Foodways: A Review

After the publication of the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, C. Vann Woodward suggested that the work deserved expansion. This affirmed what the editors knew already, that their initial effort, an 8-pound tome published in 1989, merely scratched the surface of the many-layered, multi-faceted South.

The first volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, focusing on religion, hit the shelves 17 years later, quickly followed by others scrutinizing topics  such as the environment, ethnicity and history. This, the seventh volume, issued in August 2007, sets forth a cornucopia of lore and learning about a subject very close to the Southern heart: Food. In the general introduction to “Foodways” the editors state emphatically that this work is not an apologist tract for any perceived decline in Southern foodstuffs. “Instead, the entries that follow constitute an attempt to transcend the quips and stereotypes, to document and showcase southern foodstuffs and cookery . . . in all their diversity.” A subsequent essay, “Southern Foodways,” by Joe Gray Taylor and John T. Edge, sets the table. The authors take a predictable but informative tour of the region’s culinary history, emphasizing the key roles of corn, pork and the “great triumvirate of southern vegetables”: turnips, cowpeas and sweet potatoes. They document the impact of cheap flour on the South during the late 19th century, which made “wheat flour biscuits as common as cornbread,” and maintain that food patterns formed on the southern frontier “persisted . . . until after World War II in many small towns and rural areas.” They also note that the most basic change in southern foodways since the mid-20th century has been the explosive growth in “eating out” and the rise of “so-called fast foods,” a trend some might decry as an abasement of the cuisine, but the authors point out that “chicken and catfish . . . have been a part of the southern diet for over 200 years. Furthermore, they are still fried!”

Well of course they are. What follows this essay, the 148 encyclopedia entries proper, makes for a feast of information and diversion. Each entry comes supplied with a bibliography, the names of the contributors and their locations. Globalization has clearly set in: You have a guy in Spain writing about catfish and hot peppers, the “Civil War” entry is from Brooklyn and the ground zero on “Greens” is from (southern) California. Then you have Wiley C. Prewitt, Jr., a damn good writer from Lodi, Mississippi, who declares, “While folks in other regions of the country may have equated the consumption of wildlife with unsuccessful farmers and shiftless backwoods folks, southerners have generally exalted the hunting, cooking, and eating of game.” Here Prewitt echoes a defensive theme first expressed in the opening paragraph of the introductory essay: “southerners have borne chips on their shoulders about all manner of our cultural creations,” a statement that might have bearing on the encyclopedia itself, its perceived purpose, and its audience. If for Southerners, then why, and if for others, then who? Well, for whoever wants to know, and for whatever reason, of course. That’s why encyclopedias exist, and the South deserves a great one, no apology needed.

It’s poignant that we need a primer of sorts for the likes of grits, Goo-Goo Clusters and Justin Wilson, but “Foodways” is much more than a textbook. The scholars, writers and occasional epicures who did the legwork on this volume deserve to put their feet up under any groaning board between Austin and Annapolis. The niggling geek in me wants a full bibliography at the end of the volume in addition to the citations below individual entries (we’ll assume a full bibliography for the entire publication is in the far future offing), but that’s nit-picking. On an even more personal note, I’m so, so glad that Ernie Mickler made the cut. He’d be so proud. The thought and care that went into this volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture makes it a court of authority on southern foodways, pit, spit, whole hog and hominy, a fun, lucid and occasionally eloquent record of our table.

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