Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Documenting Hunger: Famineways in Contemporary Southern Women's Writing

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Documenting Hunger: Famineways in Contemporary Southern Women's Writing

Article excerpt

Recently, southerners have embraced foodways as a way to define what makes them distinctive. This move makes sense. If "the consumption of southern foodways ... might be interpreted as a modern-day expression of one's southern identity," as Beth Latshaw suggests, then whether we are sipping mint juleps on verandas or sweet teas at barbecue joints, we are both enjoying and expressing our regional distinctiveness (107-108). And unlike earlier ideas about what makes the region unique--white supremacy, according to Ulrich B. Phillips; poverty, guilt, and defeat for C. Vann Woodward--foodways seem to represent an inclusive, affirmative vision of southern distinctiveness.

When it comes to poor white southerners, though, linking sustenance and self can leave a bad taste in the mouth. The television show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, for instance, serves up unsavory visions of the maxim "you are what you eat" by blurring the lines between a poor white family's denigrated class position and its degraded culinary practices. This program invariably shows the stars, self-proclaimed rednecks who live in rural Georgia, eating junk food, roadkill, foodstuffs won at the grocery auction, and other abject fare. Television critic Willa Paskin contends that "there is no show on television that plumbs the extremely real and loaded connections between food and class in America like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," but what the show probes is at least as much about middle-and upper-class viewers' food-related class prejudices as it is about lower-class families' eating practices. As responses to the show reveal, viewers can misconstrue poverty as preference, seeing the reality stars' foodstuffs less as what can feed a family of six for eighty dollars per week--the family's grocery budget, as matriarch Mama June readily admits--than as what poor whites' unwholesome appetites demand. A Hollywood Life writer, for instance, frowns on family members for "spending their coupons on candy bars rather than produce" (Stiehl). Because it betrays an unfamiliarity with coupons, which almost never offer discounts on fresh fruits and vegetables, this tsk-tsking may say more about the writer's class privilege than the family's poor decision making. By reading limited choices as bad choices, outside observers can mistake impoverishment for improvidence.

Before they censured the candy bars and roadkill of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, well-off white people denounced the snuff and clay that prior generations of poor whites used to stanch their hunger pangs. In the first section of this article, I reconstruct a nearly three-century-long history of depicting poor white hunger as an issue of depraved appetites rather than deprived diets. Assembling examples from novels, travelogues, memoirs, short stories, and essays, I chart a tradition, largely unremarked by other scholars, that helps us recognize and redress regional and national misconceptions about hunger. Having laid bare the problem of treating poverty as pathology, I then turn to works by Dorothy Allison and Barbara Robinette Moss that offer readers a new taste of poor white life in the South. Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) and Moss's memoir Change Me into Zeus's Daughter (1999) rebut the idea that unhealthy appetites--rather than poverty and its attendant ills--plague poor white people. In these books, Allison and Moss pioneer a set of literary techniques that I term "famineways," a riff on "foodways," which John T. Edge defines as "the study of what people eat and why they eat it." By means of quotation, allusion, and related intertextual strategies, famineways write hunger onto the bodies of these authors' characters and texts, allowing us as readers to explore what people are not eating and why they are not eating it. By consuming other works--metabolizing their politics and poetics--Allison and Moss fortify their stories, constituting them not as bare-bones stabs at portraying poverty but as vigorous bodies taking sustenance from a host of literary antecedents. …

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