Biscuit Revivalism: Salvaging Southern Foodways in the Family and Beyond

Biscuit Revivalism: Salvaging Southern Foodways in the Family and Beyond

Whitney Brown
University of North Carolina


The field of folklore has been preoccupied historically with  authenticity.  But what happens to authenticity when real life  necessitates practical changes to tradition?  Through the material  culture and memories of the kitchen and table, “Biscuit Revivalism”  traces the evolution of Southern foodways across three generations of  one family.  Their lifestyle and dietary changes give rise to many  questions about tradition and its continuity (or obliteration), and  their particular story is emblematic of a larger one transpiring  across the modern-day South.  This paper considers the influence of  memory, nostalgia, class, education, travel, feminism, politics, and  health as it explores the process by which individuals negotiate the  traditions of family and region.  A meditation on tradition, “Biscuit  Revivalism” demonstrates that not only genes, but also stories,  recipes, and skillets tie the twenty-first century Southern woman to  the her Depression-era counterparts.  While by turns it is  romanticized, hybridized, or cast aside completely, tradition, in  fact, finds its strength in change.

As soon as I opened my mother’s recipe box, it struck me: I was the only person other than my mother ever to have peered into its contents.  And if I didn’t do it, no one would.  Authors and scholars including Lee Smith and Marcie Cohen Ferris have written about the powerful experience of exploring collections of recipes newly inherited from deceased family members.[1] My mother was not dead, and neither was her mother, but I realized that one day they would be.  Suddenly, I had become the bearer of tradition.  It is a role I welcome, and one I have tried on at various points in recent years, more and more comfortably each time.  Still, its weight was immediately palpable.  It is shocking to realize the fragility of the mundane, which once seemed so familiar and permanent.  In fact, all it takes is one disinterested generation, and the cakes, biscuits, and Sunday dinners can disappear with the passage of time.  Luckily, with enough determination, they can also be salvaged.

I am the only daughter of an only daughter, born in 1983 in a region and a family where women still do most of the cooking, as well as the cleaning and the child-rearing.  With my parents’ encouragement, I broke from tradition–at least temporarily.  I was a headstrong tomboy from the start, but my parents knew long before I was born that being a wife and a mother should be a happy option rather than an unquestionable predestination.  They pushed me to excel in school and build a meaningful career for myself outside the home so that I might have the luxury of options and financial independence unknown to generations of women before me.

My grandmother (henceforth denoted as “Mema”) was the eldest girl of ten children on a Depression-era tenant farm.  She remembers being so young when she started cooking that she had to stand on a chair to stir the pots on top of the wood stove.  Like too many poor girls of her generation, she had to quit school at an early age to help her mother take care of the younger children and the household chores.  At eighteen, my bright, hopeful mother had to accept the fact that college tuition was more than she could scrape together.  Her father was not in a position to help her with his humble mill worker’s salary and three younger sons still at home, so Mom went straight to work from high school.  Her financial situation did not improve much until she married my father six years later.  She would eagerly settle into her role as a mother, and though she worked outside the home, her children always took priority over any long-term career aspirations, and her financial well-being always depended largely on my father.  For my parents, these histories made seeing their children through college a chief goal.  Benefitting from generations of hard work, love, and sacrifice before me, I sailed through college on a full scholarship and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.  I did everything that was expected of me, and on paper I was certainly a success, but I sure couldn’t cook.

Patricia M. Gantt writes, “The identification of self with food is especially well entrenched for women, whose traditional roles have required them to plan, shop for, prepare, serve, and clean up after its consumption.  Even for modern women, this connection remains strong” (2001, 63).  Such a statement would have furrowed my brow at age twenty-one; I felt no special connection to food.  So what if I could not cook?  I was smart, musical, and athletic, and that had always seemed more than enough.  Soon, though, I began to wonder: what do we give up when we flee domesticity and its attendant skills?  Is that really empowerment?  Success?  Once I had believed that I had only the world to gain by avoiding the kitchen, but as a young woman freshly out of college, navigating a world of adults for the first time, I was beginning to have second thoughts.  Looking around me, I noticed that there were plenty of women my age who could cook well, and not only that, but they were women that I respected as dynamic, interesting people.  I suddenly felt inadequate and embarrassed, as if I had just blurted out the wrong answer in front of the whole class..  I envied the women who could cook, and I wanted my own connection to food.

I pondered the necessary skills of a woman of my generation.   This led to a litany of questions and worries.  If I ever decided that I wanted a family of my own, would I even be able to feed them?  Would it be healthy food?  Would it give them the same powerful sense of home that I have?  What would I do when my grandmothers died?  Who would make the holiday and Sunday dinners?  I could make none of the important, memory-loaded foods that mark special occasions with my family.  As a child, one assumes perpetuity of such things without considering the details; verging on adulthood, I became acutely aware of the need for my personal investment in their continuation, but when would I learn if I continued to live out of state?  Even more pressing, however, was the question of whether I could entertain my friends in an acceptable, welcoming way.  I could scarcely feed myself much more than cereal, peanut butter sandwiches, and frozen pizza… Was that the famous Southern hospitality I was supposed to have?

