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Salt of the Earth


March 17, 2014

The Southern food historian on the politics of consumption, matzoh ball gumbo, and the multicultural “terroir” of the South.

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While American food culture grows increasingly interested in all things “local,” “seasonal,” and “farm-to-table,” Southern cuisine, conjuring images of bountiful pastures and gauzy hospitality, seems particularly well placed. As Virginia-raised Momofuku chef David Chang argues, “Americans are experiencing a general hunger for authentic regional cuisine, of which Southern food represents one of the best and oldest examples.”

But from Frederick Douglass’s indictment of the slave owner’s table that “groans under the heavy and blood-bought luxuries” to fabled Aunt Jemima selling pancake syrup across the nation, Southern food is also laden with fraught histories, marketable clichés, and the region’s legacy of inequality. “Not infrequently, Southern food now unlocks the rusty gates of race and class, age and sex,” historian John Egerton wrote in his seminal 1987 book, Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. “On such occasions, a place at the table is like a ringside seat at the historical and ongoing drama of life in the region.”

Marcie Cohen Ferris, an associate professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, occupies a prominent place at this Southern table. Foodways—the cultural, social, and economic practices that relate to food—are at the center of her engagement with the historical and contemporary narratives of the region. Ferris grew up Jewish in Arkansas, where, she recalls, “Our table felt very different from other people’s tables.” She traces her inclination toward food as an analytical lens to her family’s uniquely Jewish-Southern eating habits: “From a young age, I saw food as a barometer of cultural identity.”

Ferris’s early attention to coalescing food traditions led her to write Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. She’s now working on The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region (UNC Press, fall 2014), which chronicles centuries of political and social transformation through food, from the colonial era and the plantation South to the civil rights movement, agribusiness, and the “locavore” movement. In examining what often becomes a well-worn trope, she seeks to “complicate” Southern food—and in turn, complicate the South. “Contradictions are central to the history of this region,” she says. “And they’re often revealed through food.”

On a recent morning that hinted at spring, when the squirrels were foraging in New York and the daffodils pushing through the ice in Chapel Hill, Ferris and I spoke over the phone about the complexity of Southern food—its relationship with slavery, its tendency toward caricature, and its elemental pleasures.

Meara Sharma for Guernica

Guernica: What kind of a role did food play in your upbringing?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: I grew up in Blytheville, Arkansas, where my father was born. My mother was from an observant Jewish family in Connecticut who kept kosher. Given their vastly different Jewish backgrounds, I like to say my parents had a “mixed marriage.” My way of understanding Jewishness in Arkansas was connected to cultural traditions, especially to food.

Our table felt very different from other people’s tables. We did not eat grits in our home—I first prepared grits when I was in high school. (I guess I worried someone might check our Southern credentials and find we were grit-less.) We didn’t keep a strictly kosher home, but I was quickly aware as a child that we had our own Southern-style kashrut. For example, we did not bring pork into the house, but we ate it at our local barbecue restaurant, the Dixie Pig. At holidays, we enjoyed the traditional American Jewish food of the 1950s and 1960s—roast chicken, broccoli casserole, noodle kugel, and brisket. Only when I ate at my non-Jewish friends’ homes did I see what the “typical” Southern table looked like.

Guernica: How did that lead you to devote your scholarly career to studying Southern food?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: While I felt very much a Southerner as a child, being Jewish gave me an outsider’s perspective. People look at region in a variety of ways, and I always paid attention to food. Food rises above other things for me. From a young age, I saw food as a barometer of cultural identity, and I was fascinated by how people defined themselves through their food traditions.

I saw Southern culinary traditions braided with the flavors of Jewish foods at the Southern Jewish table.

When I became a scholar of American studies, I approached the field through food, and understanding what Jewish Southerners were eating was my first entry into studying regional food. I saw how they mixed regional Southern foods with the core grammar of American Jewish food. For example, at Rosh Hashanah, when it is traditional to eat sweets for the New Year, my mother prepared a very Southern blackberry jam cake. I saw Southern culinary traditions braided with the flavors of Jewish foods at the Southern Jewish table.

