Southern Foodways Fundamentals

** This is the first installment in a semester-long series of posts from a graduate seminar that I teach on Southern Foodways and Culture. Each week, a student (or, in the case of this week, a professor) will share a reflection on the week’s reading and our class discussion of it. This week: John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History.**

Egerton Book CoverJohn Egerton’s classic text Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History was published in 1987. (For the sake of comparison, this was the same year The Simpsons debuted on T.V., and Michael Jackson proclaimed he was Bad, you know it.) Needless to say, much has changed since then. At the time of its publication, there was no Southern Foodways Alliance (Egerton would go on to co-found the organization in 1999). There were no academic texts on the social history and evolution of southern foodways, and there had been little scholarly or public engagement with the foundations of southern cuisine.

Nearly three decades later, there is not time in a semester’s worth of reading and study to explore all the good books written on southern food, nevermind the various treatments of it in popular culture. It is not hyperbolic to state that John Egerton, and this book, were fundamental to the development of southern foodways as a legitimate field of study. The book’s earnest discussion of the ignominy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, of class and gender hierarchies evident in the preparation and consumption of traditional southern dishes, of the varied culinary and labor contributions of Native Americans and the generations of voluntary and involuntary migrants who came to the South—all of this broke new ground. These are themes that will recur, and that we will have the opportunity to explore more deeply, throughout the semester, but this is where they begin.

John Egerton at his home in Nashville, 2010. Photo by Pableaux Johnson.
John Egerton at his home in Nashville, 2010. Photo by Pableaux Johnson.

Thus, the passage of time, and all it has wrought, was a frequent topic of discussion in our classroom engagement with the book. We contemplated how Egerton’s project would be different if undertaken today. What kinds of restaurants (or non-restaurant food-procurement places) would he visit today? In keeping with his commitment to celebrating low-brow cuisine, we imagined Mr. Egerton indulging in gas station tamales in the Delta, Korean BBQ in Atlanta strip malls, Vietnamese banh mi from New Orleans food trucks. While some of these iterations of Southern food (notably, the tamale, which Egerton does not discuss) were around in 1987, many of them were unimaginable at the time.

We also wondered about the recipes. No sweet tea? No hummingbird cake? And, no tamales? (Perhaps our incredulity at that last one reveals a Mississippi bias). The selection of recipes and restaurants was, Egerton admits, a subjective one; another traveler or cook would have surely chosen somewhat differently. And yet, we wonder, how might Egerton’s collection of representative Southern recipes differ if assembled today?

It’s a question we may go on pondering. John Egerton passed away in 2013. We owe the very existence of this course, and indeed of the SFA, to his vision and leadership. It was only fitting to begin our semester in conversation with his early explorations on the power and prominence of Southern food.

We’ll take a break next week to celebrate Labor Day, but will return the following week with a student’s response to Edible South, by Marcie Cohen Ferris. Stay tuned!

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