Now, a curious academic and perpetually homesick adult, I am retracing my steps into the kitchen and my past.  I am intent on learning from the women of my family the things they felt I should not have to know, or which had somehow begun to seem irrelevant by the time my generation arrived.  Women of my generation and class, largely post-feminist, do not have to struggle to get out of the kitchen, nor do we seem to sense any lingering taint of oppression.  It is our distinct luxury to enter the kitchen by choice and for pleasure.  On a more personal level, having finally put away my adolescent concerns about fitting in and being “normal,” I have settled into a mid-twenties comfort with contradiction.  Today, I understand that a woman can shamelessly climb trees, dominate the seminar table or the boardroom, and enjoy the nurturing environment of the kitchen.  It may have been obvious to others, but to me, it was a revelation to know that feeling like a whole woman does not have to mean the fulfillment of a shallow stereotype.  Even without an in-depth theoretical look at contemporary feminist theory, I know that being a powerful woman is something that can be done on my own terms, and my terms include cooking.  I am not alone.  As my mother so rightly says, “It always makes you feel good to cook something, and it turns out well, and people like it.  It gives you a sense of satisfaction… And people who cook well are always popular!” (Fieldnotes 38)  Feeding people, I now realize, is a power all its own. Though the pull of the kitchen might have surprised me, learning to cook has helped me begin to understand how “the kitchen and the garden have served as arenas where many Southern women […] have exercised power and creativity” (Prenshaw 1995, 6).

Understandably, my interest has been met with surprise by those in my family who know the kitchen best.  When I asked about growing up on a farm, Mema shook her head, grimaced, and said in a sort of quiet dismissal, “Oh, you don’t wanna know nothin’ about that…” (Pace 2008, 6).  I persisted, and as Mom and I sat around the table where we have spent so many Sunday dinners, she told us of a life that I had read about countless times in books on Southern history: pre-electricity, pre-indoor plumbing, pre-refrigeration, pre-radio, pre-automobile tenant farming.  She told us about boiling and beating laundry, taking day-long mule wagon trips into town, drawing well water, cooking on a wood stove, and hoeing cotton in the red hills of the South Carolina piedmont.  It is hard for me to imagine living out my days with such an endless string of labor-intensive tasks, so many of which were tied to food.  Even Mema said that she did not know how her mother survived it.  Shortly after World War II, Mema married a mill worker and left the farm for the city, where she hoped to have an easier life than her mother had had.

Yet for the most part, though she made no secret of the fact that life was hard work, Mema spoke positively–sometimes wistfully–about her experiences on the farm. Her stories often broke off into laughter.  Chuckling as she wondered aloud how the horse never got dizzy walking around and around as they milled their cane into syrup, she retreated into herself somewhat and said softly, “We had fun.  We had a lot of fun growing up…” (Pace 2008, 10).  She told a very animated story about her father, Luther Ingram, shooting a neighbor’s German Shepherd for getting into the family’s meat box on the back porch, and then another about her sister Mildred having to go to the outhouse every time the two of them were supposed to wash and dry dishes together.  In those days, so much of life revolved around food production, and Mema remembered having plenty of good food to eat.  Discussing food, at first she laughingly generalized:

Tell you the truth, back when I was growing up, anything taste good. It didn’t make no difference what it was. [laughs] By the time you got out of the fields, you were so hungry you didn’t care what you ate, just long as you had something to eat. (14)

Still, when pressed, she had plenty to say, especially about sweet potatoes, remembering that her father used to store them through the winter in a straw-lined trench in the ground and emphatically calling them the “best potatoes I’ve ever eaten in my life” (13).  I couldn’t help but be amused by the apparent vividness of that particular memory and her resulting enthusiasm because I love sweet potatoes, and Mom does, too.  Perhaps it was something more than just sweet potatoes.  Maybe she was simply enjoying wandering through memories of family and place that she had not visited in a while, just as I have done throughout this project.  Among many things, food is a powerful trigger for the mind and for the heart.

From those memories emerged a story about the ways in which continuity, interruption, and innovation have played out in the foodways of one family across generations, spaces, and lifestyle shifts.  Deciphering its meaning necessitates our consideration of food in context with the changing nature of work and time, new health challenges, evolving ideologies, life-altering experiences, homesickness, nostalgia, and the negotiation of identity.  Each of the ingredients, dishes, and methods that we as a family and a region have retained, and each that we have left in the past, is loaded with meaning.  The food of this story is not simply sustenance: it is a relic of a way of life that once was, and a reflection of the journey we have taken from there into the present.

In her book Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, Psyche Williams-Forson discusses the continued presence and significance of fried chicken along the physical, social, and cultural journeys of African-Americans.  Though the nature of African-American travel experiences has changed dramatically since Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation first made chicken a necessary traveling companion, the practice of carrying chicken continues for some.  It may no longer be a physical necessity, but some still perceive it as such, and the simple association of chicken with travel remains strong.  Williams-Forson asserts that people “hold on to generational rituals and practices in order to maintain a sense of identity and sanity.  But these decisions are also less dramatic.  In some cases, continuing these practices is simply a matter of making familial connections” (2006, 131).  She is talking specifically about the racial and cultural identity of a historically marginalized group, but I believe this explanation of continuity can also be applied more broadly.  Our dietary and customary holdovers are not always logical, nor do they necessarily reflect physical needs; they are, however, key to our sense of self, whether as individuals, families, or entire cultural groups. They allow us a sense of connectedness to the past.

In the South, a region where Faulkner famously noted that the past was neither dead nor past, food is unavoidably loaded with nostalgia.  Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan likewise asserted that “[…] places are locations in which people have long memories, reaching back beyond the indelible impressions of their own individual childhoods to the common lores of bygone generations” (1974, 245).  These connections between memory, place, and food are crucial to my search for a coherent, meaningful identity.  They inform what I claim–or, in some cases, reclaim or even invent–as my own.   In my kitchen, I tap into this larger reservoir of familial memory and the pan-Southern identity that envelopes us all as I bake my grandmother’s cake or use the skillet my mother gave me.  If parts are constructed for coherence of identity or borrowed for self-gratification, every bit of it is born of sincere devotion to this small corner of the world where I have spent most of my twenty-six years and my ancestors have spent hundreds.

