A version of this Q&A originally appeared on the Shelf Life blog.
Turkey, cornbread, cranberries, pumpkin pie — we look forward to devouring these delectable Thanksgiving staples every year. But when you sit down at the table, do you ever stop and wonder why you serve the same entrees year after year?
From cornbread and biscuits to dressing and gravy — your time-honored holiday menu items offer clues to more than just your family tradition. Hidden inside each recipe and cooking technique is a message about the past from which we can learn today.
Combining the study of food culture with gender studies, Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American studies, explores the many stories embedded in some of America’s most popular comfort foods. Her research is detailed in her new book “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which offers a landmark study on the many hidden culinary contours of Southern life.
Digging deep into community cookbooks, letters, diaries, and other archival materials, Engelhardt describes the five moments in the Southern food story: Moonshine, biscuits versus cornbread, girls’ tomato clubs, pellagra as depicted in mill literature, and cookbooks as means of communication.
Having grown up in western North Carolina and spent much of her life in the South, Engelhardt is dedicated to preserving Southern culinary heritage. Her research for “A Mess of Greens,” which came to no cost to the university, adds to the canon of food studies by expanding discussions on the intersections of food and American culture.
In a recent book “Republic of Barbecue” (University of Texas Press, 2009) Engelhardt and a team of graduate students presented a multifaceted portrait of the world of barbecue in Central Texas. A portion of the royalties, which were matched by the College of Liberal Arts dean, were given to the department to support graduate student research.
She recently sat down with Know to discuss some hidden stories behind our favorite foods, how canning tomatoes empowered young women, and which Southern dish she looks forward to every Thanksgiving.
How can the choice of serving cornbread or biscuits say a lot about a woman’s social standing?
As I was finishing my first book on Appalachia “Tangled Roots of Feminism,” I kept running across these references to something called the “Beaten Biscuit Crusade.” This was when judgments about Appalachian women were based solely on whether they made biscuits or cornbread for their families. And these judgments extended to a woman’s class, morals, hygiene and even religion. Biscuit baking demonstrated class consciousness, the ability to afford specialized ingredients, marble-top counters and stoves. Cornbread, however, symbolized ignorance, disease and poverty.
What caused this rift between cornbread and biscuits?
In the late 1800s, single women with college educations from the Northeast, Kentucky and other parts of the non-mountain South were coming into Appalachia to build communities and make lives for themselves. One of the sources of tension between the newcomers and the women who had been there a long time was over education reform. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized the women who were coming into that region wanted to start by reforming the food that Appalachian women were cooking.
With the idea of helping the less fortunate, they advocated better cooking standards and public health concerns began to surface about diet-based diseases. Cornbread, which was made from locally milled corn and cooked over an open fire, became a target. Ironically the beaten biscuit recipe, which uses finely milled white flower and very little milk, may have been less nutritious than the cornbread local women were cooking for their families back in the 1800s.
How did Tomato Clubs empower young women back in the early 1900s?
In 1910, Marie Samuella Cromer, a young rural schoolteacher in the western South Carolina town of Aiken, organized a girls’ tomato club so that the girls would “not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.” The tomato clubs and the women who organized them wanted southern food to transform Southern society — but not from the top down.
The girls had to plant one-tenth of an acre of tomatoes, which would provide more tomatoes than they or their families could use in a year. This forced them to learn how to can, market and sell them — and they could do whatever they want with the money. Glass jars were scarce, so they had to use big pieces of equipment to can tomatoes in tin. In order to finish a year in the Tomato Club, they had to write a report about how they harvested, presented and sold their tomatoes. It was a real lesson in technology, science and entrepreneurship.
What chapter of the Southern food story often goes unnoticed?
When we think about Southern food, we often think of abundance. But there’s also a story about lack of access, the absence of healthy eating, the vanished pieces. Back in the 1900s, pellagra — a disease caused by a vitamin-B deficiency — sickened tens of thousands of Southerners in poor communities. Described as the disease of the four Ds: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death — pellagra made many of its sufferers suicidal or dangerous. It struck people in the rural South whose diets typically consisted of the “three Ms,” meat, meal and molasses. They were often described as “mill type ” or “white trash.” Behind the stereotypes hid a hungry, tired and ill version of the South that even today is difficult to understand.
What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?
I hope people leave the book with a resolution to ask family members (however they define family) about their own food stories. And I hope they learn a little about what is behind the final plate on the table, the messages in every meal about who we are as women, men, people of different races and ethnicities, and people of different classes. I hope readers join me in keeping the conversation going about the collective, collaborative and changing southern food stories that are all around us.
Do you have a favorite Southern dish?
Well, it’s early fall, and I come from a county in the North Carolina mountains that is famous for its heirloom apples. This time of year, I find myself most longing for fried apples, homemade applesauce and apple spice cake. But only if the apples have come from one of those bent, almost forgotten, but still glorious trees on the edge of an old home site, where the fireplace is all that’s left standing but the bees have done their work and the apples are ugly but amazing.
About the author: Engelhardt is the author of “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket” (University of Texas Press, 2009), “Beyond Hill and Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies” (Ohio University Press, 2005), and “Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature” (Ohio University Press, 2003). She is the coordinator of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Texas branch of the Southern Barbecue Trail Oral History Collection.
What to read next:
- “American studies scholars serve up stories behind Texas’ dynamic barbecue culture” (2009)
- “You are what you eat” — Engelhardt discusses the origins of comfort food (2005)