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.

CS’s: A Neighborhood Tradition

CS’s Restaurant at 1359 ½ N. West Street has for years served and influenced the Belhaven and Midtown neighborhoods. It has a narrative and history reminiscent of an earlier and more tranquil Jackson, and like the kites flown at old Riverside Park, thereby hangs a tale. The life of this establishment has been the common denominator of being located on the southwest corner of North West and Adelle Streets with a street number varying from 1357-1361. It has been an eatery in one form or another for 77 years. It remembers when streetcars ran up and down West Street and the country was still in the grasp of the Great Depression. Millsaps boys would sometimes grease the car tracks so that the vehicle could not climb a nearby hill. Boys have always been boys.

The property shared tenancy with the Millsaps College chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity in 1937.The site was originally the home of this fraternity and was a residence for several families prior to that dating back to 1930. It was originally (and later) the College Grill, becoming Adelle Grill in 1939. It retained this name until 1959, when it again became the College Grill under new ownership. In 1969, it became Hollingsworth’s Fine Foods under the proprietorship of Lloyd W. Hollingsworth and remained such until 1976 when it became known as Everybody’s Restaurant. How it became CS’s remains a state secret.

Pat Boland, the current owner, bought Everybody’s in 1978. In visits with Pat, he spoke of how he used to eat at the restaurant while still in high school. One of eight children, he remembers how much his parents enjoyed dining at the old Rotisserie at Five Points, and “I wanted to be in the restaurant business even then. When Everybody’s became vacant I bought it. I wanted to do something new and different both with the menu and the atmosphere.” He started with naming menu items for employees and customers. Many associate the menu with the Inez Burger. Inez Birchfield came to work at CS’s in 1979, left temporarily in 1990 and returned in September 1997. The original Inez Burger was “stolen from the Jackson Municipal Airport”, where Pat once worked and put on CS’s menu in 1980. It consists of homemade chili, nacho cheese and Jalapeno peppers. Other “name” burgers include the Suzy (bacon, Swiss cheese & grilled onions) and the Joe B (bacon, mozzarella and Jalapenos). Mexican, Mushroom and Everyday burgers, which come in different sizes, round out the burger menu and of course, ‘you can have fries with that.’ Plate lunches and entrees are also available.

In 1986, the beer laws changed from 18 to 21 years old and CS’s became more of a true restaurant than a hangout. The atmosphere is unique. Gone are the college motifs, the booths, fraternity crests and at times – but not all the time, the jukebox. Today the front door and walls are adorned with bumper stickers, handbills, photos, posters and pennants spanning nearly half a century. An estimated 3,000 beer cans from the same time period cover wall shelves with some from as far away as Australia. The collections were the brain child of Pat and two partners who thought their walls should “say something.”

I have my own memories of the restaurant from when I was a teenager in old Jackson and the establishment was called the Adelle Grill. Regardless of the name or time this little cafe was a Mecca for Millsaps students who in the 1950’s shared Cokes, shakes and dreams in individual booths. There were several tables in the back for “fine dining.” There was the ubiquitous jukebox playing records by Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck and the Four Freshmen (no rock’n roll or Hank in this culturally refined milieu), and that staple of the 50’s – the pinball machine in the corner near the front door. Should a member of the college crowd have occasioned a glance in that direction, he or she would have seen the adolescent Billy Harvey easing a ball toward the “special” hole where free games awaited. His bike on the sidewalk outside and his heart on the game, Billy wished desperately to grow up a little more so he could be a college man and sit in one of those curtained booths with a girl who looked like glory. Bert Case and his family lived directly across Adelle Street in a two-story brick home attached to Case’s Canteen, one of Jackson’s many “ma and pa” groceries and incidentally, near the site of the city’s very first Jitney Jungle store (at the corner of Adelle and Grayson – now North Lamar), back in 1912.

The prices, fashions, trends and dreams have indeed changed over the years – but we can still ‘have fries with that’ and enjoy our lunch among the memorabilia that forms the texture of our past. Bert moved on to prominence at WLBT-TV and subsequently WAPT; his old home now a parking lot. Hollingsworth’s is now CS’s where the burgers are bigger. The shakes, booths, jukebox and pinball machine are gone as is Billy’s bike and the years he rode it. The “glory” girls are grandmothers now and the music is – to put it positively – “different”. But CS’s has a history and Inez was not the first famous inventor of a good burger to add to Saturday afternoon memories of our youth.

Adelle Grill > College Grille > Hollingsworth’s > CS’s. I’ll drink to them all!

Bill Harvey
September 2014

Bill Harvey is a native Jacksonian, living most of his life in Belhaven. An MSU Bulldog, he has had careers in journalism, education and as development director of the Andrew Jackson Council, Boy Scouts of America. Bill enjoys photography, music, writing articles for neighborhood sources and sharing experiences with friends at a local coffee shop. (Text copyright Bill Harvey, used by permission.)

Hoover Lee Chicken

Hoover Lee is a grocer in the tiny hamlet of Louise, Mississippi, on the southeastern edge of the Mississippi Delta. Mr. Lee makes a sauce for marinades and barbecue that he describes as one formulated to replicate roasted Cantonese duck. The sauce has a heavy soy background accented by ingredients known to him alone. These chicken leg quarters were marinated overnight and roasted in a slow oven for two hours. The skin is crisp and the flesh is succulent, proof that his sauce recreates the character if not quite the flavor of roast duck. A recommended marinade for any fowl.