In an article theorizing the perceptions and applications of heritage, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett offers a dynamic definition into which my quest for Southern food fits neatly: “Heritage is not lost and found, stolen and reclaimed.  It is a mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past” (1995, 370).  Moreover, Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin assert that “there is no essential, bounded tradition; tradition is a model of the past and is inseparable from the interpretation of the tradition in the present” (1984,   276).  They describe it, instead, as a symbolic process, and this is precisely the process in which I see myself engaged.  I am not claiming an authenticity in what I call my heritage.  My notions of heritage are admittedly colored by nostalgia and deep familial as well as regional love.  I am very consciously constructing myself as a modern Southern woman who is also a citizen of the world, tapping into roots that may or may not be my own, and doing so with an enthusiasm and feeling that I never anticipated.  Further vindicating me from unnecessarily narrow definitions of tradition, Henry Glassie, writes: “[…] when actions are shaped sincerely, tradition will be present” (2003, 192).  Whether my actions are authentic is beside the point: they are sincere, and I can claim the satisfaction of tradition and continuity that I need to be comfortable with my place in the world.

Not only is this food odyssey an exercise in continuity through workable traditions, but it has been a way for an increasingly but unintentionally distant academic to find her way home.  For me, it has been about defeating pretension and alienation, and, accepting the inevitable contradictions of people, politics, and place.  There was a time not too long ago when I had begun to privilege the sleek-and-sophisticated over the humble; the urban over the rural (and the suburban); the novel over the familiar; and the elitism and cosmopolitanism of the academy over my mostly blue collar, conservative, Baptist roots back in Greenville, South Carolina.  Education and travel had permanently shifted my worldview, but they had also temporarily inflated my ego.  That time, thankfully, has passed.  My cocky college condescension eventually became outright homesickness, and I was hungry.  In the end, the foods of home and family had a sensual, emotional appeal powerful enough to cut through even the most impervious youthful aloofness.  If the world I came from was less cosmopolitan and less educated, it still had amazing dishes and stories to offer.  The food and its surrounding narratives cued me in to what I was missing when I treated my background or the people at home as “less than” or forgettable.  Thus, it was through food that first understood my family and our traditions as something worthy of respect; after all, the food and the people were inseparable.  In essence, food functioned as a vivid, familiar point of re-entry to a world from which I had begun to feel strangely distant.

I may have reconciled myself with my roots, but eight years later, I remain an reluctant expatriate.  My professional path as an academic has required me to think and work in a rather small, specific world, and it has forced me to live away from home and family to find success.  These days, I reside in a less Southern South: Carrboro, North Carolina.  Thanks to the University of North Carolina in neighboring Chapel Hill and Research Triangle Park just up I-40, it is a place filled with transplanted people from around the country and the world.  Collectively, their values, beliefs, mannerisms, and dietary preferences are quite different from the world in which I grew up, which seems oddly homogenous by comparison.  In my part of Greenville, most people are natives, and I grew up surrounded by my entire family–aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and all.  Fortunately, the people of Carrboro seem to take a sincere interest Southern things like grits and pork barbecue, but some days I still feel like an oddball with my strong accent and homegrown dietary preferences. Carrboro loves tofu and community supported agriculture and underground Indian restaurants; Greenville loves meat-and-threes and corporate fast food and church suppers.  To sum up the differences in food, and to play on familiar regional stereotypes, I sometimes joke that in Greenville the people move slower and the food moves faster, whereas in Carrboro the people move faster and the food moves slower (as in the seasonal, savory Slow Food movement).  Traveling between the two places means code-switching in more ways than just language: food, politics, and pace of life.  Here, in this generally liberal, academic, and progressive town, I have been very happy, but I have struggled to retain all the bits of family and region so intricately infused within me.  Even my accent weakens between restorative phone calls to my family and trips home, but periodic trips to Chapel Hill’s Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen or Allen & Son Bar-B-Q help too.  The food reminds me that I am still in the South after all, and suddenly I feel like an insider again–especially if I have a heap of Yankee or Californian friends in the car with me.

The kitchen and the table are powerful sites that invite us to engage our memories, enact our traditions, affirm our identities, and, in so doing, feel a connection to our family members and friends that are both near and far, living and dead.  They can be timeless spaces, where the dishes and objects speak to us of people, places, and ways long gone, or they can be spaces equally storied by modernity, change, and conflict.  My kitchen is frequently a space of hybridity, where green bean and skillet–two traditional elements of Southern foodways[2]–meet garlic and teriyaki, the Johnny-come-latelies.  With my arteries in mind, I often cook them this way instead of the more traditional, hours-long stewing of green beans with fatback that results in a flavor and texture my grandmothers’ cooking brought me to love (and non-Southerners tend to loathe, declaring “Overcooked!” and “Greasy!”).  Though my cooking style has departed from family tradition in some ways, certain traditional elements remain, such as familiar vegetables or special cookware, and without a doubt, food like my grandmothers’ greasy, overcooked green beans are the foods I look forward to most when I get back to South Carolina.

In this struggle to balance old and new, I have learned that certain food can be a stable and portable touchstones that I can keep with me wherever I go and whomever I become. Psyche Williams-Forson explains: “The ways in which people define themselves by food has specific class and regional dimensions.  […] when people migrate, very rarely do they want to relinquish the cultural behaviors that bring them comfort and familiarity” (2006, 128).  Since I never keep much meat in the house, let alone strips of fatback, I can’t make a big pot of greasy green beans when pangs of homesickness strike.  Instead, I turn to other familiar foods in their familiar forms, often pulling out recipes my mother wrote down for me by hand.   I bake golden pones of cornbread, sweet potato casseroles, and towering layer cakes to bridge the distance home.  My friends don’t seem to mind when I do this, so I usually find myself both reminded of home and surrounded by friends.  Homesickness disappears for the moment.

