Sam Burnham, Curator
It is impossible to discuss the current state of Southern food without this book coming into the conversation. John T. Edge has given the world a volume that pulls back the curtain and reveals the ubiquitous nature of food in Southern culture. In the South, food is far more than sustenance. Certainly the intake of nutritional requirements is necessary for survival. But in the South, food is more. It is part of the social fabric. It is a method of rallying movements to a cause. Our food is one of the most significant things that separates us from the rest of the nation.
Edge did some impressive research for this tome. He also covered a wide range of people and crisscrossed the South documenting different places and instances where, in their time, the South revolved around food.
The key word in the subtitle is "Modern." Edge is discussing how Southern food has evolved in the 20th and early 21st centuries. He doesn't get into deep details of the French, Spanish, and, most importantly, African influences that came together in 18th century New Orleans to grant the world the blessings of Creole cuisine. You have to come into this book with a little knowledge of that history and start where he starts in this book.
He starts with the Civil Rights Movement. I was fairly knowledgeable about Paschal's, the Atlanta restaurant that was so important to the work done by MLK and his team. But Edge bypassed this Atlanta landmark completely and went straight to the Montgomery bus boycotts, right to the beginning. He dropped us right in Georgia Gilmore's kitchen to see how that movement was fueled. The reader can feel the heat radiating off the stove, smell the ingredients simmering in pots, hear the clanging of spoons and pans, and here the voices of conversation as plans were made.
There are stories from segregated restaurants and lunch counters and the struggle to integrate them. We see the indignity suffered by the protesters, the violence and the way white society fought back. We see black workers in white restaurants who were overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. We see many of these workers try to strike out on their own with varying degrees of success and resistance.
Edge moves on to show Hippie communes, the impact of Southern cuisine on American fast food and fast casual restaurants, and how Southern food has become a national craze.
One of my favorite parts of the entire book was the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, who organized farming co-ops for black farmers. Her work had the potential to build agricultural communities for blacks in the South. By owning the land they were working, they had a chance at independence, a chance to make their own future out from under the foot of discrimination. It may have been a movement ahead of its time. It's just one of several stories that leave the reader frustrated about the past but that also left me with some hope for the future.
Throughout the book you see the influence race played in food. Food is like anything else in the South. You can't have a real conversation about it without at least considering race because race is a topic that touches every area of Southern life. But that isn't all bad. Through the book you see blacks get their due for their role in Southern food. From methods, to ingredients, to labor the African influence is highlighted. Without that influence there is no Southern cuisine, no Southern culture.
My one disappointment with the book is that Edge shows us the African influences and he shows us the bourgeois Old South way that white restaurants often portrayed the food in their restaurants and clubs. So we see the rich whites and the poor blacks but the one group that seems to have been overlooked was the poorer whites. I would have liked to see more about the influence that Hillbillies of Appalachia, the Crackers of South Georgia and Florida, as well as other poor whites across the South who eked out a survival on vernacular ingredients and methods. It leaves me curious about the influence of people who lived on farms on steep ridges, in snug valleys, or near marshy wetlands far from large plantations where they rarely, if ever, came in contact with slaves or slaveholders.
Had I read this book earlier, I probably would have enjoyed it more. I think the acclaim that it has gotten over the past year may have inflated my expectations. That is not to say that this is not an important work or that it is not recommended for anyone who wants to understand Southern food. It is a must read and makes an excellent introduction to the work that Edge is doing with the Southern Foodways Alliance. and my few reservations are in no way a condemnation of the book. I expected more but I received plenty.
Sam Burnham, Curator
I wasn't going to write about Time Magazine's 'The South Issue.' I wasn't even going to read it. But I was listening to a podcast where fellow Southerners were discussing it and it gave me a certain curiosity. Maybe this one was different. Maybe the South would get a fair deal from a major media outlet like Time, who has only paid attention to us previously when Jimmy Carter was elected and when William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature.
So I went to the local library and skimmed through it to make sure it wasn't a complete waste of money. I found enough of interest that I stopped by a store on the way home and got a copy. Here is what I found:
They give a lot of attention, including the cover, to a de facto campaign campaign ad for Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams. They have a few tales of woe in which people claim to love a land that hates them when it is more likely that they just hate a land that treats them much like it does everyone. There's a section on "change agents," almost entirely dedicated to people who are doing things to make the South more like the rest of the nation, trying to make it something, anything other than Southern, all while claiming to be Southerners. It's mostly, with a few exceptions, a list of liberal progressives and their goals.
