I’ve been thinking for a while now about exploring food memories. While in school (see Life of a Middle-Aged College Student,) my Senior Seminar was a dream class come true: “Savage Delight: Food and Eating in Literature and Popular Culture.” We read so many wonderful things: Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Collins’s The Hunger Games, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. We watched several films, including Babette’s Feast, which I had always wanted to see. We talked about so much and I learned so much in that class.
My Senior project, i.e. my swan song, was to be written in this class and was supposed to encompass what we were taught throughout the program. I felt like I had won the lottery because what is nearer and dearer to my heart than food and literature?! Nothing! My inspiration came from a combination of Pollan’s book and Proust’s “Madeleine Moment” from Remembrance of Things Past (click link if you haven’t read it…it’s pretty awesome and the foundation of this post and more to come!) The Madeleine Moment more or less tells of a memory that Proust had while eating a madeleine cookie dipped in tea. There’s much more to it, but for now, that’s mainly what you need to know. We discussed in class some our own Madeleine Moments, and I realized how many I have. Food memories are a big part of my family’s life and always have been. So I started there and ended up in a place I never thought I’d end up, and that right there is why writing is so much damn fun.
I loved writing that paper more than anything I’ve ever done. It’s the single hardest thing I’ve ever written. Tears were shed. Many. tears. I hit a wall so big with this paper and really thought I might not graduate. Fortunately, I need pressure to produce so that was pretty decent pressure for me to knock the wall down. Many bottles of wine and cups of hot tea were sacrificed for it, as were the cleanliness and functionality of my home, but it was all worth it in the end (and the child welfare officials never showed up at the doorstep.) It was the most collaborative paper I ever wrote, resulting in an invaluable and fantastic learning experience for me. My fellow students were readers and critics and were incredibly smart and kind. My professor helped me pull out the best I could do. And I truly believe it was as good as I can do.
Anyhoo…I could go on and on but I’ve decided to share it here for those who might want to take a look. I’m going to write a series of posts on food memory and thought my paper would be a good place to begin. It’s academic but hopefully not too snooze inducing; it’s a big jump from the usual Yellow Daisy Chick Chat and I hope you won’t mind the serious side of YDCC. Don’t worry, though; I’ll be back to my usual stuff. Remember: I’m the one who buys a New Yorker and People magazine at the same time.
The other reason I’m putting the paper here is that I am excited to announce it was selected to be included in University of West Georgia’s literary journal, LURe, for 2015. It will come out on November 12. I am super pumped about it and am glad this paper found a home outside of my hard drive!
Hope you enjoy it and the rest of my upcoming food memory series!
(Please forgive the poor formatting.)
Food Memory: Nikki Giovanni, Edna Lewis, Scott Peacock and the Southern Food Revival
by Katie Anderson
i mean its my house
and i want to fry pork chops
and bake sweet potatoes
and call them yams
cause i run the kitchen
and i can stand the heat
—Nikki Giovanni, excerpt from “My House”
Historically, Southern culture has marginalized certain populations, particularly based on racism, homophobia, and sexism. The entire region faces stigma from the national and international world based on its divisive, exclusionary history. Yet, one positive aspect of southern culture can usually elicit a harmonious response from inside and outside the south: the deliciousness of the food. Whether it’s on Food Network, in glossy magazines, or in most every southern novel, traditional southern food makes the mouth water and the stomach growl. Food and southern culture go together like black-eyed peas and cornbread. Many a reader knows how Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett enjoys a southern feast at the pre-Civil War party and, after the war, famously declares she will never go hungry again while holding a dirty, limp turnip. Eudora Welty writes about the bounty of southern funeral food in The Optimist’s Daughter. Images of church picnics, family reunions, and Sunday dinners abound in southern literature. Proustian memories of these happy gatherings as “madeleine moments” allow the food to act as a conduit to the past.