Guernica: You’ve titled your book on Southern Jewish food with an amazing example of that melding of culinary traditions—matzoh ball gumbo! Where did you come across that dish?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: That came from a wonderful woman, Mildred Covert, whom I met while conducting research in New Orleans. As a contributing food columnist for The Times-Picayune, Covert was very conscious of being Jewish within the rich culinary traditions of Louisiana, and she combined these worlds. When she married, Covert modified her beloved New Orleans dishes, like jambalaya and etouffée, which are very difficult to eat if you keep kosher. Food became the expression of both her Jewishness and her Louisiana identity.

Mildred Covert embodied a Jewish experience that I saw again and again in the South. Raised in the segregated South, her parents were working-class merchants in downtown New Orleans. She grew up with an African-American woman who cooked in the home. Covert’s family ate deeply traditional, New Orleans-style food, prepared by an African-American woman who melded that food with the tastes of Eastern Europe. Those layers of food came together in the pot and on the plate, and reflected the complex history of the region.

Guernica: I imagine Southern Jewish cuisine is a tradition that comes as a surprise to a lot of people. What’s the history of the Jewish population in the South?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Most people are surprised to learn that the Jewish South played a pivotal role in early American Jewish history. In the late 1500s, Joachim Ganz, a Jewish metallurgist, joined the Roanoke expedition. Jewish passengers arrived in Savannah in 1733, where they formed a congregation, and other Jewish communities followed soon after in Charleston, and Richmond. Imagine the voices that must have been heard in those eighteenth-century port cities. There were voices of enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as voices of Spanish, Dutch, French, and English folks. Their food traditions pushed against one another in powerful ways. Southern food derives its strength from many cultures. It’s a melding of food cultures from Native Americans, enslaved African-Americans, and Europeans.

Guernica: That historic multiculturalism cuts through some of the assumptions about what Southern food is, and who lays claim to it. In studying Southern food, do you feel you have to contend with a lot of stereotypes?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Constantly. When I’m asked to define “Southern food,” I usually turn that question back to my audience and ask them what they think. I hear responses like fried chicken, catfish, barbecue, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. These are excellent examples, because they are historically grounded. You can trace each dish back to the people who brought these food traditions to the South. Today, these foods are central to the core culinary grammar of the American South.

But what happens is that Southern food that appears in contemporary popular culture is so exaggerated that it’s hardly recognizable to most Southerners. This enriching of Southern food—fatter, richer, more over the top—is what we typically see on TV, in Hollywood films, and in Southern-style or country-themed chains like Cracker Barrel. Southern food becomes a caricature, like characters and props in a reality TV show.

Guernica: Why do you think Southern food has this tendency toward caricature, perhaps more so than other regional cuisines in the US?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: A sense of nostalgia for a bygone South arose in confronting and making sense of the new racial order after Reconstruction. At that time, Frederick Douglass warned that it was dangerous to romanticize the Old South because it removed us from reality. But the narrative quickly took hold, and popular “Lost Cause” novels present this mythic South of moonlight and magnolias, of the bountiful plantation table, of loyal African-American servants who were “part of the family, black and white.”

With the rise of consumer culture, both Southern and national manufacturers saw the value of associating their products with the mythic or remembered South. Food was central to the branding of “Dixie.” But then it gets ratcheted up by advertisers creating sentimental, romantic narratives of the mammy figures—like Aunt Jemima—who became “spoke-servants” for national manufacturers.

Food and memory are powerful forces in the region, where Southerners have personal memories tied to their family experience. My Carolina students speak fondly about their grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, and uncles. Most of them recall that one generation earlier, their families were involved in agriculture. They have a deep connection to gardening, to raising food, to seasons, to canning and preserving, to understanding what it means to “eat local.”

Southerners also must deal with contested memory and how whites created a mythic South to cope with the racial reordering of the region after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Blacks had a very different narrative about their history. These black and white narratives still exist today.

The third realm of memory is the mythic South, which the world participates in, as do Southerners. Imagining how this mythic place—and its Southern table—exists in our minds. We should reflect on how this mythic South connects with reality.

Guernica: Do you find there is a desire among Southerners to counter the exaggerated or caricatured narratives about the South that exist in popular culture?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Most Southerners recognize when a story about their own experience feels off-kilter or offensive. But Southerners are also fascinated by the way their region is presented in popular culture. Consider the contemporary examination of Southern culture, including its foodways—what a powerful time. Films like 12 Years a Slave, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Django Unchained each use food as a tool for recreating racial landscapes. It is exciting to see how filmmakers take great care to present worlds in which race, region, and food are deeply intertwined.

