Cornbread Nation 1 The Best of Southern Food Writing
University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2002 Southern Foodways Alliance
All right reserved. ISBN: 0807854190
At some point in the course of the Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, a couple of years ago-it could have been while we were scarfing up some of Leah Chase's bodacious gumbo, or when we were out in the little hamlet of Taylor wolfing down a ton of fried catfish and hushpuppies at an old grocery store, or even as we listened attentively to Dick Pillsbury's treatise on barbecue belts and grits lines and other landmarks of culinary geography-somewhere along in there, a rich and mellow idea seemed to hatch full-grown and muscular in several minds at once. This immaculate and spontaneous conception bounced up on the table in the shank of an after-dinner talkfest. It proceeded, as I recall, more or less like this:
"You know, what we oughta do is put together a book full of all this good stuff." (That must have been Ronni Lundy; she has a way of dreaming things up and then letting others think they discovered them.)
"Yeah, that's just what I've been thinking," someone else said. "Food is so central to the South we all like-the Good South of conviviality and generosity and sweet communion. What we've got here is a little band of food lovers who'll make any excuse to get together and cook, eat, talk ..."
"... andwrite about it. At least half of us are writers of one stripe or another."
"That's probably because we don't know how to cook."
"The chefs are wannabe writers, and the writers are wannabe chefs-and when the twain meet to eat, the stories come rolling out like Cajun popcorn."
"So let's quit talking about it and do it."
"A book. A collection of great food stories from the South."
And that, you might say, was the birth of a notion, more or less. We named it Cornbread Nation, a title the Southern Foodways Alliance previously used on its newsletter (which, henceforth, will be given another name to avoid confusion). Cornbread Nation is not a term freighted with any profound or universal meaning; it's just a catchy little phrase that calls to mind, for some of us, a timeless South where corn has been the staff of life forever, and cornbread in myriad forms has held a central place in the cookery of the region since the original people hunkered down to bake and break bread together.
It may come as a bit of a shock to some readers of this volume-the first in what we hope will be a long series of such collections-to learn that we borrowed the title from a Yankee. It appeared originally above an essay by John Thorne in "Simple Cooking," Thorne's widely read and admired food newsletter published in a small town on the coast of Maine. (I knew I liked this guy the minute I read his scathing criticism of antifat advocates "who treat lard as the moral equivalent of crack.") Thorne professes to be amused, even pleased, that we seized his words (titles can't be copyrighted) and used them to name our book. For our part, we are deeply indebted to him for advancing the symbolic thought that cornbread-that shared food in general-might somehow help to bind up the wounds of this entire nation-state and let us finally embrace the ideals embedded in our founding documents.
A little band of California hippies, several of them with Southern roots, must have had something similar in mind when they chose the name for their 1973 collection of poetry, fiction, and more-or-less-true stories: One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread. There was nary a phrase about cornbread in that book, but a soon-to-be-famous poet and essayist among them, Wendell Berry of Port Royal, Kentucky, came up with the title, and his fellow writers embraced it like so many prodigal sons and daughters of the Mother South might be expected to pounce on a straight-from-the-oven pone of corn hot enough to fog your glasses.
Like theirs, ours isn't a treatise on cornbread (though the subject does come up a time or two in these pages). We're simply operating on the premise that if there's anything your garden-variety Southerner likes to do more than harvesting, preparing, or consuming the region's superlative food and drink, it probably would be talking and writing about the very dishes and libations that have sustained us through this vale of tears for centuries. That's what gave rise to the Southern Foodways Alliance in the first place: a love of our historical sustenance and a desire to organize an effective defense against its gradual disappearance.
The SFA was created in July 1999 at a Birmingham, Alabama, meeting of fifty people who shared a common interest in the food and beverage virtues of their native South (a roster of these founders appears at the back of the book). Drawing valuable lessons from the noble originators of two previous, unsuccessful efforts to form and sustain such a group, the SFA first secured an institutional base: the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Missiksippi in Oxford. The center is the leading academic nexus of cultural studies in the region, having amassed almost a quarter-century of fruitful experience in a wide variety of initiatives, from conferences on William Faulkner and Elvis Presley to collections of blues music and such valuable publications as the massive and still-growing Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
The organizers of the SFA appealed to the leadership of the center to nurture the fledgling group until it could make it on its own. Thus, we are a self-governing nonprofit institute within that structure, and our stated purpose-"to celebrate, teach, preserve, and promote the diverse food cultures of the American South"-is so compatible with the overall aims of the center that its principals seem as happy to have us there as we are to have their assistance. The SFA hopes in time to become a movable feast of programs and services reaching into the farthest nooks and crannies of the South.
