A Mess of Greens

A Mess of Greens by Elizabeth Engelhardt

In this semester-long series, students from Dr. Catarina Passidomo’s Southern Foodways and Culture course share reflections on the class readings and discussions. Check out the course syllabus, read along with us, and share your own thoughts on Facebook & Twitter using the #SFABookClubhashtag.

Elizabeth Engelhardt takes a feminist theoretical approach to food and the concept of “The South” in her book A Mess of Greens, presenting a complicated diachronic South through the lens of food. Engelhardt’s approach to the South from the 1870s to 1930s “pairs specific food items or practices with particular communities in the U.S.” (15). By doing this, Engelhardt allows the audience to gain a better understanding of what the South is, and how it is changing. She explores the ever-increasing role of technology, capital, advertising, and nostalgia, as well as how women have defined themselves within the region.

A Mess of Greens is not structured chronologically; rather, Engelhardt uses specific moments to understand the relationship between food, gender, race, and class in the changing South. Engelhardt begins with the local, describing her own family from the mountains of North Carolina, then expands to include illustrative moments within the South’s history: moonshining women, the battle of cornbread versus biscuits, tomato canning clubs, hunger and pellagra among Southern mill workers, and the stories contained within cookbooks and markets. She investigates these using an interdisciplinary American studies methodology, which draws on analyses of novels, various works of non-fiction, cookbooks, and other primary source material. Engelhardt focuses on Southern women that she describes the “broad middle” of Southern society: poor whites and the middle and working classes (both African-American and white).

Engelhardt challenges the reader to think about Southern foodways as dynamic and representative of the conflicting views of Southern female identity. Many within our class appreciated Engelhardt’s exposure of the contradictory representations of the changing Southern feminine identity. The class noted, especially, how women created their own spaces to fight the boundaries generated by Southern patriarchy. As a group, we discussed our own definitions of female citizenship within the South by using the broader social and political views of Southern female identity Engelhardt presents.

By Grace Myers, graduate student at the University of Mississippi