It was not until I left home that I became so interested in what home is and, more broadly, what it means to be Southern.  When I moved to Tuscaloosa and entered the University of Alabama, I began to compare two very different places in the South and to consider my family from a distance for the first time.  As Tuan explains,

Total immersion in an environment means to open one’s pores, as it were, to all its qualities, but it also means ignorance of the fact that one’s place as a whole has a personality distinct from that of all other places. […]  The sense of place is perhaps never more acute than when one is homesick, and one can only be homesick when one is no longer at home. (243)

I could not know nor could I truly appreciate my home until I left it, and I missed nothing more than the food, making holiday meals over semester breaks even more momentous.

College was not all deprivation.  It was also when I discovered the wonders of vegetarians, sushi, and coffee, as well as the dangers of Hot Pockets and all-you-can-eat dining halls.   Living in Washington, DC, for two summers, I tried my first poached eggs, hollandaise, crab cakes, and Indian food, and I became addicted to the twin pleasures of running and leisurely Sunday brunches with running buddies, which gave me a sense of community and filled the gap that had been left by church, family, and Sunday dinners when I moved away.  Studying abroad in Scotland, I picked up a falafel habit, and I even liked haggis.  The world was suddenly at my fingertips and on my plate in a way it never had been before.

Today, as a tourist, my souvenir is often a taste for new dishes.  On a recent visit to Barcelona I fell head over heels for Catalan cuisine new and old: lamb sweetbreads and armagnac ice cream, chickpeas with black sausage, and chipirones (baby squid) with a fried egg and hot peppers.  Family members sometimes cringe as I excitedly relay such eating experiences, but as they shake their heads at me, they also smile, having accepted by now the strange fact of my gastronomic curiosity.  Though I thrive on novelty, the contrast of my culinary adventures just makes me miss home that much more, and as I have come to appreciate regional and ethnic foods more through travel, I have seen my own food in a new light.  I want to strengthen my own traditions, and in fact, I seem to be more focused on the contents of our dinner table than anyone in my family.  The diversity of my experiences and my distance from home have caused me to see it in a way that others perhaps do not.  Or maybe fascination with tradition is simply a trait of all folklorists, and I am the only one of those in my family.

On the leading edge of the twenty-first century, my worry for family and regional food traditions is three-fold: the amoeba of homogenization, the lure of convenience (begetting ignorance and forgetfulness), and the rebellion of the body out of motion.  To elaborate, firstly, an America barreling toward regional homogenization scares and bores me, but globalization, round-the-clock mass media, and fast food have already crept like kudzu into my beloved South.    Secondly, there is the onslaught of easy mixes, frozen dinners, super-processed everything, and convenient fast food drive-thrus, all under the guise of “progress” and readily adopted by many who grew up the way my grandmother did.  These lessen many Southerners’ desire and, accordingly, ability to cook as we once did.  Thirdly, the double whammy of fad diets (e.g., Atkins, South Beach) and the growing public health crises of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes mean that fewer and fewer Southerners are able to eat as we did in the days when we worked the land twelve hours a day.  What is left of our diet, which was intimately tied to what the land could yield us and when, can usually be found at the homes of our aging grandmothers’ and a few scrappy restaurants that try to do right by the South.  (I could describe those restaurants in a less zealous, more scholarly way as being faithful to Southern and local traditions as they are popularly understood and accepted, but I am, in fact, a bit zealous, and I am not pretending to be impartial in this food fight.)

Fortunately, for all the hardship it faces today, Southern food no longer has the image problem it once did.  Like the New Jersey Pine Barrens described by Angus Gillespie (148), but on a much larger scale, the South is full of proud people who have historically seen themselves and their food as distinct even if outsiders simply deemed them low status.  Geographically and culturally, they were ghettoized.  Now, non-Southerners and gourmets alike have “discovered” and ordained the food of America’s “exotic inner colony” (Fine 2004, 10).  Indeed, many talented chefs native to the South now have more than a niche audience for their cuisine.  One outcome of this is that they are able to charge outrageous sums for dishes made from staple foods such as grits, “heirloom” vegetables, pork offal, and seafood that anchored the diets of poor Southerners for hundreds of years before coming to the attention of curious foodies.  From Bill Neal and Edna Lewis to John Besh and Robert Stehling, an entire thriving market of upscale Southern cuisine now exists alongside our BBQ shacks and hole-in-the wall “meat and threes.”  I cannot judge too harshly–I love them all and am excited for the attention.  After all, we Southerners take our food very seriously, and we are happy to see it get some respect.  We just wonder what took so long.

Unfortunately, as our food has gotten recognition, we have gotten sick.  Mirroring much discussed trends in public health, my family has had some major battles with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes in the last 30 years.[3] I have watched my father go through bypass surgery in 1995 and, more recently, surgery to put in a pacemaker.  He also has diabetes.  Both of my grandfathers had long histories with heart disease, and both eventually died of heart attacks.  Many others in the family have high blood pressure and cholesterol.  Sadly, this is a common refrain among most people I know from home.  The traditional Southern diet, I fear, is a killer now that we are out of the fields and into the cubicles.  Our love for newer things like fast food and soft drinks, as well as highly processed versions of our old favorite dishes and desserts, doesn’t help.

When my father had his bypass surgery, he was 46 and I was eleven.  Heart surgery at such a young age was a huge disruption to our lives, and our food has never been the same.  We were scared into healthier eating, which meant a white meat, sugar-free, and low-fat table.  Fried foods disappeared completely, and lots of heavy, greasy meat dishes were replaced by chicken and more chicken: bacon and sausage for breakfast, huge steaks for dinners with friends, beef and sausage lasagna, hamburgers, and weekly pork chops and dirty rice all changed.  Even fried chicken went the way of the grill, and there would be no more buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken for tailgating either.  Gravy had to go.  Real cheese and real desserts vanished.  Maybe they were replaced with fat-free and aspartame-loaded alternatives, but many favored ingredients and dishes were abandoned completely.  Simple sheet cakes and brownies, once common around the house, now appeared only on holidays and special occasions.  The Cheerwine, Orange Crush, Coca-Cola, and sweet tea that Dad drank like a fish had to be replaced by sugar- and caffeine-free incarnations, and skim milk became a part of the family.  Suddenly, the cabinets and the fridge were filled with the unfamiliar.  Essentially, my mother has had to completely change her cooking to save his life.  Reflecting on the changes, she said: “My cooking has had to evolve since we got married. It has revolved around his health. […] We’re all healthy because of it.  That’s the positive aspect of it” (Fieldnotes 33).

