The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region

The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region

The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region

The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region


In The Edible South, Marcie Cohen Ferris presents food as a new way to chronicle the American South's larger history. Ferris tells a richly illustrated story of southern food and the struggles of whites, blacks, Native Americans, and other people of the region to control the nourishment of their bodies and minds, livelihoods, lands, and citizenship. The experience of food serves as an evocative lens onto colonial settlements and antebellum plantations, New South cities and Civil Rights-era lunch counters, chronic hunger and agricultural reform, counterculture communes and iconic restaurants as Ferris reveals how food--as cuisine and as commodity--has expressed and shaped southern identity to the present day.

The region in which European settlers were greeted with unimaginable natural abundance was simultaneously the place where enslaved Africans vigilantly preserved cultural memory in cuisine and Native Americans held tight to kinship and food traditions despite mass expulsions. Southern food, Ferris argues, is intimately connected to the politics of power. The contradiction between the realities of fulsomeness and deprivation, privilege and poverty, in southern history resonates in the region's food traditions, both beloved and maligned.


Food catches my attention. I can scan a page of a book or an old letter and find food as though it’s highlighted in fluorescent yellow marker. It jumps out at me—snippets of biscuits, cornbread, cake, preserves, elderberry wine—and pulls me in. My brother-in-law, writer Jim Magnuson, says that when I scan the horizon, the food grid rises up above everything else. When I was a child, my parents, Huddy and Jerry Cohen, asked familiar questions—how was school? the field trip? summer camp? I reported back with detailed descriptions of friends’ distinctively southern bag lunches (how come no one else ate my suspiciously Jewish egg-andolive sandwiches?), the fancy bakery cookies purchased at Goldsmith’s downtown department store in Memphis, reports of taboo road food, and platters of fried chicken at Camp Wah-Kon-Dah in Rocky Mount, Missouri. My mother sighed, “What happened besides the food?!” We began to see a pattern. For me, food was what happened.

Why does food have this magnetic appeal to me, while others seldom note food or, worse, wonder what’s the fuss? For the non–food seers, food is banal, so ordinary that it is virtually invisible. For food seekers, it is the boldface headline of life. In the most basic way, food catches my attention because I know what it feels like to eat something delicious, to be hungry, to dislike the taste or texture of a food, to both struggle with food and be enchanted by food. If only for a sentence or a scene, a description of food enriches my understanding. It is a sensual experience, because, in food, an emotional world comes into view—a place of color, imagined tastes, interaction, and memory. Food helps me understand the world around me, but it is also my entry to the past.

Food is the center of our holidays at the farm where my husband, Bill Ferris, was raised in Mississippi. On Christmas Day, the family gathers around the dining room table. The ritual surrounding the preparation for this southern meal is elaborate. Activity begins months in advance as casseroles and desserts are prepared and frozen by Liz Martin, an expert cook and housekeeper. She has worked in culinary tandem with Bill’s mother, Shelby Flowers Ferris, for over thirty years. In the last twentyfour hours before the meal, work reaches a crescendo. Bill’s three sisters, and now the next generation of grandchildren and nieces and nephews . . .

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