Rebecca Sharpless on the History of Southern Baking

Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South by Rebecca Sharpless Illuminates the emotional and sentimental values imbued in southern baking. Punching through numerous stereotypes, Sharpless demonstrates that the creation and consumption of baked goods is far more than one of producing and eating food: the story of southern baking is about colonialism, race and ethnicity, gender, economics, class, and technology. Baking was used by people who controlled the food supply in the South to reinforce their power and make social distinctions. Who used white cornmeal and who used yellow, who put sugar in their cornbread and who did not all had meaning for southerners, as did the proportions of flour, fat, and liquid in biscuits. In the main, southerners tended to hew to traditional foodways through the nineteenth century, but the twentieth century saw the popularity of convenience foods and mixes explode in the region as it did nationwide. Still, while some regional distinctions have waned, there is no doubt that baking in the South continues as a remarkably vital source of identity, meaning, and entrepreneurship. 

Watch Rebecca Sharpless’s archived discussion of Grain and Fire hosted last month by Asheville’s Malaprop’s Bookstore, moderated by UNC Press Advancement Council member Kirk Brown.

Rebecca Sharpless is professor of history at Texas Christian University. Her most recent book is Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960.