Mom has made changes that neither of my grandmothers did when their husbands developed heart problems.  Usually, the husbands refused it outright, clinging to their biscuits and red-eye gravy and bacon, but at 46, my father had a lot of life left to live.  Furthermore, because my grandmothers did not learn to cook from books to begin with, it would have been a difficult transition for them to make.  Mom, however, got the Pillsbury family cookbook when she got married, and because my father is picky and will not eat many of the vegetables or the cornbread my mother and grandmothers grew up eating, much of Mom’s cooking was typical American cookbook and women’s magazine fare for the time.  Nonetheless, in the transition to healthier eating, we gave up traditions new and old, family and regional.  A lot was lost, no doubt, but when Dad had another heart catheterization in 2007 before his pacemaker went in, all of his bypasses were still clean, testifying to the heroic job Mom has done through careful study and a slew of new cookbooks, recipes from websites, and skillful experimentation.  She decided that we would all be better served by saying goodbye to the food than to Dad, and she has been diligent even in the face of our occasional protestation over being denied our familiar favorites.

Despite the tone of this paper, I wholeheartedly agree with Mom, and even though by some miracle I still like grilled chicken after fifteen years, I miss some of what we gave up.  After all, I am not the one with heart disease (at least not yet!), and a couple of years ago, I began to rediscover Southern food as a nostalgic eater and a student of Southern culture.  On the imperiled Southern diet, my friend April McGreger, a chef, writer, and enthusiastic fellow Southerner, recently quoted to me a woman named Poppy Tooker, who is prominent in the New Orleans food scene: “You have to eat it to save it” (McGreger E-mail).  There is quite a bit of distinction worth saving.  Food is a part of Southern culture that remains potent and emotional, and over which I retain a measure of control in the face of the triumvirate of threats: homogenization, convenience, and illness.  Whatever my fears, if I want to retain this valuable part of my past–of my family’s heritage–I must cook it, and I must eat it.  Apart from all the running I do to counter its ill effects, you will not find me complaining, but I have a lot to learn, and I am racing the clock.  One grandmother recently passed away, and the other often does not feel well enough to be on her feet all day in a kitchen doing demos for me or preparing giant meals for the family.  At 82, she is entitled to be tired of cooking.  And by the time I started this research, the biscuits were already gone.

Biscuits are one of the most iconic foods in the South.  According to historian Charles Reagan Wilson, they have “provided nourishment to generations of Southerners, been a part of everyday family rituals, and become symbols of regional tradition” (122).  Maybe so, but we never ate made-from-scratch biscuits when I was a kid unless we went to Hardee’s with my grandparents on Saturday mornings.  (Grandma never failed to pull a Ziploc full of sliced cantaloupe out of her purse on these occasions.)  If we ever ate biscuits at home, they were the canned kind that you whacked on the counter or, more recently, the frozen Mary B’s biscuits that many Southern women now swear by with varying degrees of forthrightness.  At 23, I taught myself to make sweet potato buttermilk biscuits from an obscure Southern Living volume because I wanted festive orange biscuits for a Halloween brunch, but I had never made a plain old buttermilk biscuit until I began this project.  I realized what a shame it was that I, self-professed Southern woman and increasingly competent baker, could not make such an important food.  I immediately decided to learn, taking a recipe from The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook as a base and moving from there.

I had never made them before because the women in my family stopped making biscuits all together after so many years of making and eating them every day.  My mother remembers that Mema had a certain ceramic bowl that she made them in every time, and it was such a methodical, familiar process that she could simply eyeball the ingredients against the side of the bowl.  They ate biscuits with sawmill gravy made from fried fatback for breakfast, and when she remembered it aloud, Mema quickly echoed that she, too, was “raised on that” back on the farm (Pace 2008, 6).  They kept eating it because it was cheap and filling.  But when I was kid, we mostly ate cereal.   After I was seven, my mother always worked outside the house and didn’t have time to provide us with a cooked breakfast every day.  I doubt she ever really learned to make biscuits anyway, perhaps because she could still get them from her mother, or because the ones from the can were so convenient.  Mema quit making them as soon as she could and now laughingly says she can’t make a good biscuit to save her life.  Even after decades of daily repetition, the knowledge is gone.  Even the bowl is gone.  But because biscuits are a crucial part of both pan-Southern identity and my family history, I made the choice to re-learn this part of my heritage from a cookbook whose writers I trust enough to stake the integrity of my identity as a Southerner upon their recipe.  That first batch of biscuits was good, and I look upon it as their official successful re-establishment as a tradition in the family.  Biscuits are an important part of who I want to be, and as Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Handler, and Linnekin explain, heritage and tradition are as much about who we want to be in the present as who we actually were in the past.

Cornbread, another of the South’s iconic quickbreads, we never gave up.  It has changed with the disappearance of lard from every kitchen in the family and with the addition of cornmeal mix (pre-proportioned meal, flour, and a leavening agent) to the shelves, but we still eat and love it.  Inseparable from cornbread is the cast iron skillet, and Mema declares that she could not live without hers.  Her large skillet is well-seasoned by now after decades of use for baking cornbread and frying chicken and bacon.  She also has a much smaller one that she uses to make smaller pones of cornbread for herself.  She has cooked for two husbands and a big family over the course of about 75 years, but it is usually just her now.