Guernica: I was struck by the way you’ve explained why you study food. You write: “The study of foodways—the intersection of food and culture—addresses a central issue in the humanities: how we connect the great dramas of history with the lives of ordinary people.”

Marcie Cohen Ferris: In studying food, you embrace everything. Food exposes the long, complex history of the South—slavery, Jim Crow segregation, class struggle, extreme hunger, sexism, and disenfranchisement. These issues are revealed through food encounters, and they contrast this with the pleasure and the inventiveness of Southern cuisine. Food is always at the heart of daily life in the South.

Historically, women’s voices were central to food narratives, yet they were marginalized, and what happened at the table, the kitchen, the garden, and the fields was silenced. I’m very interested in how food appears in the historical record and animates our understanding of the South. It provides texture both to the past and to our contemporary experience. My work is not about discovering new voices, but rather it encourages voices that have been silenced to come forward and speak a little louder.

The plantation house—the center of domesticity—could become a house of horrors. The narrative about food during slavery was largely one of absolute want.

Guernica: I know you’ve looked deeply into the slavery and plantation era through the lens of food. What role does food play in telling the stories of that period?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: The core cuisine of Southern food is established in the plantation South, within the world of slavery. To understand the plantation table, we must understand the relationship of enslaved people to Africa, to historical trauma, and their central role in food production. Their voice is the most poignant, expressive voice in Southern cuisine.

Rich historical documents describe that time in ways that go far beyond cookbooks from the era. I have worked with antebellum diaries and letters, as well as slave narratives recorded in the 1930s with formerly enslaved African-Americans. In these narratives, elders recalled the plantation South of their childhood. Many spoke about food in a complex world of abundance, deprivation, malnutrition, violence, and a form of terrorism in which masters and mistresses abused slaves through food. The plantation house—the center of domesticity—could become a house of horrors. The narrative about food during slavery was largely one of absolute want.

Another important resource on the antebellum Southern table is the diaries of white teachers, of nannies who came from the North to work for white planters. They saw the plantation South as outsiders and their letters often focused on Southern food. Many felt as though they had arrived in another world. Southern racial codes were so different, and they often learned these codes and racial “etiquette” at the table.

One Swedish traveler, Fredrika Bremer, visited plantations throughout the South, as many Europeans did. She spoke specifically about hospitality, and found it overbearing. Bremer was used to a European table where conversation and nourishment were the purpose of the meal, rather than the elitist rituals of service she experienced in the South.

Guernica: What was actually on the table? What were people eating?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Enslaved people in the quarters ate a traditional ration that was common across the South. Cornmeal, pork (fat-back), bacon, field peas, yams or sweet potatoes, molasses, and greens were the basic ingredients of their diet. Enslaved people sometimes kept a small garden and supplemented this meager diet by raising domestic animals, hunting and fishing, and gathering wild foods when possible.

It’s a diet that today we recognize, and it continues to shape Southern foodways. When we sit down on New Year’s Day in the South, we may enjoy a plate of sweet potatoes, field peas, collard greens, and roasted pork. That is a historic plate. And it is very African. The grains, the peas, sweet potato, and meat served with a little hot sauce—this is deeply resonant of West Africa.

Guernica: How did that compare to what was on the plantation owners’ tables?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Food on the plantation owners’ table was similar to this core cuisine, but much more abundant and elaborate. It was prepared and served by enslaved people. The plantation owners enjoyed more vegetable side dishes, pickled vegetables, preserved fruits, a variety of meats, poultry, roast pork, rice in the Lowcountry, fish and seafood in coastal regions, yeast breads, and many desserts.

Guernica: Given that this archetypal kind of Southern cuisine is so intertwined with the history of slavery, there’s a sense that it makes food—eating—rife with politics.

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Absolutely. A Southern dinner is infused with memory and labor. Today many young Southern chefs speak eloquently about this relationship. Hugh Acheson addresses the historical memory embedded in Southern food. A young African-American culinary historian named Michael Twitty recently traveled through the South on what he described as a “Southern discomfort tour,” researching the foodways and food systems of his enslaved ancestors.

