A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food

A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food

A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food

A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food


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.


In the 1760s, ancestors on my mother’s side of the family landed in Philadelphia and started down the Trans-Allegheny trail, heading for South Carolina. By the 1790s, they had moved up into the North Carolina mountains to a series of communities in Transylvania and Henderson counties—Quebec, Toxaway, Brevard, Hendersonville. Most of them never left. They worked in timber, tannin, and the later paper factories; kept boarders; had small general stores; and generally did what they could to survive. They helped found churches and build schoolhouses; they farmed in small ways and kept garden patches. For more than two hundred years, my family practiced and perfected late-summer, southern meals to share. Surely they cooked real southern food done right. Clearly, it must have been authentic and pure; the nostalgia we feel for it, uncomplicated.

From the Fourth of July through Labor Day, with birthdays and visits in between, any weekend could bring a reason to gather, talk, and eat. The gettogether could take place at a picnic shelter up in the forest (whether Pisgah, the Nantahalas, or the Smokies), beside the lake at Camp Straus (where present and former employees of the local paper company could play), or simply in the kitchen of my grandmother, Iva Sanders Whitmire (1907–2001). Regardless, certain foods always made an appearance. Green beans, picked and snapped . . .

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