Yet, despite Proust’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, not all Madeleine moments are necessarily happy, especially for society’s outcasted others. In southern culture, historically and still today, African-Americans, women, and the LGBT community have all been considered “less than” and, to varying degrees, have not been afforded the same rights as their white male counterparts. The Madeleine moment for a repressed, oppressed southerner would be much more complicated than simple nostalgia for a warm and fuzzy past. Many marginalized southerners have left their homes for greener, more open-minded pastures. Today, urban sprawl continues to grow around Atlanta, arguably the “Capital of the South,” while south Georgia’s population declines dramatically each year. This move toward urban areas in the South was preceded by the Great Migration of blacks in the ‘40s, moving from the rural South to the urban North, taking their food memories and their recipes with them.
Nikki Giovanni, renowned African-American poet, was just two months old in 1943 when she and her family moved from Knoxville, Tennessee to Cincinnati, Ohio in search of better job opportunities. She went on as an adult to write food poetry that deals with her memories of spending summers and her high school years in Tennessee with her grandparents (Fowler 42); through this food poetry, Giovanni revisits her Tennessean ancestors, connecting with them in the present, and allowing them to live on through her writing. Similarly, the southern food about which she writes has inspired a cultural revival of traditional southern cooking with a modern makeover; this revival has had a major impact on the national food scene. By destabilizing the idea of the “Madeleine moment,” southern food memory can act less as nostalgia and more as empowerment by connecting certain marginalized southerners in surprising ways, by combining the old and new, and resulting in a more heterogeneous, inclusive community at the southern dinner table.
Giovanni’s sense of home and community in her writing rests in her grandparents’ home in Tennessee. This southern, extended family home symbolizes safety, happiness, warmth, and security for her, although she actually spent most of her childhood in the North. Because her parents grew up in the South, she was raised with southern Appalachian values; however, Giovanni identifies those values less as “southern” but more as “black” (Fowler 43). Often, white Americans lose sight of or have never made the association that many aspects of southern culture have their roots in Africa: the abiding presence and importance of the past, the importance of place, the significance of oral tradition, and the centrality of food (Fowler 43). Colonization and the slave trade led to cultural blending that affected virtually every area of life including food. Slaves learned European cooking techniques from white plantation owners and used local ingredients along with traditional African and Native American ingredients and techniques to produce a unique southern cuisine (Davis 3). In the 1960s, according to the Association of Black Women Historians, “up to 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes” (Carmon 1). Even today, white women in the south are still hiring black cooks to help in their homes with daily meals and/or parties. The African-American contribution to southern food culture has not received the attention it deserves because of the marginalization of African-Americans and women in the south.
African-American female poet Giovanni celebrates her southern, black tradition in her appreciation of the past, her ability for storytelling and her use of food culture to tell her stories. For her, the ancestor, always female, is an important presence represented in food and associated with comfort, warmth, and safety (Fowler 45). In her poem “Knoxville, Tennessee,” she discusses liking summer best, with all of the foods associated with summer in the south: “fresh corn,” “okra,” “greens,” “cabbage,” “and lots of barbeque,” “buttermilk,” “and homemade ice cream at the church picnic.” She discusses her love of summer, which to her means food, her grandmother, gospel music, and being warm. Her food memories of southern summers contribute to the last two lines of the poem, which refer to being warm “all the time / not only when you go to bed / and sleep,” allowing her to be comforted when she is not in her grandmother’s home in Tennessee. Although the poem is about the summer, the title is “Knoxville, Tennessee” rather than “Summer” (Fowler 46). Giovanni remembers her warm summers as having a distinct sense of place and community.