This contrast is what the South is about—the abundance, beauty, and richness of Southern culture, but also its dark underside. The history of Southern food reflects the history of slavery, of poverty, of the negotiation of power.

When you prepare a historic recipe that could as easily been eaten in the 1800s as in 2014, it is a powerful act.

Guernica: How do you grapple with the politics inherent in Southern food, on a personal level?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: I think about what I eat every day. I try to eat as locally as I can and as healthily as I can. When you prepare a historic recipe that could as easily been eaten in the 1800s as in 2014, it is a powerful act. When you take that food and its associated memory and put it in your body, it becomes part of who you are. While most people do not think about it consciously, there is an honoring of history that happens during that meal.

Terroir—the taste of place—was important from the early South of the first Indian, African, and Europeans to the nineteenth-century South. During that time, Southerners ate far more locally and seasonally, from the ground they knew and grew up on. That idea connects back to today. You are a place. And as a Southerner, the food you place in your body speaks of your personal history, and of the broader Southern history.

Guernica: You’re also examining how the relationship between food and politics has continued to manifest through the twentieth century—for example, during the civil rights movement.

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Food is an important lens onto the civil rights movement. One of the central issues of the movement was the right to eat in places that served the public. This battle led to the lunch counter sit-ins, which became embattled, contested places.

The sit-ins, the boycotts, the protest marches, were places of great violence. There were important figures who literally fed the movement. African-American women like Georgia Gilmore and her friends sold baked goods to raise money for the movement. They used those dollars to buy cars to bring people to work during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. They made thousands of sandwiches to feed those who participated in the Selma to Montgomery march.

But food was also used as a weapon against the civil rights activists. During the sit-ins, well-dressed young African-American and white demonstrators were smeared with ketchup and mustard by angry whites who used food to humiliate them. Food became a tool that could be inverted.

Guernica: What would you say are the different forces defining Southern food today?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: The pathology and the creativity of the region’s culinary negotiation is exemplified by two poles in the South today—one of distinctive, innovative foodways grounded in tradition, and the other, an inheritance of racial and class trauma, expressed in land loss, poverty, and disease.

In the late 1970s, the appearance of hunger and malnutrition in the South changed radically. Malnourished Southerners were increasingly obese and did not fit the traditional image of “skin-and-bones” impoverishment.

Calorie-dense, packaged, and processed convenience foods and sugary drinks—the foods most readily accessible in fast-food venues and urban and rural markets—became the most affordable, quickest means to feed a hungry family in the 1980s. Even the region’s beloved “sweet tea,” heavily sugared iced tea, consumed year-round, was a major component in malnutrition and obesity.

Food deserts in the contemporary South are severe, especially in rural regions like the Mississippi Delta and eastern North Carolina, where laborers work largely in industrial agriculture. It’s ironic that these workers are surrounded by food that they process for other industrial purposes. Many are immigrant “guestworkers” who must contend with a lack of rights, as well as lack of access to grocery stores, healthy food, and quality living conditions.

The problem of access exists across the nation. But the working poor in the South are often blamed for their reliance on “traditional” Southern food, while in reality, most are eating the same heavily processed, cheap, convenience foods that the majority of working people eat across the United States.

Guernica: Is there a sense of awareness or action being taken around these issues?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: There is very little federal or state infrastructure to support healthy eating.

Where I live, in Chapel Hill, there is a powerful local food economy, as well as an engaged university infrastructure. There is important political activism focused on food at the University of North Carolina. Faculty and students in fields such as public health, environmental studies, nutrition, and food cultures are deeply committed to creating healthy food economies and food systems. But outside the University, I feel a great sense of powerlessness, of denial of our government leaders to acknowledge the hunger and food problems that our community faces.

I am, however, encouraged to see more attention paid to food in the South, as well as a desire to reconnect Southern food to its roots through a cuisine that is local, seasonal, and tied to both tradition and creativity.

If there was ever a food that had politics behind it, it is soul food.

Guernica: How does “soul food” fit into the mythology around Southern cuisine?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: If there was ever a food that had politics behind it, it is soul food. Soul food became a symbol of the black power movement in the late 1960s. Chef Marcus Samuelsson, with his soul food restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem, is very clear about what soul food represents. It is a food of memory, a food of labor.