The two previous organizational attempts-the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food, inspired by Edna Lewis, and the American Southern Food Institute, spearheaded by Terry Ford and Jeanne Voltz-might well have succeeded with institutional support. As it turned out, they pointed the SFA in a different and more productive direction-and Edna Lewis, Terry Ford, and Jeanne Voltz were among the fifty founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Returning to the Cornbread Nation title for a moment, it needs to be said that we got more than just that phrase from our friend John Thorne. His essay, which appeared in a 1994 issue of "Simple Cooking" (later collected in his book Serious Pig), was full of food for thought about corn and culture. And it is every bit as pertinent to the Southern and American condition today as it was when he wrote it. In Thorne's capable hands, corn becomes a powerful symbol, a metaphor for national renewal. He writes:
If we dig past the clichéd image of the giving Indian and the (temporarily) grateful settler, what we find just beneath is something more complicated: an occasion of mutual recognition and, at the same time, a collision of cultures. This, simplifying, we might call "grain versus corn." Old-World grains-oats, millet, wheat, rye-required a careful, patient agriculture that reworked the same fields through the centuries. Those who owned the fields and the mills that ground what was grown in them owned the culture. Grain supports a feudal society of lords and serfs, a post-feudal society of landlords and tenant farmers.
A corn culture is more fluid. Corn is more adaptable as both a foodstuff and a crop. Skilled Indian agriculturalists could grow three crops of corn a year, and they could grow it almost where they wanted: here one year and somewhere else the next. Unlike wheat and similar grains, corn does not require plowed fields; it can be planted around the stumps of trees in freshly cleared plots.
Consequently, Indian culture itself was more fluid, not as hierarchical and not nearly as concerned with ideas of possession.... If the earliest colonists had had to depend on Old-World grains to survive in the New World, they would all have perished. The land could not be transformed that quickly, certainly not by a people who were not, most of them, skilled farmers. Much has been made of the importance of corn in sustaining the original colonies, but little if anything about its immediate and subversive effect on the new-born American character. If there are no peasants in this country, it is because a peasant is wedded-as his family before him and after him-to a particular piece of land. In America, however, a man could take a bag of seed corn and an axe and head into the wilderness, there to be "as much a great lord as any other."
... Cornbread Nation was populist, democratic, republican-all printed in small letters. It was a kind of agrarian radicalism, neither left nor right, that proposed that this nation would work best if it were a country of independent citizens, a majority of whom, whatever else they might be-artisan or woodsman or merchant-were also small landholders whose self-sufficiency would mean that they were beholden to no one. As equals among equals, they freely helped their neighbors and accepted help from them, not out of obligation but because it made good sense.
Lest he leave us clinging to an agrarian idealism that has long since vanished from the American landscape-including the landscape of the South-Thorne brings us gently back to reality. "In a money economy," he writes, "it is cash-not food-that is constantly in short supply; consequently, it is hard for us to understand the sense of wealth that a good corn crop gave to a small landholder, or to appreciate the fine distinctions that made it the type of wealth it was. Because corn is unique in being both a vegetable and a grain, it offers a wider range of culinary possibility than any other single food." No matter where we live in America, Thorne concludes, "the distance between cornfield and cornbread is growing fast," and we are powerless to prevent this disconnection.
It is that same sense of urgency, of impending loss, that breathed life into the Southern Foodways Alliance-and that now drives such programmatic efforts as the annual symposium, field trips to various Southern locales, budding oral history projects, and collections of exemplary food writing such as the one you are holding in your hands.
Our Cornbread Nation draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources-from Southern cooks and chefs, scholars and documentarians, writers and photographers; from the far-flung membership of the SFA, now totaling more than 400; from Southern social history; and from the contemporary landscape of the region's foodways. In selecting these articles, essays, scholarly papers, poems, and short stories, we tried to hew to the "cornbread philosophy" so well articulated by John Thorne and spelled out in the SFA statement of purpose-celebrating, teaching, preserving, and promoting the diverse food cultures of the South.
Individually, the selections in these pages can stand alone; they need no shoring up from us. Collectively, they buttress our conviction that nothing else the South has to offer to the nation and the world-with the possible exception of its music-is more eternally satisfying, heartwarming, reconciling, and memorable than its food. Our dishes and beverages express our faith, our good humor, our binding ties, our eternal joys and sorrows, our readiness for whatever awaits us. Without them, it seems reasonable to wonder if we would ever make it through first loves, playing-field defeats, revivals, bar mitzvahs, weddings, births, divorces, homecomings, funerals-the thousand-and-one big and little victories and defeats of life. In the words and pictures assembled here, we acknowledge with gratitude the abiding centrality of food in the ongoing life of the South. At the very least, the foods of our formative years linger in the mind more tenaciously-and favorably-than almost anything else.
Cornbread Nation aspires to be an approachable and intelligent pathway to the study of Southern foodways, an entrée (no pun intended) to the social and cultural life of the region. The book's time frame is three-dimensional, drawing primarily from 2001, secondarily from the period since the SFA's founding in 1999, and finally, in a few instances, from older archives. An editorial committee that included Jessica B. Harris, Lolis Eric Elie, and Fred Sauceman-with ad hoc assistance from our president, Toni Tipton-Martin, and our director and only paid staffer, John T. Edge-made the final selections, not based on a subjective classification of "the best" but rather on some real-life considerations: a general sense of inclusiveness and balance and, perhaps most important, the kind of writing that elicited from us laughter, tears, wonder, and delight. In a word, feeling.
So pull up a chair and help yourself. We hope you find enough to satisfy your appetite.
Excerpted from Cornbread Nation 1 Copyright © 2002 by Southern Foodways Alliance
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.