In her poem “Legacies,” Giovanni connects with her southern-ness via her grandmother’s homemade rolls. The grandmother wants to teach her little granddaughter the art of making the rolls. The little girl “knew / even if she couldn’t say it that / that would mean when the old one died she would be less / dependent on her spirit so / she said / “i don’t want to know how to make no rolls” (6-11). The grandmother speaks proudly, it says, wanting to share her knowledge and skill, but the child refuses. Again, southern food plays a significant role in her work about her grandmother, familial bonds, traditions, and passing the torch; elements that are all a part of southern culture. She also refers to her desire to be with her grandmother, even though she grew up mostly away from her, and knows there will come a time when her grandmother will die. Her grandmother will live on through the roll recipe and technique; if the little girl does not learn it, presumably her grandmother will not die. The poem is a bittersweet food memory from a southern childhood that deals with an aspect of the circle of life that the speaker could not accept at the time, as a young child.
To contrast the goodness of southern food memories with bad news, Giovanni writes about it again in “When My Phone Trembles.” Here, she writes that when her phone “trembles” after midnight, she immediately assumes bad news is on the other end. She never thinks “good news: someone’s birthday, an overseas friend…I never smell / apples baking / or nutmeg dancing / on sweet potatoes / yeast rolls rising / fish frying…I always look / for a way to hold / myself / together / being a 60s person / I know / you have to be / strong” (5-22). To her, these food smells are as good as a birthday, or hearing from a friend who is far away. Food, specifically southern comfort foods from her childhood, equals the safety of good news. The reader gets the impression that in order to hold herself together, the speaker remembers the community of her Tennessean roots, because being a “60s person” who is both black and female took strength and connection with others to get through. The phrase “60s person” overflows with meaning for marginalized southerners and Americans: the political and social upheaval of Civil Rights, women’s rights, and gay rights and the violence associated with these movements would understandably result in a 60s person’s longing for a safe place. For Giovanni, that place was a connection to the strong, southern, black women of her youth.
Not only was her grandmother and family a foundation of her southern food memory poetry, but also an elderly couple in Southwest Virginia, who were friends of hers while she taught at Virginia Tech and about whom she wrote in “A Theory of Pole Beans (for Ethel and Rice.)” Giovanni compares the black couple to pole beans and states in a recording with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities that they are “ordinary yet substantial…and the people who eat pole beans are also ordinary and substantial, and that they show us we are here and we will be” (“Pole Beans”). The poem states “pole beans are not everyone’s / favorite they make you think of pieces of fat back / corn bread / and maybe a piece of fried chicken / they are the staples of things unquestioned / they are broken and boiled” (Fowler 47). Yet, despite the couple’s difficult time and place, they still “bought a home reared a family / supported a church and kept a mighty faith / in your God and each other”; hence, they did not just survive, they endured. Giovanni ends with reassurance that “your garden remains in full bloom,” as a nod to their teachings being carried on and a hope for the future (Fowler 48). The choice of memorializing an average person in poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary; likewise, Giovanni makes pole beans worth studying and expands readers’ understanding of this couple and of pole beans in a broader sense. Her connection to this couple through southern food communicates that while they were living their lives, she was paying attention, learning life lessons from them, and through her poetry, will continue to teach their history and their lessons.
The elevation of the everyday individual through southern food links Giovanni with another native Virginian, famous southern chef Edna Lewis, who came from humble beginnings. In Giovanni’s poem, “The Only True Lovers Are Chefs or Happy Birthday, EDNA LEWIS”, she acknowledges the “Grand Dame of Southern Cooking”, aka Lewis, which allows a combining of food, black women, and ancestral power and legacy. To conserve space, an excerpt is provided:
…so yes this is a love poem of the
highest order because the next best cook in the world,
my grandmother being the best, just had a birthday
and all the asparagus and will greens and quail and
tomatoes on the vines and little peas in spring and half
runners in early summer and all the wonderful things
that come from the ground said EDNA LEWIS is
having a birthday and all of us who love all of you
who love food wish her a happy birthday because we
who are really smart know that chefs make the best
lovers (Fowler 50).
