2019 Cornbread Nation

Key reads, listens, and views from the SFA

Each year, SFA compiles a roster of the smartest, sharpest, most thought-provoking, most heart-wrenching food media published in the previous twelve months. We call this list Cornbread Nation. Rather than focusing our gaze outward, this year we’re highlighting some of our favorite SFA stories that loosely cohere around the theme of food and labor.

We begin with Zandria Robinson’s essay, “We Eat, Therefore We Yam,” in which she fuses Ralph Ellison and Rene Descartes to propose a Southern cogito: We think, we eat, we read, therefore, we yam. She references messy slippages and contradictions between the “A-side,” (nourishment, hospitality, welcome) and the “B-side,” (hunger, work, exclusion). Dr. Robinson argues, “exploitation is the other side of hospitality. Exploitation enables hospitality.”

In “Beholden” Shane Mitchell considers the way an object conveys muddled meanings. Even when one interpretation of a thing is written directly upon it, the ways that object mean shift over time and with changes in perspective and context. Speaking of which, the Gravy podcast episode Biscuit Blues also tells the story of meanings hidden in objects—in this case, a bag of flour.

Three stories here feature individuals negotiating their identities and work. In “The Promise of Women-led Restaurants” Ashley Christensen grapples with the alternating obscurity or perceived preciousness of women chefs, noting “the word ‘women’ feels like a marketing tool.” Christensen proposes a recognition of women chefs who commit to mentorship, stewardship, and hospitality.

Mayukh Sen’s “A Comet Called Raji” tells the story of an Indian-American chef, Raji Jallepalli, who resisted pressure to conform to American expectations of Indian food, and who resisted American expectations of Indian women. Her imprint on Southern food is unmistakable and mostly unattributed. Eugene Walter’s imprint on the South is equally deep and comparably under-acknowledged; Sara Brooke Curtis tells his story in the Gravy podcast, The Magical, Meandering Life of Eugene Walter.

Food and work intersect in other stories. Roz Bentley explores the intersection of beauty shops, institutional racism, and the “plate economy” in “Hair, Food and Hustle.” The film FoodWork celebrates the life and work (and food) of Felton Hurst, the 2019 recipient of the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. Another film, about Mac’s 1 Stop in Birmingham, celebrates a place where food is work and the products of that labor feed a variety of visiting workers. Food is work is food is work.

Two 2019 stories took us “back to the land.” To the forests of south Georgia in Janisse Ray’s essay “The Chanterelle Seeker” about mushroom hunter Ancil Jacques, whose targeted meanders suggest a hunt for sustenance and connection beyond the mycelium. Such searches characterize the busloads of hippies drawn to rural Tennessee in the 1970s. The podcast episode Electric Tofu tells the story of these uprooted Californians, and their experiments with soy (and other organic materials) in their chosen Southern idyll.

We hope that you’ll carve out some time this holiday season to read, listen, and watch these stories, and to reflect on their intimate relationship with Southern foodways.

Catarina Passidomo is the Southern Foodways Alliance Assistant Professor of Southern Studies and Assistant Professor of Anthropology