product of the University of North Carolina Press; this past October, the University of Georgia Press issued The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, edited by John T. Edge, Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt and Ted Ownby; and this August the University Press of Mississippi released Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways edited by David A. Davis and Tara Powell with a forward by Jessica B. Harris.

edible south photo 1Given the narrow scope of this field, overgrazing seems imminent; one could get the impression that this glut of scholarship is evidence that the academic maxim of “publish or perish” is still solidly in place. While these works are undoubtedly conceived for those who are deeply interested in the culinary history of our nation, the general popularity of such publications must be called into question. That being said, The Edible South has been included among the Southern Independent Booksellers Association’s 2014 Summer Okra Picks, along with Chris Chamberlain’s The Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig: A Culinary Tour of the South’s Best Restaurants & the Recipes That Made Them Famous, Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond with Elizabeth Lawrence (by Elizabeth Lawrence) and Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: The New Mitford Novel by Jan Karon.

After reading The Edible South, some are likely to be left with the bitter aftertaste of an eviscerated region in an age of information. The apartness of the South is what brought about its distinctive culture, but the old demonic genius loci of Dixie has been exorcised by a new orthodoxy embracing secular capitalization and academic hermeneutics, where icons are relics and texts are subjected to a democratized version of the Scholastic method. A bell jar has descended, but life goes on, people will be people, and while by academic standards Southern culture has become a global phenomenon, for better or worse it remains rooted south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where a pork chop is still more often than not just a pork chop.

Rock Cornish Racket

The follies of genius are unavoidable, unpredictable and if we’re lucky just quirky. Victor Borge was a genius. While my standards might be modest (I think Jim Henson was a genius too) enlightenment and entertainment are always qualifications, and in those Borge shined. During his heyday he performed the world over, but maintained a homestead in New England that produced Rock Cornish game hens. I suspect he was probably amused with a business that marketed miniature chickens; imagine him asking why the Rock Cornish game hen crossed the road with a nice little keyboard riff. At any rate, Nora Ephron (the Rona Barrett of food writing) remembers that “every Rock Cornish game hen in America used to come with a little tag with Victor Borge’s name on it.” At his insistence, no doubt.

I hate to disillusion you all, but despite its rugged name a Rock Cornish game hen is nothing more than a little chicken. Poultry is big business, and millions are spent on developing and maintaining the most productive, disease-resistant and appealing varieties. The best all-around industrial chickens are either big and fast-growing or smaller and long-laying. I suspect that at some point avian agronomists were frustrated to discover that pesky genetics prevented chickens from growing only so much so fast and from ovulating only so often; otherwise we’d have Rhode Island Reds the size of collies dropping half-gallon eggs all over Stone County. (The emus didn’t work out.)

With size as a limit, the chicken scientists bent under the thumbscrews of marketing by taking another tack: Tyson Foods developed the Rock Cornish game hen in the mid-60s by cross-breeding big, fast-growing but rather spindly Plymouth Rock cocks with smaller Cornish hens, which have short, thick legs and broad, muscular breasts. The resulting variety has a briefer growing span–ten days less to the slaughterhouse than the 40-day Rocks (birds grow fast; imagine if you had been chased out of the house when you had just learned how to run). Since they were developed for meat, their marketable egg-laying capabilities are inconsiderable (too bad, right?).

Tyson marketed the game hen as an upscale product targeting people willing to pay more for something different. And it worked. Calling it a “game hen” added to its cachet, since it suggests a mix with a pheasant, a quail, a partridge or some bird with similar snob appeal. Borge, who himself had a high-brow profile, was probably enrolled as a celebrity sponsor, though I still maintain that the eccentricity of the product itself was a great draw for him personally. Yet despite my affection for the Great Dane who bridged the gap between Oliver Hardy and Stravinsky, to me the most effective marketing strategy for game hens is that they’re wrapped up just like cute little teeny-tiny turkeys.

Having said all that, let me add that game hens should not be shunned on account of their corporate hatching; they’re good birds, if you know how to cook them. Buy the smallest ones you can, one to a person, thaw thoroughly, trim and clean. Rub inside and out with oil, a little salt and pepper and whatever other seasonings you like (garlic and sage are always good), then roast on a rack in a slow oven until the legs are loose. In the meantime, prepare wild rice and sauté a few trimmed chicken livers per person. Serve a hen on a nest  of wild rice, livers to the side, with baby limas, wilted greens and a bit of sour cream.