Here, while Giovanni wishes celebrity chef and famed cookbook author Lewis a happy birthday,
she also celebrates her grandmother and all black female ancestry who nourished and loved their family and friends through their cooking. She notes that the real cooking knowledge comes from the heart, and that grandmothers teach us that valuable piece of knowledge (Fowler 50). Coincidentally, like Nikki Giovanni, Edna Lewis (1916 – 2006) was also one of the Great Migrators to the North. She grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a town of freed slaves (her ex-slave grandparents were two of the founders), and was forced to move during the Depression to find work. She left for New York City and went to work as a cook at Cafe Nicholson (Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie). Uprooted southern blacks used food practices to maintain familial and community bonds in the North. Like Lewis, many black women used cooking as an economic opportunity, progressing from exploited cooks to entrepreneurs (Davis 3). The idea that southern blacks used food to keep a sense of community becomes even more significant when considering that so many black families were separated during slavery and that tracing their ancestral roots is nearly impossible.
At Cafe Nicholson, Lewis became acquainted with the expat southern literati, several of whom were homosexual: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and William Faulkner, among others. She loved Capote and his humor and enjoyed feeding him biscuits and gravy (Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie). Most of the famous southern writers of the time ate her food, providing them a connection to their home. She became quite famous and a writer herself, authoring the Southern cooking bible, The Taste of Country Cooking, in 1976. The style of cooking in her cookbook was the focused and “close-to-nature cooking” of her childhood; the cookbook became more of a study of Southern cooking than just a collection of recipes, and helped change the stereotypes of brown, fried Southern food into a more sophisticated, nuanced cuisine; hence, a Southern food revival. In 1989, she said of her cooking, “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past” (Asimov and Severson 1). Her cookbook was a form of “life story” or autobiography; it allowed Lewis to recall a history and memorialize a place that no longer existed (Zafar 32). Both Lewis and Giovanni achieved this goal in their writing, despite living through some of the most volatile years of racial strife in our country. Their food memories and writing helped them connect in a positive way to a culture that did not accept them as equals. Through cooking, Lewis stayed connected to her past while also helping her fellow southern transplants/creative types stay connected. By doing so, these individuals bonded, forming their own subculture — a modern
community based in southern food tradition that included African-Americans, women, and the LGBT community.
After retiring in the mid-90s, Lewis founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, and one of the members was James Beard award winner Scott Peacock, who at the time was an Alabama chef working at the Governor’s mansion. They developed a close friendship and became the “Odd Couple of Southern Cooking”: an elderly, African-American lady and a young, gay, male chef. Their bond developed over a desire to preserve classic Southern dishes. Peacock said that meeting Lewis convinced him that cooking southern food was the path he was meant to take. He told The Advocate, “When we met I was taking the first tenuous steps out of the closet and was planning to move from Georgia to Italy to reinvent myself. Miss Lewis was working in New York City, but she thought a few good cooks should stay in the South. I stayed…Over time Miss Lewis helped me see the value of myself–as a Southerner, a cook, a gay man, and a human being (not necessarily in that order.) She never passed judgment, celebrating me for exactly who I was, yet her unconditional love inspired me to always strive toward being a better person” (Buhl 1). Southern food and food memory brought these two marginalized Southerners together and helped them form their own community, which in turn influenced Southern culture as a whole as they became roommates, went on to found the Southern Foodways Alliance and wrote a successful cookbook together, The Gift of Southern Cooking. He acted as her caretaker for six years until her death in 2006.
This “odd couple,” or — even better — this dynamic duo helped reframe the meaning of “southern” as well as southern food. In an essay written by Lewis, she describes what “southern” meant to her: “Southern is a spring breakfast of herring with its roe…Southern is a meal of early spring wild greens — poke sallet before it is fully uncurled, wild mustard, dandelion, lamb’s-quarter, purslane, and wild watercress…Southern is Truman Capote…Southern is a guinea hen, a bird of African origin…Southern is a moss rose, a camellia, a buttercup, a tea olive tree sending its fragrance through the air and into the kitchen…Southern is William Faulkner…Southern is desserts galore — coconut cake, caramel layer cake, black walnut whiskey cake, groom’s wedding cake, fig pudding, mincemeat pie…Southern is Carson McCullers… Southern is all the unsung heroes who passed away in obscurity…We are now faced with picking up the pieces and trying to put them into shape, document them so the present-day young generation can see what southern food was like. The foundation on which it rested was pure ingredients, open-pollinated seed — planted and replanted for generations — natural fertilizers. We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care” (Lewis 2-5).
