Until the 21st century, women were the predominant voices in Southern food writing. Over the last 15 years, though, a “barbecue-entranced, bourbon-preoccupied and pork belly-obsessed horde” of men have stormed the field. Today, one of the finest veteran food writers of the South, North Carolina’s Kathleen Purvis, takes on the need for everybody to be at the table.
How do I get myself into these things?
All I said was this:
“Men are the new carpetbaggers of Southern food writing.”
OK, yes, it is true I said this in a room with several hundred people in it. Several hundred people who included quite a few men and more than quite a few women, and a whole lot more than quite a few food writers, both the Southern-bred and the Southern-enthused.
And yes, a pretty good handful of them were influential editors of Southern publications, publications in which I sometimes supplement my income as a newspaper food writer, a field that’s disappearing faster than the sand in the Witch of the West’s hourglass.
You’d think I might be smart enough to make nice.
But no, on the day when I did this, when I stood up in public and declared that the Southern food-writing world has been unduly influenced, usurped, yes, even invaded, by a barbecue-entranced, bourbon-preoccupied and pork belly-obsessed horde of mostly testosterone-fueled scribes from outside the region of my birth, I just happened to be attending a food-writing conference, Food Media South, in Birmingham, Ala., an annual event of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
One of the influential editors in attendance happened to be Chuck Reece, a founder and guidestar of The Bitter Southerner, who was delivering a talk on how to pitch stories to influential editors such as himself.
Reece asked for story pitches from the crowd. So, of course, I had to stand up – well, lurch up, since I’ve been a food writer long enough that the inevitable weight gain has taken my once-lithe figure and left me arthritis (worst secret-Santa exchange ever). I lurched to my feet and issued the statement I’ve presented to you, as a possible subject for The Bitter Southerner:
“Men are the new carpetbaggers of Southern food writing.”
What did Chuck Reece do? He looked at me with a bemused sort of grin and said one word. One word that has sealed my fate and probably will cause long-lasting damage to what has been my brilliant career. He said this:
Oh, crap. Now what am I going to do? I suppose I’ll have to write it.
It has been suggested to me that before I start building my case, I should explain why there is a case to build. Why should you, the reader of The Bitter Southerner, care about a little infighting between a food writer and her tribe?
If you’re still puzzling over the existence of pimento cheese and trying to parse the veneration of boiled peanuts – or as I like to call them, the liverwurst and caviar of the South – does it matter to you who is writing about them? Or do you just want us to shut up and hand you another cracker?
Well, as Winston Churchill pointed out, history is written by the victors, and in the case of culture, those who write the stories control the conversation. Knowing the undercurrents of that conversation is as important as knowing the tides before you set out in a boat. Or it is if you hope to return to solid ground in time for lunch.
So, before I set out, we should first consider the verbal bomb I hurled when I said the C word.
To those of us descended from the people who were known, pre-Vietnam anyway, as the only conquered Americans, carpetbagger is a word loaded with more baggage than an actual carpetbag could hold. Perjorative, certainly, and loaded with a host of images, mostly of greed, corruption and selfish gain. Locusts in dusty shoes, in the image of many a late 19th century political cartoon.
Remember the scene in “Gone with the Wind,” when Emmie Slattery showed up at Tara in her plaid flounces with her nouveau riche beau, only to have Scarlett lob a mud clod at their fine new carriage? Every Southern child raised on the canon of The Book and its movie knew that Emmie’s crime wasn’t just being the mistress of a Yankee man, it was being with a carpetbagger.
Real carpetbags were the carry-on luggage of the pre-jet set. They were handy things, actually. Made from remnants of carpet, a carpetbag was a simple satchel, durable and lightweight. Because of its small size, it also was associated with transience. When you packed your things in a carpetbag, you weren’t staying for long. You were making a short visit with an expectation that you’d leave soon.
In the era of Reconstruction immediately following the Civil War, the destroyed South was a place of opportunity, a place to buy up land and return it to producing cotton, snap up influential businesses like railroads (once you untwisted all that bombed and burned iron) and take over state governments by convincing freed blacks to vote your way.
That’s the popular image, anyway. The truth, as always, is richer and much more complicated. Historian Eric Foner, in his books on Southern reconstruction politics, has put forth more nuanced explanations. Rather than being greedy opportunists, he found that most of the Northerners who came South after the war were middle-class reformists, who saw themselves as coming to help the South correct its mistakes and become economically viable again.
Many, he writes, were instrumental in helping freed blacks gain civil and political rights, even helping to build schools to educate former slaves who had been required by law to remain illiterate.