My mother loves her skillet too, and she gave me one for Christmas in 2007 that I immediately cherished–and put to use.  Just like Mema says she can’t make a pot of beans without fatback, all the women of my family agree, you can’t make good cornbread without a real, seasoned cast iron skillet.  The crust is never the same without it.  You have to get the skillet hot in the oven beforehand so that the batter will hit the surface and immediately sizzle, Mom says.  She even likes it a little burnt on the bottom.  The skillet is beautiful and valuable because of the way it performs certain tasks even though we have lighter, more modern cookware available.

Together, cornbread and the cast iron skillet are emblematic of Southern food, and because the South is inseparable from its food, they also represent the whole of Southern identity.  My family is somewhere in that mix of food and place.  The continuity of family, food, and Southern culture is wrapped up in the skillet, which is why my mother felt it was necessary for me to have one of my own.  Still, I hope to inherit my grandmother’s through my mother one day.  Skillets, of course, only get better with age as stories and seasoning accumulate.  They are the perfect example of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s “material companions,” which “are valued for their continuity,” and “are incorporated into daily life, […] bringing reverie to the most mundane tasks” (1989, 330).  Because my skillet is heavy, has a handle that can burn, and requires special cleaning, it is not convenient, but there is something special about using it.  It is so different from my other pots and pans, which are Danish, ergonomic, and non-stick, that it heightens my awareness that I am engaging in a unique and notable kind of cooking.  It feels, looks, cooks, and even smells different than the rest, and to use it is a gateway into memory.  I think of my mother, the various times that I have eaten or made cornbread, and a larger, more ambiguous pool of nostalgic imaginings.

Despite the changes Mema has willingly made to try to have an easier life than the one she knew growing up, I locate a lot of my sense of tradition in her…perhaps too much.  It is easy to see more tradition than actually exists when we set our imaginations loose in a world that we know only from a story here and there, and a small stack of grainy black and white photographs. I admit that I sometimes get a little wrapped up in excessively romanticized versions of my young grandparents’ lives.  As we sat talking about cornbread, Mema told me that if I wanted to make it really good, I should put in about a tablespoon of sour cream.  I was excited that she was passing on this old country cooking secret, but later that afternoon, cornbread came up again, and I found out that she learned it watching Tyler Florence on the Food Network.  I laughed out loud at myself and told her why.  She got a big kick out of it too, cheerfully remarking, “It doesn’t matter where it comes from as long as it tastes good!”  (Pace 2008, 27)  This humorous but revealing episode certainly made me feel like less of a fraud for getting my biscuits from recipe books.

My grandparents’ homes are the sites of many of my unimagined food memories, and they are the places where the food has been the most stable.  It was at my paternal grandparents’ house that I used to pick pole beans out back in Pop’s garden and saw off fat, fuzzy pods of okra with his old Army bayonet.  Inside, I strung and snapped beans at the table with Grandma and washed prickly turnip greens while standing on a chair in front of the sink.  The things we picked on Saturday got eaten at dinner on Sunday, and always with plenty of fatback to season the green vegetables.  And so it went for years until my parents, my brother, and I blasphemously switched from the family’s old Southern Baptist Church in Greenville’s Brandon community to another one just down the road in Berea.  Grandma suddenly stopped inviting us to dinner.  She was punishing us by denying us a place at her table and in the family circle.  The rift healed after a few months, and we resumed our places at the table even if we were still attending “that country club church” down the road, but this episode illustrates the importance and routine of Sunday dinner.  The table is a place of inclusion, love, acceptance, and–in our family–obedience; our rejection of my grandmother’s wishes made us temporary outcasts.  Luckily, she loved us enough to forgive us for what she saw as our poor taste in churches.

Eventually, Pop stopped gardening, and he died not too long after in 2006. Toward the end of her life, Grandma had lost too much of her memory to cook for the family.  My mother and aunts began to coordinate by phone and import the food to Grandma’s every week in a concerted effort to save the tradition of Sunday dinners and holiday gatherings we have always had there.  These bind the family together and are often the only times we see each other, and though we are glad to gather in other places too, no place quite fills the role of my grandparents’ slightly stuffy house, full of people and the smells of tradition.  Grandma recently died, and already I find myself wondering what shape our gatherings will take and where they will be held in the future.  Our traditions, nimble and adaptable, will find a way to continue, even if a few things change along the way.

In addition to the food itself, recipes, plates, pans, dishes, utensils, kitchen spaces, tables, gardens, and the stories that go along with them combine to create coherent ensembles of biography and meaning.  Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes:

Ensembles are as revealing as particular objects, whether the ensemble is a loosely assembled collection, carefully arranged tableau, new synthetic object, or entire environment.  Recipe notebooks […] are among the among the many tangible ways that lives are gathered together and reviewed.  Whether scribbled in a notebook or on scraps of loose paper, recalled in conversation, or preserved in the more formal medium of privately printed booklets, recipes and the dishes prepared from the have long served as a medium for life review.  […] Many of the recipes will be cherished more as texts connected with lives than as instructions to follow […].  ( 1989, 333)

Thus, along with her skillet, my mother’s shelves of cookbooks, her recipe box, her stories, and the dishes that come of them are a “medium for recalling a life” (1989, 333). Her collection of cookbooks and recipes is fascinating because so much of is just that: a collection.  It is more like the annals of history than a currently useful tool.  She has cooked a lot over the years and relied heavily upon those resources, but she has far surpassed the number of recipes she actually uses–or could ever use–with ones that she just thought sounded good and saved for the future. She cooks off the top of her head sometimes, but more often she tears things out of magazines at work, prints things off websites, or uses her newest cookbooks.  These are healthier than anything in the recipe box or older cookbooks, the contents of which are mostly from the early years of her marriage in the 1970s and my childhood in the 1980s.  Now, those recipes only get pulled out for holiday cooking, and they are heavy on desserts, as is everything in our family.  Mom, Mema, and I all love desserts and love experimenting with new ones.  The cakes and brownies and cobblers I love come to me from the Brown side of the family as well, so I “get it honest,” as we’d say at home.