Lewis dedicated her life to documenting and teaching the Southern way of eating, helping future generations understand how their ancestors lived. She included information on the past not as a way to simply remember the good old days through misty eyes, but so that later generations would carry on (Zafar 44). The word sankofa is an African (Akan) word that means returning to the past to progress in the present; the term represents a continuance of a “communal, diasporic identity.” Lewis’s choice of African-inspired clothing exemplified how she linked the present, the southern American past, and the African diaspora (Zafar 45). This term describes the specific experience that southern Americans like Giovanni, Lewis, and Peacock have used to go beyond mourning the past to commemorating in the present and sankofa. Their individual and communal journeys connected them in unique ways to enable them to form their own community within the mainstream southern subculture to the degree that they and their food memory helped spark today’s national local and organic food movements.
Lewis and Peacock’s organization merged with the Southern Foodways Alliance, based at the University of Mississippi and led by John T. Edge. The Alliance’s mission statement hints at the ideas behind the sankofa: “The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation” (southernfoodways.org). The SFA awarded Edna Lewis with their first Lifetime Achievement Award, and Edge credits her with “[singing] the gospel of local and farm-fresh,” along with other white, male southern figures like Jimmy Carter, Paul Prudhomme, Frank Stitt, and Bill Neal (Wolf 5). Edge asserts that the southern regional cuisine movement began because of the complex racial history and the interplay of Western European, West African, and Native American influences on the food. He also argues that the South was an agriculturally-centered region for a longer period than any other region in the U.S., and the farm-to-table concept was easier to renew. When questioned about whether southern food can bridge the gap between cultural differences, Edge points out that while a common food history can help bring people of different race and class together, it can also be a “stratifying” force. In order to avoid that obstacle, the SFA puts the barbecue pit master on the same pedestal as the white-jacketed chef in the fine dining restaurant. Edge and his fellow Alliance members want a celebration of all people who devote their lives to cooking, and not just the hipster farmer who has recently discovered food (Wolf 3).
Clearly, the diverse problems in the south that have marginalized individuals by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation can not easily be solved by a plate of fried chicken. Even so, a shared food culture and thoughtfully prepared regional cuisine can bring diners of different backgrounds to the symbolic table. Some of the best restaurants can be found by looking in the parking lot or peeking in the door: if the cars outside are a varied mix of Mercedes, Toyotas, pickup trucks, and station wagons, and the diners range from white collar to blue collar and all colors in between, the food usually has a great reputation. The enjoyment of a meal in such a place comes from more than the taste of the delicious food; the community of people from all walks of life gives a sense of shared experience and connection with neighbors. If diners can find common ground through regional food, perhaps there is hope, but certainly no guarantee, that they can find common ground on weightier issues. When diners write about their food culture in poetry like Nikki Giovanni, or in cookbooks like Edna Lewis, or when they devote their life to cooking regional cuisine like Scott Peacock, they create a form of expression that has the power to draw in other like-minded individuals. For marginalized members of southern culture, art and food can help them commemorate their past and keep moving forward together. The future will depend on how we tend our cultural garden; only then will we discover whether, as Giovanni wrote, our garden “remains in full bloom” (Fowler 48).
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Giovanni, Nikki. “Knoxville Tennessee.” poemhunter.com. N.p., n.d.
—-. “Legacies.” poetryfoundation.org. N.p., 1972.
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Wolf, Miriam. “John T. Edge: The Southern Activist.” culinate.com. N.p., 7 Jan. 2009.
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