But, to their credit, Time did not stop there.
Early in the section you'll find the poem Duty by former Mississippi Poet Laureate and two-time US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. It is a short work, easily read in a minute or two. But I spent longer with it. There is a lot in it. And the longer I looked, the more I saw.
David Joy's Deer Season isn't really about deer or even hunting. It is about people, relationships, loving and learning from friends around the fire and the progression of time and dreading the day the fire goes out for the last time. It is about losing friends and mentors, a circle of life that may be nearing it's last go round. This is a beautiful essay that is representative of so much going on the the South today. As older generations pass on, what do they leave with us? What dies with them?
National Review's David French presents an excellent essay on how the Democratic Party continues to completely miss the point of the South. I think he has a pretty good grasp on modern Southern politics. Maybe we can help him work on his drawl a little. As a lifetime Southerner, he should.
Southern expat Stephanie Powell Watts seems to have tried hard to write n essay that I wouldn't like. But after finishing and taking a moment to think about Race Day, I really appreciated it. It speaks to the power of nostalgia and the memories of youth, of enduring relationships and memories. I think it also should make us wonder if we've lost more than a racing facility in North Wilkesboro. The South lost a lot when that track, and others, were closed in favor of fancier facilities with more amenities. There's a larger story there.
I'll just say it. The Mississippi episode of Parts Unknown left me with a bit of a crush on Julia Reed. I don't think it is any more dangerous than the same thing happening when Miss Georgia catches the gaze of a nerdy middle school boy (that happened to me once as well), so think what you will. Beautiful, brilliant, a gifted writer, a sassy Delta woman, Reed's Never Meet a Stranger built on that. It also built on the tugging desire I have to revisit the Delta, taste the food, see the sights, talk to the people. The essay is amazing, the Delta is amazing, she's amazing.
I was so glad to see some real Florida as well. Lauren Groff was included with an essay showcasing the Florida I grew up with. I was like a slice of my grandparent's farm. Such a nice respite from the condos and hotels.
In all, Time did okay. The good is good enough to outweigh the bad. There is a lot of the takes you'd expect from a publication in New York covering the South but there is also some good in there as well. If you can still get your hands on a copy, I'd say it is worth the price.
Sam Burnham, Curator
This is the second part of a two part segment on J.D. Vance's bestseller "Hillbilly Elegy." The first part was a review of the book. This part will explore the subject of the book - the plight of rural people and the white working class.
I mentioned in the book review that I both loved and hated this book. My feelings about the book are coequal partners. They support each other, rely on each other. It is a really weird feeling. I think it is because there are stories in his narrative that I could edit a few names and places and easily see the exact same stories in family members, neighbors, friends, and locations that I grew up around. My personal story was far more happy and "normal" than his and I don't want to appear to be riding his coattails here. My parents have been married since 1973, didn't abuse drugs or us, nothing like that, so my story is personally different. But I've seen enough in this world that I understand exactly what he’s saying.
Vance's story is attached to the Appalachian people of Kentucky who were lured to rust belt towns by promising careers in metal factories in Ohio. Mine is much more attached to the Crackers of (mostly) Georgia and (also) Florida where the major industry was textiles or other agriculture dependent industries. This is an excellent opportunity to mention that rural culture is not monolithic and while many similarities exist in the different regions, there are also regional differences. It is also true that people are individuals and a member of a culture may not reflect the traits common to that culture.
One of the most important similarities, that I think got somewhat lost in Vance's story, or at least his critics’ perception of it, is that the rural cultures exist today because people set out to be self-sufficient.
People in West Virginia and Kentucky had pushed west from the coastal states in search of land, opportunity, and anonymity. Theirs are the stories of the moonshiners, the bootleggers, the rough cut highlanders who gave us the Hatfields and McCoys.
Further south, the Crackers settled the former lands ot the Cherokee, the Creek, and the Seminole. They corralled the wild cattle - offspring of the bovines left behind by Spaniards in previous centuries. They catfaced the pines to turn tar into turpentine. They grew gardens and raised livestock.
Both groups lived by their own hands. They ate because they farmed, fished, and hunted. The lived in vernacular homes they built from materials they harvested and hewn. They clothed themselves in homespun garments. Anything they may have purchased from a store were typically luxuries purchased with money gained by selling their own handiwork or harvest. The ideas of success and The ‘American Dream’ were to have their own land, their freedom from the watchful eye of government and society, to have enough to support themselves and their families, and to pass that down to the next generation.
