Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region, talks with Gina Mahalek about food as history, place, and power and as an entry to the past.
Gina Mahalek: In 2005, you broke new ground with your acclaimed book Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. In The Edible South, you offer an extraordinarily ambitious, wide-reaching social history of the foodways of the American South over more than five centuries. Why is food a particularly revealing lens through which to look at key historical events?
Marcie Cohen Ferris: Food is history. Food is place. Food is power. When we examine the historical arc of food in the American South, we encounter the tangled interactions of its people over time, a world of relationships fraught with conflict, yet bound by blood and attachment to place. The contradiction between the realities of plenty and deprivation, of privilege and poverty in southern history resonates in the region’s food traditions. Today, southern food has become untethered from the history responsible for this cuisine. This history helps us understand why southerners eat the way they do, and why we think of our foods as deeply southern.
GM: You begin your book with the statement, “I look for food in everything.” How so?
MCF: I can’t help myself, and it drives my mother a little crazy. My childhood letters sent home from summer camp are filled with descriptions of mealtime and special snacks, rather than canoe trips and cabin dramas. My brother-in-law, writer Jim Magnuson, says that when I scan the horizon, the food grid rises up above everything else. Food catches my attention. I can scan a page of a book or an old letter and find food as though it’s highlighted in fluorescent yellow marker. It jumps out at me—snippets of biscuits, cornbread, cake, preserves, elderberry wine—and pulls me in. In the most basic way, food catches my attention because I know what it feels like to eat something delicious, to be hungry, to dislike the taste or texture of a food, to both struggle with food and be enchanted by food. If only for a sentence or a scene, a description of food enriches my understanding. It is a sensual experience, because, in food, an emotional world comes into view—a place of color, imagined tastes, interaction, and memory. Food helps me understand the world around me, but it is also my entry to the past.
GM: Why has the story of the edible South been so hard to find?
MCF: For decades, scholars of the American South have studied the historical manuscript and print collections of the South, but few have paid close attention to the edible history that lies within their pages. While southern letters, diaries, and journals are filled with food descriptions of the early South, finding them—and interpreting their meanings—remains a challenge. Until recently, food was not included in finding aids and catalog descriptions, except under categories such as “cookery” or “remedies and recipes.”
The turbulent social activism of the 1960s and 1970s spawned a generation of scholars who rejected a vision of the past that ignored ordinary Americans, including that most ordinary activity of daily life—eating. Today, food is increasingly recognized as an important tool of analysis in southern cultural and economic history, as well as in the social sciences. Food foregrounds the once-silenced voices of those whose hands and minds defined southern cuisine—women in particular. Enslaved cooks, house slaves, and field hands of the antebellum South, the white and black working poor of the post-Civil War South, and food workers of the contemporary industrial South are central to this story.
GM: What’s the link between southern cuisine and historic preservation in the New South?
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