But increasingly, the black community recognizes the inherent dangers of soul food—a diet heavy in fats and sugar. Southern African-American church leaders have focused on public health, and are addressing issues of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Their challenge is to prepare soul food that represents family, heritage, and tradition in healthy ways that strengthen the black community, rather than diminish it.

Guernica: I read a commentary that suggested the South is especially well suited to eating seasonally. Do you think so?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: If you live in the South, you are often a very short distance from a garden, or even a farm owned by your family or by your neighbor’s family. When I was a child, even though I grew up in an era of highly processed food, the grocery store sold local field peas, lima beans, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. While there is a deep sense of place in the South—and the foods of this place—I don’t want to present a pastoral vision of the contemporary South. The majority of Southerners cannot access fresh, local, affordable food.

Guernica: I’ve been thinking about Alan Lomax’s work in documenting folk music in the South. Are there comparable initiatives going on with regards to Southern food traditions? What’s in need of documentation?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Foodways, like other folk expressions, evolve over time. Cultural documentation of this change is the focus of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. Through oral history, the SFA has documented the food narratives, work experiences, and deep histories of Southerners across the region. Its fall 2014 symposium will focus on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and will ask who is included at today’s “welcome table.”

An important area of Southern food research and documentation is Native American foodways. The Southern Oral History program at UNC-Chapel Hill is gathering oral histories in the Lumbee Indian community in North Carolina. This is essential work, because the Southern table is missing native plants and seed varieties that are essential ingredients of our core regional cuisine. This loss is directly tied to the trauma and erasure of native history in the South.

Guernica: How do you put all this thinking about food into practice in your own kitchen?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: Like everyone, I have less time than I would like to devote to creativity in my own kitchen. But I live in a world where I have access to both good food and a dynamic food community. We have an exceptional farmers’ market in nearby Carrboro, and I am honored to know many of the vendors and artisan producers. We greatly benefit from talented local people who grow, prepare, and create incredible food in our community.

Guernica: Do you have a favorite Southern dish?

Marcie Cohen Ferris: My favorite dish is the plate that I described earlier. Over the Christmas holidays, I visit my mother-in-law in Mississippi, who has lived on a farm for over seventy-five years. At her table, we enjoy a familiar Southern meal of field peas, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and fried catfish, with hot cornbread served on the side. That is my favorite meal in the world.

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Cornmeal-Fried Fish Fillets with Sephardic Vinagre Sauce
from Congregation Or VeShalom Sisterhood, Atlanta, Georgia

Vinagre sauce is a warm vinaigrette. The recipe for this sauce, a perfect, tart complement to the crunchy fish, comes from Congregation Or VeShalom’s popular cookbook, The Sephardic Cooks.

Make the sauce first and let it sit, covered, while you fry the fish. Since you’ll need to fry the fish in batches, heat the oven to 300° and have a large platter ready. Place fried fish on the platter and keep it warm in the oven while you fry the rest.

Ingredients
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 1/4 pounds skinned, firm white-fish fillets, such as bass, snapper, or tilapia, cut into portions if fillets are large (catfish will work, too, although it is not kosher)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups white or yellow cornmeal
canola oil for shallow frying
vinagre sauce (recipe follows)

In a cup, mix the salt and black and cayenne peppers. Sprinkle evenly over the fish.

Beat the eggs in a pie plate. Put the cornmeal in another pie plate.

One at a time, dip a piece of fish into the eggs, letting the excess drip off, then roll in the cornmeal, pressing it into the surface. Place the crumbed fish on a waxed-paper-lined tray. Repeat with the remaining fish.

Heat 1/2 inch of canola oil in a large heavy skillet (cast-iron is ideal) over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add a single layer of the fish and fry until browned on the underside, three to five minutes. Turn and fry two to three minutes more, until golden and just opaque in the thickest part. With a slotted spatula, transfer to paper towels to drain.

Repeat with the remaining fish, adding oil to the skillet as needed. Serve hot with vinagre sauce. Makes six servings.

Vinagre Sauce
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup water
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons canned tomato sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or finely minced celery

Put the flour in a heavy medium saucepan. With a whisk, gradually blend in the water until smooth. Whisk in all the remaining ingredients, except the parsley or celery. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lightly thickened, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley or celery. Makes 1 1/4 cups.

From Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. Copyright © 2005 by Marcie Cohen Ferris. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

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