The Southern Foodways Vortex

This winter, weather watchers have been talking a lot about the “polar vortex,” which is a confluence of climatic events that essentially boil down to “Damn, it’s cold outside!”  The term “vortex,” however, offers a useful analogy for considering something quite different than the weather–the expanding interest in southern foodways.

SFAStay with me on this. Vortex, according to your basic dictionary, is a mass of spinning air, liquid, etc., that pulls things into its center. I’d argue that we’re currently experiencing a southern foodways vortex in which the food and culinary practices of the region are pulling at us from all directions thanks to the work of scholars, chefs, cooks, journalists, and documentary filmmakers. Leading this movement, of course, is the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), a non-profit organization based at the University of Mississippi that “documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.”

Maybe I’m overstating the case about the growing interest in southern foodways because I’m familiar with the work of the SFA, know several scholars who have contributed to the literature on this topic, and have met some of the region’s chefs whose cookbooks sell a lot better than anything I’ve ever written. And if I don’t know them, I’m following them on Twitter. But I think the case is strong.

gandgSFA Director John T. Edge is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and the paper’s Atlanta bureau chief, Kim Severson (also a cookbook author), has written several articles about southern foodways, which means the topic gets national exposure. Then there are the regional magazines (Southern Living, Garden and Gun, Our State) that practically beg to be bought, enticing us with mouthwatering photos of food and drink, spreading the love of southern foodways. The new online magazine called The Bitter Southerner, recently featured a two-part essay on the work of the SFA (which I highly recommend) that offers an in-depth look at the organization and the ways in which southern foodways can be used for good–to build bridges between people from all walks of life and to do so “in a spirit of reconciliation.”

willis_okraThe University of North Carolina Press, which has a reputation for publishing outstanding books on regional history and culture, is now publishing some of the best books on regional food to be found. Its Savor the South  cookbook series is unique in its exploration of regional food, as each book examines the history and cultural relevance of a single ingredient common in southern food, while also providing recipes that use those ingredients. Okra? Buttermilk? Pickles & Preserves? Yes, please!

While the photographs found in the pages of magazines and cookbooks are a feast for the eyes, there are also beautiful documentaries that invite you to savor the sights, sounds, and stories of regional foodways; there are none better than those produced by the SFA’s Joe York. York’s films, featured at food film festivals in New York and Chicago, are special because the focus is not so much the food as it is about people, and before you know it, you’ve learned something unique about southern history and culture. Watch York’s short film “Smokes and Ears” and you’ll see what I mean.

Why all this interest in southern foodways? Perhaps all that’s old is new again. During the Great Depression, Americans were very nostalgic about the South, as evidenced by the novels, plays, movies and advertising of the period. The nostalgia was based, in part, on an idea of the South as America’s last remaining pastoral region and that southerners embodied the American ideal of self-reliance because they lived off the bounty of the land they cultivated.

In our own time of economic uncertainty, I wonder if we aren’t experiencing a similar nostalgia for the pastoral and for the self-reliant southerner. Exploding interest in southern foodways goes a long way in feeding that craving, because it’s very much about valuing our history with the land, about the resourcefulness of people, and about traditions. Even if nostalgia draws people into the southern foodway vortex, any preconceived ideas about the region’s history and culture or what constitutes “southern” food are bound to be challenged by the work of historians, food writers, and the cooks themselves.

Cheers to that. With a glass of bourbon, of course.

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