Then came the modern age.
One of the main reasons I argue that the Civil War was about far more than slavery is that it pitted one distinct industrial economy against one distinct agricultural economy. The outcome of the war was not a hybrid of these two economies fused into one. It was the supremacy of the industrial and the conquering of the agricultural. As society shifted in this new reality, the way of life that had been built by the rural people, especially those who lived small existences without slaves, changed forever. Progress brought new expenses, new taxes, new strains on finances. People who had lived for generations on little, if any, money found themselves now dependent on it. Money meant jobs, and jobs meant factories, quarries, or mines. True self-sufficiency became obsolete, even impossible. So in every region of the country, cultures who had prided themselves on independence now found themselves at the mercy of the captains of industry - rich people they'd never meet who lived in cities they'd never visit.
And so the rural towns, the center of business and culture in these rural areas, began to shrink. Vance gave the example of Jackson, Kentucky bleeding off residents to places like Middletown, Ohio. On this blog I've showed examples of places like Parrott, DeSoto, Rebecca, and so many others that have bled off their residents to Columbus, Atlanta, Savannah, or perhaps even further away. This has left the remaining residents running low on opportunity and even lower on hope. Such despair has a way of leading to the problems Vance detailed - drug use, abuse, and reliance on government support. Vance’s critics suggest he is unfairly labeling hillbillies as “lazy.” But that seems an oversimplification of what he is saying. It is often easier on the egos of people to deride a nameless, faceless villain for sitting on the dole while collecting from the government themselves. So "the blacks" or "Mexicans" become the obvious targets. They, at least in their own minds, create a level or two of social status beneath their own. "I might not have the best life but at least I'm better than those people." Minimal research reveals that whites make up the majority of welfare recipients. But these are proud people, the descendants of independent people. They have a despondency that comes from grasping at that independent life of old, but there’s nothing left to hold onto.
Industrialization was an economic boon for many hillbillies who migrated to new homes. Mills built villages for their workers. Employees had well built homes, medical care, churches, schools, community centers, stores, entire communities popped up around industrial sites. Companies even sponsored baseball teams that traveled and competed against other mills. But there are many examples where a large company, the only major employer in town, gained too much political and social power in the town and workers were left at the mercy of the "company store" or the "company man." As companies became more focused on profits, the benefits began to dwindle and the people had less and less to show for the economic progress of industrialization.
Then it became more profitable to manufacture in other countries. Mills began to close. Slowly these towns slipped away from the prosperity of the past. Villages began to deteriorate. Slowly but steadily, the conditions that Vance cites from Middletown spread through mill towns all over the country. Without the plant, workers had no more opportunity than they had back in their hillbilly or cracker homeland. People were no better off than they were back home.
That's where we find ourselves today.
It is worth pointing out that at the end of the book, Vance is meeting with teachers trying to refocus on getting students ready for blue collar jobs. While I see why some people think he is critical of blue collar workers, if you finish the book you see he isn't. And I'm not. I've been amazed at the industriousness of working class people I know. I know men and women who can be welders, carpenters, mechanics, and farmers - all in the same afternoon. Sometimes one of those tasks overlaps another. And they aren't barbarians. I know many that are talented musicians or use their industrial skills to create works of art. There is more to the white working class than hydrocodone, methamphetamine, and squalor.It is also true that people are individuals and are not always held to the generalizations pertinent to their culture.
A solution to this problem will not come easy as there is much to be done. Somehow, we have to educate boys. Vance mentions the disconnect between boys and education and he is absolutely right. The idea that reading and good grades are "girl stuff" combined with an educational system that is more beneficial to girls simply by the way it is designed make educating young boys, especially hillbillies and crackers, a difficult task.
There will have to be restored economies. Small towns will need to be revived. We've discussed that a lot on the blog. But the mindset that a job means working for a big corporation has to be broken. And that means we need to fight for economic reforms that make small businesses and self-employment gradually more realistic. Gradual, this can't be done overnight. The harder task will be convincing the people of these dead communities that they have a reason to hope, that they can get ahead in life, that success is a possibility, that families do matter. I really believe that the only way to fix this problem is to reintroduce independence to these people groups. It's a multifaceted solution with too many facets that are yet to be discovered.
So we're left with more questions than answers. It is important that the people who love these cultures and want them to have a future have to work to find solutions. That’s part of why ABG is here. So we’re headed to work on it now.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire