Fried chicken for every family and other myths of Southern food

[Cross-posted at Flyover Feminism, an excellent blog for activists in the middle states and other areas often overlooked by major media.]

It happened again. I was reading an otherwise perfectly good book of food history, making notes in the margins, when the author digressed into a unnecessarily long anecdote about her experience with a pig pickin’ in North Carolina, replete with descriptions of her East Coast astonishment at the barbarity of the practice and her subsequent conversion, won over by the voluptuous charms of roast pork and Southern hospitality. It was a perfect storm of a peculiar set of dichotomies that have a strong pull on the rest of the country: the South as a simultaneously barbarous and hospitable region, equal parts rustic heartland and exotic backwood.  As someone who spent the first 22 years of her life in Tennessee before making home in a Mid-Atlantic state, I hear these contradictions most often in conversation with my adopted neighbors when I mention where I’m from–but these contradictions also appear on cooking blogs, in news articles, and occasionally in the food scholarship I read.

For Statesians who don’t live in the Southeast, that region carries a lot of cultural weight; they may imagine it as intimately familiar yet utterly opposed to the the cultural landscapes they know.  It can be a dark place in the East Coast imagination, though I’ve noticed that some of those shadows are cast by the darker sides of East Coast culture and politics.  We say that cousins can marry in the South but gay people can’t; we shake our heads, and for the moment we lose sight of the fact that Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize same sex marriage either.  We imagine the South as a separate country far more racist, historically and inexorably racist, than our own—and for the moment, we turn a blind eye to the whites-only swim clubs in Philadelphia, the deep and frequently justified racial mistrust in this city.

But the flip side of this retrograde vision of the Southern states is a warm nostalgia for the comforts of house and home—and particularly Southern food, which seems to evoke a simpler time, satisfyingly domestic but charmingly outmoded.  We may imagine the South as the last stronghold against all civil rights, but we also like to imagine that all these anti-culture warriors sit down to feather-light biscuits and shatteringly crisp fried chicken every night.

Meanwhile, I grew up in the South and I never learned how to fry chicken.  I could learn, sure. But why? The fried chicken of my youth came in a greasy carton from one of two well-known chains; the biscuits were pre-cut, pre-buttered, pop into the oven until ready.  Let’s talk about Thanksgiving, the holy day of the homecooked meal: every female relative on my dad’s side brought a signature dish to the family dinner, and none of those dishes were what my Pennsylvanian neighbors imagine when they ask (wistfully) if I plan to go “back home” for the holiday. Sweet potato casserole: yam from a can smoothed into a deep dish and studded with a layer of jumbo marshmallows. Potato casserole: frozen hashbrowns, sour cream, and cornflakes. Green bean casserole—this was my dish when I grew old enough—from canned green beans, condensed cream of chicken soup (because I didn’t care for mushrooms), and topped, of course, with crispy fried onions from a can.  The turkey was breast only, pre-seasoned. The ham was Honeybaked.™

I’m not knocking it. These were solid meals, something for everyone, and best of all they didn’t take all day to cook. All of these female relatives worked; precious time off was for catching up on bills, childcare, housework, grading papers. And these women worked hard, and often for little remuneration.  In the same way our stories about the backwoods South erase the backwardness of our own supposedly more enlightened East Coast, our warm sticky nostalgia for Southern food ignores the economic realities of the South, a region that has always been hit hard by recessions.  The Southeastern United States suffer lower rates of food security than most other parts of the U.S., and have a fairly high incidence of food deserts  (Google corrects me: “Showing results for ‘Southeastern states food dessert‘”). The wide-open spaces nurture monoculture farms more often than the small urban or exurban farms we have such easy access to in Philadelphia.  The mid-South is the birthplace of the big-box store: on the average weeknight, my family mostly dined on the contents of a deep-freezer stocked with bulk packaged foods.

I’m also not knocking the families that do fry chicken and prepare fresh, filling home-cooked meals. If you can get your hands on the ingredients and make the time to prepare them, cooking is cheap, and traditional Southern food is cheap to cook. It was during my graduate student years that I began to make South-inflected meals. I learned some of these dishes from the internet, some from food-loving friends, and some from my mother, who did not grow up in the South, but prepared her version of Southern food every New Year’s Eve: pork chops, because pigs root forward; greens, because they allude to paper money; black-eyed peas, because they look toward the future.  From these meals I learned about optimism, and about making something rich and satisfying out of little.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that Southern food became associated with comfort: it’s the cuisine of a region that needs to fill bellies and warm hearts on what is cheap and ready to hand.  It’s a culinary tradition worth preserving, no mistake. But I lose my patience when I read scholars and bloggers alike that depict the South as a sort of premodern region, somehow left behind by progress for better (now that it’s chic to be domestic again) or for worse (in politics, education, and just about everything else). At best, this imagination of a premodern South elevates urban East Coast culture, as in the book that incited my ire above: the author gets to be a consumer of the regional cuisine and position herself as superior to it, smugly juxtaposing her access to freshly-made sushi and crepes with the comparatively rustic practice of barbecuing a beast in the open air.  At worst, this imagined South erases the struggles and experiences of the Southerners I know and grew up with, who do indeed live in the twenty-first century and face the same economic crises and changing food conversations that have rippled across the entire continent.

Fried chicken and pig pickins do not fall outside of the twenty-first century foodscape, believe it or not, but neither are they broad cultural strokes that adequately represent Southern food practices. That’s a complicated reality that resembles the duality we’re learning to live with up North–we’re learning to identify both as locovores and cosmopolites, to be members of a global economy and a local community at the same time–so you would think that we could also learn to appreciate the same dualities and complexities in the regional experiences of our fellow Statesians.

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