The careful upkeep of a majestic Victorian home. The tedious restoration of a priceless painting. The promise of summer vegetables from a Mason jar in the pantry. In many cases, the practice of preservation reflects prudence in the present and veneration for the past. It is important work.
In a cultural sense, though, the politics of preservation often play out as a resistance to change or a prioritization of one culture over others. Cultural preservation easily slips into a perpetuation of the status quo or an erasure of historical nuance. Many folks inside and outside the SFA assume our organization preserves the culinary heritage of the South. However well-intentioned, this notion inaccurately characterizes the work we do.
SFA documents the South as it changes, as it struggles, as it triumphs, and as it fails. We preserve stories—as many and as varied as we can—to show that the South is not and never has been a monolith. Our oral histories, films, podcasts, publications, scholarship, and events serve as snapshots of our region’s varied landscape, and we hope they prove effective catalysts toward a more progressive and inclusive South.
As we use food to understand the South’s past and present, our aim is not to preserve a nostalgic or idealistic version of the South. Nor is it to defend ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ foodways over more recent or more complicated ones. Changes in foodways, conflicts between old and new, dynamics of authenticity and appropriation—these food-centered tensions reflect and illuminate the broader challenges facing our region.
As we increasingly understand the lay of the land, we can more effectively determine the best ways to cultivate it. When we recognize that tortillas are as much a Southern staple as cornbread and collard greens, we come one step closer to setting a table where all Southerners have a place and a voice.
That we sometimes take a critical view of the South has rubbed more than one person the wrong way. The way we eat says a lot about who we are: where we grew up, how much money we have, what religious beliefs we hold, and much more. With each meal, we telegraph this deeply personal information to those around us.
So to complicate someone’s plate—to point out, for example, how Hoppin’ John ties back to the labor of African slaves brought to South Carolina for their expertise in rice production—can come off as an insult at best, an accusation at worst. We understand the discomfort these conversations can generate. But we embrace that discomfort, not out of disdain for the South but out of love for it, with all its complexity, contradictions, and charms.
SFA prizes progress over preservation. That progress may take many forms: a more just labor system, food sovereignty at all income levels, a reversal of the ‘brain drain’ in many Southern states, social equality that doesn’t depend race, class, gender, sexuality, religion or any other factor of difference.
To accomplish any of this, though, the South must continually come to terms with who we are, who we never were, and who we want to be. The stories behind our food help us get there.