A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food

Synopsis

Combining the study of food culture with gender studies and using perspectives from historical, literary, environmental, and American studies, Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt examines what southern women's choices about food tell us about race, class, gender, and social power.

Shaken by the legacies of Reconstruction and the turmoil of the Jim Crow era, different races and classes came together in the kitchen, often as servants and mistresses but also as people with shared tastes and traditions. Generally focused on elite whites or poor blacks, southern foodways are often portrayed as stable and unchanging--even as an untroubled source of nostalgia. A Mess of Greens offers a different perspective, taking into account industrialization, environmental degradation, and women's increased role in the work force, all of which caused massive economic and social changes. Engelhardt reveals a broad middle of southerners that included poor whites, farm families, and middle- and working-class African Americans, for whom the stakes of what counted as southern food were very high.

Five "moments" in the story of southern food--moonshine, biscuits versus cornbread, girls' tomato clubs, pellagra as depicted in mill literature, and cookbooks as means of communication--have been chosen to illuminate the connectedness of food, gender, and place. Incorporating community cookbooks, letters, diaries, and other archival materials, A Mess of Greens shows that choosing to serve cold biscuits instead of hot cornbread could affect a family's reputation for being hygienic, moral, educated, and even godly.

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