I received a free, uncorrected proof copy of Writing in the Kitchen to review through Net Galley. At no time was a positive review of the book expected as a condition for receiving this copy
Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways.
Southern food as it is packaged and sold to the consuming public, is often portrayed as food out of a simpler time. Writing in the Kitchen serves to remind us, that the times were never simple. Beneath the genteel surface of Southern food lies a long and complicated history.
Editors David A. Davis and Tara Powell have compiled a fine selection of essays on the subject. Writing in the Kitchen covers a broad history of Southern food. The book runs from the early 18th century to the present day. From agricultural magazines to poetry.
Identity is at the heart of these essays. How the people of the South have used food to help them construct their identities. The plural is important. There is no one identity for Southern food. Identity defines relationships, and vice-versa. Identity has at times been imposed. At times claimed. Throughout it has been a struggle. Some of that struggle come through in this book.
For those like myself looking from afar, race seems the most obvious identity issue. Race is represented here to be sure. However questions of race extend beyond black-white. Here the identity of the immigrant is considered. As well as the identity of the indigenous Southerners, the Native Americans. Gender and Sexual identities are also played out.
Comfort food is another term we link to Southern food and cooking. Yet as these essays delineate, that comfort is often developed at the expense of others discomfort. As one would expect this discomfort is a key element in the relationship between white masters and black slaves. One area where the collection excels is tracing this discomfort through reconstruction down to the days of the civil rights movement.
The role gender and class plays in Southern food adds more layers of complexity. The chapters dealing with cookbooks and how they created both racial and class distinctions are fascinating reads. Chapters 4-5 look at this primarily through the development of cookbooks. In these two chapters we see white women using cookbooks to mark themselves out as educated and civilized, and also as civilizers of black women. While slavery may have ended these cookbooks serve to reinforce the former slaveholders superiority.
One interesting aspect of cookbooks is the subject of plagiarism*. William Sitwell in his book A History of Food in 100 Recipes, writes about how often authors have almost entirely removed from memory through plagiarism. Perhaps because they were using cookbooks to assert superiority there was less desire to claim the recipes of black women as their own. However, if there were many cases of white cooks plagiarizing black cooks, it would make for a revealing addition to the book.
Later, Writing in the Kitchen, moves on to the relationships between white and black women during the civil rights era. The discomfort is still there. Even though the women are in closer shared physical proximity great cultural distances still remain. Generally this has little effect on the white women. Often, though, the effects on the black women are disastrous.
Woven around these chapters, are stories of other Southerners. In these chapters we are confronted by stories of residents of Appalachia, the Vietnamese immigrants, and of the Indigenous people of the South. It’s in the story of the Indigenous peoples that we come across a culture that has almost entirely lost its place in the South. There is hope, but we are left to wonder if their identity will ever be fully recovered.
The kitchen is the main setting for these essays. This is important. More than any other room the kitchen is the best space for community. Yet we find the kitchen used as a place of exclusion. In the plantation kitchen this is by design and placement. Later it is the emphasis on the white kitchen as a the clean hygienic space. Even when the kitchen becomes a common space, it is an uneasy sharing.
While academic in character, Writing in the Kitchen is for the most part, highly readable for the layperson. This shows up particularly well in Chapter 10 Eating in Another Woman’s Kitchen: Reading Food and Class in the Woman-Loving Fiction of Ann Allen Shockley. Here the author of the essay Psyche Williams-Forson makes good use of end notes to offer additional information without breaking up the essay’s narrative.
Writing in the Kitchen often presents food as a battleground. Yet, within these essays, there is hope for food as a hospital. A place where healing can occur. The book ends with a chapter on poetry. Here we encounter food linking past and present. Writers mindful of their history, while looking to a future identity. One built to a certain extent “at the kitchen table.”(location 4253, Kindle)
When we think of mindful eating, we generally look at what food we eat, how much food we eat and how it is produced. Writing in the Kitchen reminds us that there is another element to mindful eating. Mindful eating also involves the people who make and eat the food. Hearing their voices. Learning their stories. Writing in the Kitchen helps us to be mindful.
*Plagiarism here is not simply a stealing of some recipes, but it many cases the republishing of entire cookbooks with only the author’s name and perhaps a short introduction as changes from the original text.