Still, even in the re-illuminated light of history, there is something to that idea that sticks in the craw of anyone born in the modern South: that sense of being schooled by the North. Even sympathetic descriptions of carpetbaggers, permanent settlers or not, come with that idea that the South needed to be guided by the North.
As a popular bumper sticker around here puts it: “We don’t care how you did it up North.”
In calling food writers from the North, male or female, carpetbaggers, I have to consider which perspective I was evoking: Easy ground to plow in search of the kind of fat-drenched tales of eccentricity that lead to magazine contracts and James Beard medals? Or clear-eyed vision that helps us see those eccentricities in new light?
Or maybe I just know how to toss a good word grenade.
Now, let’s consider the other inflammatory part of my claim: the male one.
The way I look at it, if you’re going to start a dog fight, you don’t begin with the chihuahuas. You sink your teeth into the ear of the biggest dog in the pack.
So I’ll start with the Southern Foodways Alliance.
First, allow me to insert some shuffling and bowing here and declare how much I appreciate, revere and am beholden to the Southern Foodways Alliance. SFA founder John T. – and yes, so few people call him John T. Edge that he might as well pick out the “E” threads from his Billy Reid monograms – John T. is a dear friend, a respected colleague and an appreciated mentor.
I was attending SFA symposia so early in the game that I sent in my first membership dues a year late because I didn’t think it was seemly for a journalist to be a charter member of a group she would be covering.
Over the years, my byline has appeared in several of the seven editions of “Cornbread Nation,” the SFA-produced anthologies of Southern food writing.
It’s a bit of a miracle, given that the numbers are stacked against me. Consider these:
In seven editions of the collection, there have been 5½ male editors, and 1½ female. Dale Reed only counts as a half, because she shared the editing duties with her husband, the retired Southern scholar John Shelton Reed, sort of the way that women in the 1950s couldn’t get charge accounts unless their husbands came along to sign the papers.
Now, I can hear the sputtering and head-shaking of the previous editors. (Well, I wish I could hear the sputtering of the late John Egerton, the great journalist and guidestar of the SFA. I miss that man so much.) But definitely some sputtering might come from the direction of New Orleans Times-Picayune restaurant Brett Anderson, former Times-Pic columnist (and Bitter Southerner contributor) Lolis Eric Elie, the aforementioned Reed, East Tennessee State University’s Fred Sauceman and New York-based book editor Francis Lam. Only the great food and music writer Ronni Lundy, the lone unescorted female, might concede the point.
What difference does it make that the editors of the collections have been mostly male? They would assure me that they were open to and welcoming of the writings of women. And it is true that the anthologies have included the writings of many people rarely heard from, including both Asian-American and African-American poets, essayists and humorists.
Check the numbers, though. I spent many nights digging through Amazon previews and university press listings, checking the gender of names like Lucid Olason, Neely Barnwell Dykshorn and Ripley Gelovin Hathaway, and deciding whether Matt and Ted Lee count as one author or two. (I went with one, and hope they forgive me)
The tally: Of the 353 authors I counted in seven books, 167 were male, 151 female. Some years were downright unbalanced: Book 6, edited by Anderson (Brett, Brett, Brett!) featured the work of 34 male authors and 16 female. Lundy didn’t kick up her sisterhood heels when she was given the reins: Her editorship included the work of 25 men and 22 women. It was still the second closest score to parity.
In only one book did the work of female authors dominate the conversation, and I shouldn’t be surprised by which one. John Egerton always was a ladies-first kind of man, and he proved it in the very first “Cornbread Nation,” by including the work of 23 men and 27 women.
Remember my point about controlling the conversation? Those who chose the work do the same.
While John T. would counter – and has – that the support staff of the SFA is predominantly female (and he promises I can expect a hen fight over this piece), the roster of speakers over many years of Southern Foodways symposia has reflected a similar, particularly male sensibility. It wasn’t so in the early years, when the speakers included notable female voices like African-American foodways scholar Jessica Harris, the cultural anthropologist and food writer Vertamae Grosvenor, Lundy and yes, once, myself, entrusted with the task of leading a panel on the selling of the Southern brand.
As time went on, though, the lineup took on an increasingly masculine tilt. In 2008, when the theme was Southern drinkways, only two women earned spots behind the microphone: Katie McKee, a professor from Ole Miss, got the job of citing examples of drinking in Southern literature, a brief talk considering the vastness of the material, and culinary historian Anne Mendelsohn spoke on the history of buttermilk from her book “Milk.”
