The Southern Activist
By Miriam Wolf
January 7, 2009
From grits and pulled pork to beignets and pecan pie, the Southern-food vernacular is as broadly diverse as the region itself. Directed by the American-food expert John T. Edge, the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) documents, celebrates, and explores this culinary diversity.
A member-supported organization affiliated with the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the SFA holds symposia, organizes field trips, maintains an oral-history project that documents the “stories behind the food,” and puts together the annual anthology Cornbread Nation.
Were you born and raised in the South?
Yes, in Clinton, Georgia, which is maybe an hour and a half south of Atlanta.
Do you have food memories from when you were a kid?
One of the strongest impressions I had as a boy was driving up and down Buford Highway in the northern suburbs of Atlanta with my father, as he — born in northern Florida, raised in central South Carolina — tried to figure out Chinese food: stopping in Chinese grocery stores, rooting through the freezer bins, picking up things like black chicken and various frozen noodles, and bringing them home to our small community and trying to make sense of it. .
My mother was a more conservative cook, but a far more outlandish personality. My mother was the cornbread-and-vegetable-soup kind of cook, the kind of cook that would harass the butcher for soup bones for a week until she finally got what she wanted. And she made great corn sticks. I still love corn sticks done with those cast-iron molds so that you’re pouring batter into the molds and you’re getting all this great surface texture, all this great crispness, along with the creaminess of the cornbread at the core. Both of those kinds of encounters with my parents kind of shaped my world food view.
Please talk a bit about the how the Southern regional-cuisine movement got started.
Southerners, because of our peculiar history and because of the great and vexing problem of enslavement, have had to explain themselves. As an adult, I’ve come to realize how much of my life I spend explaining myself, explaining my region and my region’s history, how we’re different from the rest of the country and yet in some ways more American than any other region of the country. And I think one of the ways we have explained ourselves is by way of what we cook, what we eat, what we grow.
I think it is the interplay of black and white that makes Southern food distinctive, the interplay of Western European and West African and Native American traditions. I think you can trace modern awareness of Southern culinary culture back to the late 1960s, when the Black Power movement took hold across the South and across the country as a whole. When soul music was in vogue and in turn soul food was in vogue, people came to see the foods of rural black Southerners as compelling.
And in the mid-1970s, Jimmy Carter comes on the scene. And all of a sudden America was obsessed with buck teeth and peanut butter and understanding the South by way of fried chicken. Then comes the Cajun craze and Paul Prudhomme in the 1980s. Then you see cooks like Frank Stitt, who had studied with Richard Olney and Alice Waters, opening the Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1982, fusing France and the American South. You’ve got Bill Neal, who also opened a restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in 1982; he was really the first person to study Southern food, to hole up in the library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and try to understand food not in a pragmatic way but in a scholarly way. Another figure who really rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s was Edna Lewis. She was the black female analogue to those white males, and she sang the gospel of local and farm-fresh.
Those figures I think in many ways were leaders in the local and regional food movement. But they were often seen as people who were working in some sort of Southern vernacular, as opposed to being part of the whole American regional food conversation.
How does the Southern Foodways Alliance work to bring the South’s diverse cultures together?
In our mission statement, we say that we “seek to set a common table where black and white, rich and poor, all who gather, they consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.” We think that food offers a way to bridge the chasms of race and class that have long separated us.
About four years back, we staged a symposium focusing on “Southern Food in Black and White.” It included everyone from a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who gave a talk on prison food during the civil-rights movement, to Diane McWhorter, who had won a Pulitzer the year before for her book Carry Me Home, about Birmingham in the civil-rights movement.
After Hurricane Katrina, we raised over $200,000 and managed over 300 volunteers to rebuild a fried-chicken restaurant in New Orleans. When we put out a call for volunteers, we sent out an email to our membership that said, “Here’s the deal: You have to get yourself to New Orleans. You have to bring masks for breathing, because we have no idea what the conditions are like. You need to stay in a hotel, because hotels need the revenue. And you are going to be a grunt worker. You’re going to be ripping out rotted plyboard. You’re going to be mucking out overflowed toilets.” Within two hours, we had a waiting list of people who wanted to go.
I don’t mean that to toot our horn; I mean that to be a reflection of the sort of person who has found us as an organization and whose belief in the redemptive possibilities of food fuels us now and carries us forward.
People are very passionate about the way that food can smooth over cultural differences.
We’re in a time now that food can also be a stratifying force, too. In many cases, the people who are doing a good job interpreting Southern food are upper-middle-class chefs serving an upper-middle-class clientele. We try to address that in a simple way in our programming. We put the barbecue pitmaster whose specialty is baloney smoked over hickory or oak on the same pedestal we put someone like Frank Stitt, because we value their life’s work.
This isn’t all about virtuous food culture. It’s about honoring people who have worked their lives standing over a deep-fat fryer cooking chicken or in a pit house of a barbecue restaurant, their faces clouded with smoke all day. We need to celebrate the lives of those people and not just the hipster farmer who has come new to food and is doing everything right.
Do you think that there are negative perceptions of Southern food?
I think it’s easy to dismiss Southern food as nothing but grease and grits. I happen to like both grease and grits, and if you called them lardo and polenta, no one would have a problem with it. I think some of it is marketing, how we frame Southern food, how we talk about Southern food.
But I think that you could make a strong argument that because the South was an agriculturally focused region for a longer period of its history than any other region of our country, the weaving back together of those tethers between farm and table is easier in the South and has greater possibilities in the South. We’re not starting something anew, we’re renewing something. That’s a message that’s not often broadcast.
Southerners themselves in some ways have a chip on their shoulders about their own culinary culture. They don’t oftentimes see value in a beautiful slab of cornbread shot through with cracklins, and I think that’s a reaction to the larger public’s perception of Southern food and of Southerners in general.
But the message has gotten through over time that the South is the birthplace of many of our great indigenous art forms — blues, bluegrass, jazz. There will come a time when we come to recognize that the South is also the cradle of some of our great folk foods, too.
Can you compare and contrast the Southern Foodways Alliance with the Slow Food movement?
We were just talking about this in our staff meeting yesterday. We were all quick to say we don’t see ourselves in competition with Slow Food; we see ourselves as a complement to Slow Food. I’m a card-carrying member of Slow Food myself. I believe in what the organization does.
If you wanted to draw a difference between the two — and this is crass and probably unfair to Slow Food — I think one of the ways of talking about it is if Slow Food is committed to biodiversity in natural resources, we’re committed to human diversity and human resources. We’re saying food is a product of people in culture. And that is what compels us.
There’s great work by Slow Food down in south Mississippi on Pineywoods cattle and cracker cattle in Florida. That’s not what drives us. We would be more likely to do an oral-history project that documented the cattlemen who worked those lands.
Do you think that bringing a more academic focus to food can help us get better food?
Yeah, if bringing an academic focus frames our food culture and helps us realize that this is not purely hedonistic. That our concerns about food are not merely where’s the next great feed coming from, but they’re economic and they affect and reflect social beliefs and religious beliefs. It’s serious-minded stuff.
Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications, and is the former managing editor of Bitch magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
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