Chambers, Douglas B., Southern Quarterly
In this issue we are pleased to present our second annual installment of papers, presentations and addresses from the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, held each year in February. Founded in 1990 by Carolyn Vance Smith of Copiah-Lincoln Community College, and generously supported by a number of cultural and educational institutions in Mississippi, the Celebration explores a different theme each year; in 2006 it was food and drink in Southern history, literature and film.1
As we assemble this past year's material into this special issue, I am struck by a recent offhand remark by a senior Congressman from New York that was widely reported here in Mississippi late this fall. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, in his patented (and humorous) foot-in-mouth way, in considering changes in the new Congress from the recent elections, noted "Mississippi gets more than their fair share in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?"2 And yet, as I write this in mid-December in southern Mississippi, temperatures reach into the upper 70s under clear blue skies, and in my garden sassanquas and camellias and newfangled azaleas are all in bloom, as is some mysterious flowering fragrant bush, even as the winter solstice and Christmas fast approach. By the time this issue appears, in February, spring will already have sprung here in the Gulf South.
It is true, of course, that Mississippi consistently ranks lowest on the 'good' lists and highest on the 'bad' lists: we will leave the list of Congressional pork for you, dear reader, to categorize. However, it is also true that Mississippi today evokes in the collective imagination the representation of "The South" par excellence, for good as well as ill. And there is one further list, the annual "Generosity Index" of the Catalogue for Philanthropy, released in November for the past ten years, that speaks volumes. Since 1995, Mississippians consistently have ranked number one in the percentage of income they contribute to charitable organizations.3 For all else, Mississippians (poor as they are relatively) are the country's "most generous" people, as are people in the South generally.
This generosity is often glossed as simply "southern hospitality," and indeed it can be. And they are both intimately bound up with food, the gift of the poor, rich in spirit. Just imagine all those church fellowship lunches and suppers and gatherings - the potluck and catfish and barbeque fundraisers - the bake-sale goodies and sickbed soups - the welcome wagons and funeral food. The southern kitchen is one of the South's greatest gifts and food one of the region's greatest joys. New York may be a culinary cornucopia, a kitchen of the wide world, including some fine down-home southern food (and I bet that Congressman Rangel has a welcome table at the famous soul-food Sylvia's Restaurant on Malcolm X Boulevard), but throughout the South every little town has its own Sylvia's.
This special issue is a veritable banquet (though not an all-you-can-eat buffet, mind you, that's next door, and watch your elbows) on the manylayered meanings of food in southern history, literature and film. It is a five-course meal, prix fixe, no corkage fee, smoking lounge at the bar.
As the historian John Egerton notes, "there's more to our food than just the food." Throughout the region, southern foodways, including procurement and ingredients, preparation and presentation, and consumption (culturally as well as physically), mingle many traditions. The culinary historian Jessica B. Harris reminds us of the "magic of three"; the "intricate braiding" of Native American, European, and African food traditions, with origins in the colonial era. Robert L. Hall, in a wide-ranging essay, cooks up a major work of synthesis on the historical African influences, and in comprehensive detail, including sub-regional connections and culinary styles on both sides of the Atlantic. This is African diaspora history at its best - the meat on the bones. …