Mema does have a recipe box, but its presence in her kitchen is almost laughable: never one to rely on recipes, I do not know why she needs something to hold the things she never uses.  I have never seen a cookbook in her house, but unlike Mema, Mom and I have growing collections of cookbooks.  Her Southern Living gets a lot of use.  I use my Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook and my Nancie McDermott Southern Cakes most frequently.  That each of our favorites has “Southern” in the title is quite telling.  If it were really untouched family tradition we were cooking up, would we need cookbooks to tell us how to do it?  Through these books, we willfully engage a broader Southern identity by taking as our own these recipes that didn’t previously exist in our family or maybe even our geographic area.  Typically, they are modernized versions of or new twists on old Southern dishes.

Undoubtedly, though, our most cherished cookbook is a handmade one that is not Southern in appellation but by association and constitution.  It is the Women’s Missionary Union Cookbook from West Greenville Baptist Church, the same church that we so infamously left.  My brother Taylor’s handwriting is on the front, and judging from the look of his scrawl, the book probably dates to the early 1980s when he was in kindergarten.  I remember that Carolyn Johnson, the church secretary, did all the typing inside, just as she did the weekly church bulletins; my mother remembers that Carolyn was notorious for her typos.  My mother, grandmother, and great aunt have recipes inside, and we still use them.  Aunt Bill’s Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies and Mom’s Chewies are holiday favorites.  Best of all, though, my brother and I like to look through it and laugh now because some of the foods are funny–or scary, like “Chicken Pieces”–but more often, the names and dishes remind us of the characters and stories of our childhood.  Like cooking with my skillet, reading the WMU cookbook is gateway into memory and, sometimes, a storytelling prompt.    For these reasons, it is the best-loved and most worn cookbook in the house.  It is as irreplaceable as the stories secured in its binding.

Whether from family recipes or favorite cookbooks like these, or from restaurants and magazine pages, cakes are one of my greatest loves.  As a child, I got a lot of love through cakes baked by my mother, my grandmothers, and the women at church.  Without a doubt, my favorite example is the aquamarine Care Bears birthday cake my mother created for my second birthday–it even incorporated my Care Bear toys as toppers nestled in tufts of white cloud!  Looking back on the homemade birthday cakes of my childhood from my mid-twenties, my mother is even more amazing.  These cakes embody the happiness and security I knew in her care.  I feel intensely proud of her because of what those cakes say about love and family and making your children’s small dreams come true. Her cakes were not gourmet, nor were they perfect.  They were simple yellow sheet cakes, brightly and lovingly decorated in whatever theme Taylor and I selected for the year, and always served with ice cream.  It was a really big deal to two small kids and their jealous friends, and the days that we baked and ate these cakes are some of my favorite memories.  I helped with the baking and icing as soon as I was old enough, and the tradition of homemade, custom birthday cakes continued until I became an ungrateful teenager and Dad got sick with heart disease and diabetes.  By that time, Taylor had gone off to college, and Mom had gone back to work, leaving her with less time to spare for baking.

Sour cream coconut cake is a Southern favorite and Mema’s speciality.  She makes it for me every year at Thanksgiving.  I have been trying for a couple of years to make it exactly as she does, but I cannot get the layers quite right.  They are not complicated–Mema has always used Duncan Hines mix!  I do everything according to the recipe, including letting the finished product rest in the refrigerator for four days before touching it again, but I can never get it as deliciously soggy as she does.  This cake should be almost melting by the time you cut it.  I asked her about it while I was home last, and she asked me whether I was poking holes in each layer as I assembled the cake so that the icing could soak in… No, I wasn’t.  The recipe does not say anything about poking holes with a toothpick.  This is exactly the trouble with getting recipes from people who do not use them.  Cooking is so second nature for them that they sometimes forget to relay crucial little details.  If Mema were not still living, that small but important step would have been lost and the cake I love changed forever.  More importantly, even when the cake is not quite right, I am proud to have inherited this amazing, if incomplete, recipe and to tell people about it and the woman who makes it best.

Inspired by my childhood full of cakes and the pleasure I now get from baking them for others, I am steadily growing my repertoire of Southern cakes.  My uncle jokes that I’m going to graduate school to learn to cook.  This year, I have added Red Velvet Cake, Caramel Cake, and Agnes Hooper’s Iced Lemon Pound Cake to my collection.  I have specific ties to Mrs. Hooper’s legendary cake through church, and finding the recipe during the course of this research was the culinary equivalent of hitting Powerball.  The others, though, are simply pan-Southern cakes that I have chosen to adopt from books.  It is possible that they were around with the dozens of other desserts that filled the tables at church events and family reunions, but I did not know them as a child.  (I can imagine myself being turned off by a lurid red cake as a child, preferring the simplicity and familiarity of my mother’s yellow cakes.)  Now, they are part of my determined effort to be a good baker as well as a good Southerner–to embody a certain idea of feminine identity and power, and a certain conceptualization of region identity and tradition.   In “Taking the Cake,” Patricia Gantt explains the connections between cake, women, and power in the South:

Matters that are important in southern culture are passed on in subtle ways–are, in fact, more caught than taught.  They are the sorts of things that “Everybody knows,” despite whether they are actually true.  The connections between women and cakes and between cakes and cultural power exemplify this kind of social osmosis.  Everybody knows that really good cakes are hard to make.  Everybody knows that the leading women in a community make the best cakes.  Everybody knows that there is as wide a cultural void between a cake made from a box and a fresh coconut cake as there is between the Jerry Springer Show and Masterpiece Theatre. (2001, 82)

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, chef Mildred “Mama Dip” Council has said, “Nothing is as memorable, or enhances a cook’s reputation so much, as a spectacular cake” (Council 1999, 171.)  Cakes are a way that I choose to communicate affection, gratitude, and admiration, and having many cakes at my disposal allows me to do that more effectively by pleasing more people.  Food is one of the best ways to build and cement relationships, and nothing extends a hand in friendship or says congratulations or thank you like a sweet, beautiful cake.  Perhaps it is the sweetness itself that communicates love, or the “Everybody knows” type of mutual understanding of the time and effort that goes into baking.  Cakes, then, are vehicles for more than just calories, enabling the baker to convey emotion, meaning, identity, tell and power.

