The SFA Take: A Call to Listen

by Ted Ownby

Ownby-Ted-560x631Not long ago two professors posted a call for papers that would be critical of southern food studies and especially, it seems clear, the Southern Foodways Alliance and its relationship to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. I’m copying that call for papers at the end of this message.

When facing criticism, it’s difficult to avoid the temptation to be defensive and at least a little irritated, but the call for papers offers a chance to say what I enjoy and admire so much about people who study and learn about the South through foodways.

I’ve been going to Southern Foodways Alliance events since the group’s first symposium in 1999, and here’s one of the best things about it: people listen to each other. I learned that at foodways gatherings, food professionals, food writers, foodways scholars, food-issue activists, and others all have something to contribute, and they’re all there to listen to and learn from each other. No one has anything like the final word, and nobody is the ultimate authority on what questions to ask and how to answer them. Somebody is addressing problems of food deserts, somebody is doing academic work, somebody is working in journalism, somebody is thinking how to improve a restaurant, and somebody else is thinking about the foods his/her grandmother made, and they all have a conversation. Of course it doesn’t always work, but listening is a practice and not just a goal, and when it works, it’s impressive to witness and a pleasure and an education to experience.

So, we listen across lines of profession, expertise, professional language and, sometimes, interests. A second type of listening can be just as important. John Egerton, who for years provided inspiration for the SFA, frequently talked about the need to cut across political lines. Too often, he said, the conservatives go to their places to do their things while the liberals do their things in their own places (for example, John told me that in university towns in the Fall, most of the conservatives spend Saturdays at football games while most of the liberals stay home reading and writing journal articles). There were too few gatherings, he said, where those people talked to each other about topics of importance and shared interest.

Again, that kind of listening faces challenges. As thinking about food has expanded into issues of labor, globalization and localism, environment and sustainability, health, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and the construction and manipulation of images, listening to all political perspectives can be difficult. But again, it’s a both a goal and a practice that takes work.

And third, documentary work relies on a particularly important, skillful form of listening. The SFA’s documentary films, interviews in its publications, conversations in podcasts, oral history projects in classes, and the ever-expanding collection of online oral histories are rooted in listening, that is, in encouraging people to tell their stories and documenting them in responsible ways. The SFA is always looking and listening for more and better stories, more thoughtful questions, more groups, individuals and experiences to document, and new and different ways to share the results of that work. There is something open-minded, empathetic, and kind in that work of listening, and the results have taught a great many people about topics they might never have considered. It has also encouraged productive collaborations between the SFA, other parts of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and many other groups.

To summarize, foodways conversations have a great deal to do with listening—listening across lines of profession, language, and interest, listening across lines of politics, and responsible and thoughtful listening to people willing to tell their stories.

So, if we really believe in listening, there is only one conclusion. We need to listen to potential criticism. Even if we wonder if some of the critics have in the past drawn conclusions without doing much research, even if we might think the language in their call for papers uses too many quotation marks, even when criticism can be difficult to take, we need to listen.

Ted Ownby

Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture
Professor of History and Southern Studies

Call for Papers:

Against Cornbread Nationalism:
How Foodways Partisans Misrepresent the South

Editors: Scott Romine and Jon Smith

In the 21st century, southern “foodways scholarship” has not only come into its own as a scholarly subdiscipline; it has also become the public face of southern studies, producing a seemingly endless stream of celebratory barbecue documentaries, popular books like the Cornbread Nation series, cookbooks, and regular essays in such venues as Garden & Gun, the Oxford American, and Bitter Southerner. Moreover, “foodways” plays a steadily increasing role in the curricula and day-to-day operations of university-based “southern studies” centers. Yet the more popular this work is, the more likely it can be to rely on outdated scholarship (essentialism, agrarianism), myths (the “southern welcome table”), and feel-good celebrations of “authenticity” and “southern identity” that tend to flatter (largely white and upper-class) southern readers, students, and donors rather than inviting the public to engage with the exciting but challenging ideas that presently animate southern studies.
Against Cornbread Nationalism seeks to rectify this situation by presenting, in an accessible style for the general public, real scholarly counterarguments to some of the most unfortunate assumptions, claims, and rhetoric of popular “southern foodways” discourse. We are soliciting essays from historians, sociologists, literary critics, and other scholars of “the South” that make such counterarguments. Possible topics include
• Critical readings of particularly egregious foodways rhetoric
• Ethnographies and structural analyses of foodways audiences, practitioners, and “communities”
• Analyses of the generic conventions of foodways documentaries, podcasts, etc.
• Historical analysis and contextualization of celebratory foodways’ emergence at, and embrace by, southern studies centers in the 21st century: why now?
• Foodways and identity formation in southern studies undergraduate and graduate students
• Continuation of white grievance narratives, faithful retainer narratives, and so on under the veneer of “racial reconciliation”
• Materialist analyses of the institutions and media (both popular and scholarly) that support foodways discourses
• Critical omissions: what’s left out of foodways discourses?
• Critical readings of the imagined South(s) and southern identities produced by foodways scholarship and popular media
• Analyses of how labor and consumption practices are represented and/or misrepresented in foodways discourses

Against Cornbread Nationalism is thus not only the first collection to voice the widespread scholarly frustration with “southern foodways” as currently practiced. It is also the necessarily small first step of an “activist turn” in new southern studies, an attempt to bring the theoretically sophisticated arguments of that field to a much broader audience in the service of building a better, less self-deceptive, and self-flattering South.

Deadline for 200-500-word abstracts: September 15, 2016.
Deadline for full, c. 5000-word essays: August 15, 2017.

The collection has an expression of interest from more than one good university press.