A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender & Southern Food

2011 Texas Book Festival cookbook reviews

Chews Wisely

A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender & Southern Food

by Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt
University of Georgia Press, 265 pp., $24.95 (paper)

For most people the term "Southern foodways" evokes Sunday dinner tables piled high with fried chicken, flaky biscuits, buttered corn, and bacony greens. Southern food is hearty, homey, and fiercely allied with tradition. Yet few of us consider the dynamic stimuli that molded those traditions.

In A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender & Southern Food, University of Texas historian Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt moves away from the static, nostalgic representation of Southern foods by offering a scholarly perspective – one that considers the social forces that influenced the evolution of the Southern table. Mining long-buried episodes of Americana, she explores five historical moments that illustrate how gender roles, changing attitudes about race and class, and new socioeconomic forces shaped the foodstuffs and recipes we have come to associate with the South.

She starts with moonshine: not with recipes, but with how the narrative representation of moonshine at the beginning of the 20th century highlights a collective national anxiety over the increasing sexual, financial, and personal liberation of women. From there, Engelhardt explores the social divide between biscuits and cornbread. Cornbread was at one time the target of a spirited reform campaign aimed at modernizing Southern households. For social reformers, mealtime cornbread represented coarseness, whereas beaten biscuits signified modernity and refinement. Tomato canning clubs of the 1910s form the backdrop for Engelhardt's third historical moment and constitute yet another social reform campaign that aimed to empower young girls and promote self-sufficiency. The fourth moment tackles the darker side of female labor and the South's tangled relationship with food. Delving into the proliferation of pellagra (a disease of malnutrition) among Southern households, particularly for poor farm and factory workers, the book looks at how the lack of food also influenced food culture. Cookbooks and curb markets are the subject of Engelhardt's final episode. Both served as casual forums for women to express social aspirations and political views and exchange ideas, as well as transmit culinary knowledge.

The title is an apt metaphor for Engelhardt's subject matter. As Engelhardt demonstrates, the roots of Southern foodways are a tangled mess of traditions.

Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt will appear at 11:15am Saturday in Capitol Extension Rm. E2.030.

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A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender & Southern Food, Elizabeth Engelhardt, Texas Book Festival

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