In her book exploring questions of authenticity Regina Bendix asserts that “[…] cultures do not die, at best they change, along with those who live in them and thus constitute them” (1997, 9).  In my worry about traditional foodways, I have sometimes forgotten that we all do the best we can, adapting to the times and situations in which we find ourselves.  My grandmother has cooked amazing meals on a tight budget her entire life.  My mother has stayed curious, creative, and graceful in the kitchen to keep my father alive and to stave off her own boredom with repetition.  Just as surely as time is never static, neither is food.  Much of what feels authentic to me today is in fact fueled by nostalgia and constituted of things I have consciously learned and assembled for a very specific end: a more complete, coherent Southern identity.  Tradition is not inevitable–it is as much a choice as change.  In some ways, I have retreated to a space somewhere between my grandparents and my parents, and in some ways I am far beyond anything they could have imagined.  I can only wonder what the next generation will make of us, what we eat, and the new set of changes and challenges they will meet.

With each passing year, I find it is increasingly important to me that I inhabit my kitchen and feed people in the same deft, loving way that my mother, grandmothers, and aunts have done all my life. Unsurprisingly, there are things I knew as a child that my hypothetical kids will not have, but many of the changes that have taken place in my diet and my consciousness since childhood have been positive ones.  They certainly will not have the Southern Baptist churchgoing experience that I did, nor the big Sunday dinners afterward, nor the enormous funeral meals and covered dish socials.  Given the ongoing change in our cooking habits, there is no telling what the food would look like even if they were to have those experiences.  They will not garden with their grandparents because my parents buy everything at the grocery store.  They won’t have the fat- and meat-heavy diet that I once did because I rarely eat meat at home.  But they will not miss everything.  They will have my stories of those things, just as I have Mema’s stories of life on a tenant farm.  And I will make the birthday cakes just as Mom did, though my skepticism of processed foods means that I will probably opt for butter- rather than Crisco-based icings.  I might get around to using fatback in my beans on special occasions.  I will make the biscuits I have resurrected and the cornbread I have inherited.  I will keep making the storied Southern layer cakes that I grew to love at my grandmother’s table and in the church fellowship hall.  And, without a doubt, I will hand down my skillet.  Whatever my accomplishments in the outside world, it is in the kitchen I feel most authentically a part of my family.  My presence there feels comfortable, natural, inevitable, and yes, even traditional.


[1] See Lee Smith’s “Lady Food.” In We Are What We Ate, ed. Mark Winegardner.  New York: Harvest Books, 1998. Also, Marcie Cohen Ferris’s Matzoh Ball Gumbo.  Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004.

[2] For a discussion of the green bean, see Fred Sauceman’s “Beans” in The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 7 (Foodways), ed. John T. Edge. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2007.  For a discussion–and glorification–of the skillet, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance at, where you will immediately find a skillet graphic in the organization’s logo.  Its visual use speaks volumes.

[3] A litany of articles on this subject have appeared in major newspapers in recent years, but for a good overview, see N.R. Kleinfield, “Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis”. The New York Times, A18, January 9, 2006.


Bendix, Regina. In Search of Authenticity.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Brown, Whitney.  Fieldnotes on a personal interview with Shirley Ellison Brown.  Greenville, SC.  13 March 2008.

Council, Mildred. Mama Dip’s Kitchen. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1999.

Fine, Gary Alan.  Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Gantt, Patricia M. “Taking the Cake.”  In Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food, ed. Sherrie Inness.  Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2001.

Glassie, Henry. “Tradition.”  In Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture. Ed. Burt Feintuch.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Gillespie, Angus.  “A Wilderness in the Megalopolis: Foodways in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.”  In Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity.  Ed. Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell.  Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin. “Tradition, Genuine or Spurious.”  The Journal of American Folklore 97. 385 (1984): 273-290.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara.

“Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review.”  Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader.  Ed. Elliot Oring. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1989.

“Theorizing Heritage.”  Ethnomusicology 39. 3 (1995): 367-380.

Kleinfield, N.R. “Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis.” The  New York Times 9 January 2006: A18.

McDermott, Nancie.  Southern Cakes.  San Francisco: Chronicle, 2007.

McGreger, April. “Re: quick question.” E-mail to the author. 17 April 2008.

Pace, Ilene Ellison.  Personal Interview.  15 March 2008.

Prenshaw, Peggy.  “Introduction,” Southern Quarterly 30.2-3 (1992).

Sauceman, Fred.  “Beans.”  In The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 7 (Foodways), ed. John T. Edge.  Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2007.

Tuan, Yi-Fu.  “Space and place: humanistic perspective.”  Progress in Geography 6 (1974): 211-252.

Williams-Forson, Psyche A.  Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Wilson, Charles Reagan. “Biscuits.” Volume 7 (Foodways) of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.  Ed. John T. Edge.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Whitney Brown is a graduate student in Folklore at the University of  North Carolina.  A member of Slow Food International and the Southern  Foodways Alliance, she is actively engaged in the study of  traditional and regional foodways, as well as the resurgent popular  interest in both. In addition to her graduate studies, she recently  worked for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Southern Governors Association, Haearn Designer Blacksmiths, and Scratch Artisan Baking.  She is a native of Greenville, SC.



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