Review: The Edible South by Marcie Cohen Ferris

This book review by Catarina Passidomo was first published in the Fall 2014 issue of Southern Register .

Reading the South--Edible South

Edible South: The Making of an American Region

By Marcie Cohen Ferris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 496 pages, $35.00 cloth.

Marcie Cohen Ferris’s new tome on the history and future of Southern foodways is a nutritive feast for the hungry scholar of the “edible South.” For anyone wishing to pursue a study of the South through comestibles, this is probably the best place to start. For those already familiar with the work of John Egerton (Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History), Jessica Harris (High on the Hog), and Frederick Douglass Opie (Hog and Hominy), or our own Southern Foodways Alliance, Edible South surely adds robust new ingredients to the evolving gumbo of Southern foodways scholarship. I implore you: Dig in!

Throughout the book, Ferris provides ample evidence for her early proclamation that food provides entrée to the broader structural forces that continue to shape an evolving region: “In food lies the harsh dynamics of racism, sexism, class struggle, and ecological exploitation that have long defined the South; yet there, too, resides a family, a strong connection to place, conviviality, and flavor. A constant tension underlies Southern history, and the same tension resides in Southern foodways. . . . Contradiction is a central theme in the history of Southern food. . . .” This contradiction is personified throughout the text, through vivid accounts of antebellum cuisine rich with African and Native American influences; descriptions of 20th-century efforts to brand and sell a “New South,” through a nostalgic commodification of racist tropes; and depictions of contemporary “nouvelle” Southern cuisine celebrating the region’s terroir, while enduring race- and class-based food insecurity and hunger permeate the region.

The many contradictions and tensions underlying the history of Southern food should provoke within the careful reader an obsessive tendency to peruse Ferris’s extensive bibliography in an unending desire to access her exhaustively cultivated compendium of primary sources; I am convinced this book will provoke a litany of research papers and projects among graduate students. Such lucky students would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the fastidious use of primary material in foodways scholarship. In her exploration of more than 200 years of Southern edibles, Ferris utilizes a broad array of source material, ranging from cookbooks and recovered recipes to slave narratives, diaries, promotional material and propaganda, social science research and documentary projects, and state policies and programs. The bibliography alone is a tremendous resource.

Following a preface and introduction, the book is divided into three parts (I dare not say “courses,” though I am tempted). Part I, “Early South: Plantation South,” traces the long history of “encounters” that marked the formation of this region and its distinctive foodways. Like other scholars before her, Ferris credits the development of a unique “Southern” cuisine to interactions between Native American, European, and African peoples (with significant Caribbean influences, as well). Through travelers’ accounts, Ferris paints a picture of Southern hospitality reliant upon the labor and skill of enslaved people and, later, servants. Through a diverse collection of source material, that picture becomes ever more vivid—and grotesque: the racial and gendered divisions and oppressions that characterized the 18th- and 19th-century South saw material manifestation in its food, or lack of it. During Reconstruction, Ferris argues, “food remained an evocative force that tugged both ways, reminding white Southerners of the flavors of the plantation table and black Southerners of the bitter taste of slavery.”

Part II, “New South,” traces early 20th-century efforts to brand and sell a paradoxically nostalgic and forward-looking version of the South, while heightening racial tensions, poverty, and hunger plagued the region. The era between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement saw tremendous social and economic change throughout the South, as industrialization and rapid technological change correlated with shifting gender roles, racial attitudes, and a regional identity crisis. This period, too, was marked by paradoxes: the poverty and hunger induced by an unjust sharecropping system; abundance and lack; the prevalence of commodities and tourism that cashed in on nostalgic renderings of “the romance and flavors of the Southern colonies, the antebellum plantations, the colorful Creole landscapes, and the ‘isolation’ of the mysterious mountain South.” Each of these left culinary artifacts, expertly excavated in Ferris’s able prose.

Part III, “Modern South,” begins with the lunch-counter protests of 1964 and ends with a portrait of “nouvelle” Southern cuisine and its possibilities. Once again, the themes of upheaval and change are masterfully revealed through the lens of food. The increasing dominance of industrial agriculture; the ongoing struggle of African Americans to “sit at the welcome table,” where they had so long labored; a resurgent interest in and celebration of “traditional Southern food” and, importantly, the people who made it so: all of this amid demographic and cultural shifts that are bringing new flavors into the ever-evolving (and much-contested) category of “Southern.”

Catarina Passidomo