What We’re Reading: Consuming Identity

Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South

By Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre. Jackson: UP Mississippi, 2016. 231 pages, $39.49 hardcover.

By Jenna Mason

Long before the recent Southern food revival, Southerners reveled in the traditions and nostalgia of their regions’ foodways: grandmothers measuring in pinches and handfuls, neighbors shelling peas on porches, communities gathering for fish fries and pig pickings and crawfish boils. As food writers deservedly gain credibility as serious journalists and food studies as serious scholarship, the idea of a “welcome table”—where diverse individuals bridge divides as they gather over a meal— has gained both traction and ardent detractors in modern discourses on Southern foodways.

John T Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, recounts that, in his experience, direct discussions of controversial issues facing the South alienate audiences, yet “at tables piled high with country ham, buttermilk biscuits, and redeye gravy, I’ve marveled as all have leaned in close to eat, to talk, to listen.” If food in general, and Southern food in particular, does indeed wield this power to unite individuals who espouse opposing worldviews, Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South seeks to explain why.

Analyzing the region’s cuisine from a rhetorical perspective, Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre argue that Southern food “invite[s] individuals to identify with others and to embrace particular identities” that supersede their differences, perhaps even long enough that meaningful dialogue may occur.

Two important rhetorical approaches underpin their analysis. While rhetorical criticism has traditionally examined textual artifacts as symbols with persuasive potential, Stokes and Atkins-Sayre embrace a broader definition, with which they also analyze tools and objects associated with Southern cooking, as well as the smells, sounds, and visual and tactile elements that constitute an eating experience at a given place and time in the South. Secondly, the authors leverage their study as a case for constitutive rhetorical theory, a tradition that “moves beyond causality, where communication scholars look at how a message causes someone to act in some specific way, to understanding how discourse ‘makes something possible or creates conditions of possibility.’”

That the authors explicitly use their case study to defend these more expansive rhetorical approaches results in moments of dense theoretical scaffolding; however, they flesh out their argument with concrete examples from various restaurants in the ten southern states they traveled to gather research as participant observers. They note the unpretentious décor of Weaver D’s in Athens, Georgia and the iconic country music that plays in the background at Sean Brock’s Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. They describe the aroma of barbecue that wafts down airport terminals in Memphis, Charlotte, and Birmingham. They consider the visual impact of entering Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi directly through the kitchen. That a dining experience, whether at home or in public, can stimulate so many senses simultaneously enhances its potential to elicit identification with the region, and consequently, with its diverse array of inhabitants.

Perhaps the most compelling analysis Stokes and Atkins-Sayre offer is their consideration of Southern hospitality as it relates to a Southern obsession with order. Arguably, this obsession buttressed the institution of slavery, Jim Crow politics, oppressive gender norms, and an array of economic injustices. Yet, citing Kenneth Burke, the authors assert that this same craving for order may also drive hospitality: “We are drawn to look for ways to use symbols to join together,” to diminish discomfort between divided individuals. Southern food, despite its regional variety, often provides the symbols needed to identify with people we otherwise would not. Stokes and Atkins-Sayres observed this phenomenon repeatedly, though not exclusively, as they visited restaurants and gatherings around the region.

Consuming Identities is unquestionably optimistic in its view of Southern food’s potential to inject new, more inclusive narratives into the stories that constitute Southern identity on the individual and collective level. However, Stokes and Atkins-Sayre are quick to qualify this potential at every turn. While our symbol-laden cuisine may create opportunities for engagement and reconciliation, this outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion.

In effect, then, the book may be read as a call-to-action for those who orchestrate moments in which people gather together over food. From white tablecloth restaurants to no-frills barbecue joints, curators of eating experiences have ample tools to animate guests to embrace a common Southern identity that unifies rather than divides. At a moment when Southern food is in the national spotlight, the symbolic welcome table could help redefine the region as inclusive and truly hospitable.

*This review originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of The Southern Register.