Oh, there were women as part of that weekend’s activities: in the kitchen. Female chefs had roles in cooking for the crowd, including Atlanta’s Anne Quatrano, Louisiana’s Marcelle Bienvenue and North Carolina’s Ashley Christensen. And they acquitted themselves well. But I sat in the audience that weekend and fumed as I eyed my program.
Why were so few women considered up to the task of bringing anything to the conversation? Did our delicate sensibilities need to be shielded from the mention of spirituous liquors? Did we know nothing about the underlying politics of ice tea during Prohibition? I’m the daughter of an RC Cola salesman – was there nothing to say about Nehi? Heck, the Texas food writer Robb Walsh got to talk about Texas Mountain Dew.
I stayed away from the annual gathering in Oxford for several years after that. But every year, when the symposium invitation would land in my inbox, I would scan the speakers list: 2009, when the theme was "Music & Food," saw the African-American novelist and cookbook author Alice Randall, songwriter Jett Williams and University of Memphis sociologist Zandria Robinson almost lost in a lineup of 13 men, including the humorist Roy Blount Jr. addressing music and sex. (No, we with the lady parts know nothing about that.)
In 2010, it continued, with the "Global South": the Floridian writer Diane Roberts, Karen Wilcher and U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, with 13 men for their dance partners.
In the early years of the SFA symposium, it wasn’t surprising that so many women got speaking roles. Until the 21st century, women were the predominant voices in food writing. Like most domestic chores, food journalism was mostly considered women’s work. Considered – and often dismissed.
It’s become fashionable lately to wave off those years of food writing and the work of those women as nothing of value or consequence. Consider the tart phrase coined by David Kemp, the author of the 2006 book “The United States of Arugula,” on the rise of fine dining, to describe newspaper food journalists:
“The Jell-O abusing women’s-page ladies.”
Women who write about home-based cooking styles, as opposed to the more juggling-with-fire flash of chefs, have become easy targets for dismissal. Men write about us in ways they never would with any other marginalized minority.
Consider the late Josh Ozersky’s 2014 take-down of M.F.K. Fisher, “Consider the Food Writer”: He described her writing as “dull, monotonous and eventually stupefying, like the endless chatter of some lady you sit next to on the bus.”
The work of other women in food writing? With the exception of Tasting Table editor Kat Kinsman, who got Ozersky’s nod as a contributor to what he considered the more relevant circle of web-based media, they apparently all made no contribution worth reading:
We can’t be blamed for our fecklessness, Ozersky wrote: “Such women tend to be edited, in my experience, by women, and women of their own class.”
Funny that he thought we women are edited by women. The top-editor spot at many of today’s food websites, including Ozersky’s own creation, Grub Street, are actually heavily weighted toward the male: Ed Levine at Serious Eats, David Leite at Leite’s Culinaria. Amanda Kludt and Helen Rosner at Eater and Kinsman, now editor-at-large for Tasting Table, hold rare chairs on the girls’ side of the table.
Print publications that cover food aren’t doing it much differently: The editorships of Lucky Peach, Garden & Gun, Southern Living, Bon Appetit and even The New York Times food section are men’s clubs these days. Until the recent departure of Dana Cowin, Food & Wine was one of the few female-helmed food magazines left (and let’s see what happens when there’s a puff of white smoke from that chimney).
I have nothing against any of those editors. They are all, to a man, professional, smart and generous in my experience. But they are also most likely to commission work of a certain point of view.
It’s that point of view that gives me pause.
For the last decade and longer, the food culture of the South has drawn attention from an often New York-based cadre of writing-chefs and cheffing-writers like a mermaid perched on a red-clay reef. And that writing is often focused on a male perspective that’s starting to reek of hickory smoke and pig fat.
Yes, I have written on these subjects myself. I wrote a book on bourbon, and have done long-form reporting on country ham and pork belly.
And brothers, have I written about barbecue. I’ve written about barbecue so much that when I lick my pencil, it leaves a grease mark. Two summers ago, when I got a story assignment from a prominent magazine that features a female food TV star on the cover, the assignment was . . . women. In barbecue.
I have often written these things because I’ve been given assignments to do so. When editors dole out assignments, they greenlight the subjects they find interesting.
Bourbon, barbecue and pork belly, God help us, are interesting. I have loved those assignments. I love being known as the woman who wrote a cookbook about bourbon (although I sometimes have to struggle to be a part of the conversation when Southern whiskey is the subject. Operators are standing by, Tales of the Cocktail).
But in our rush to embrace those subjects, in our insistence upon putting them front and center at every discussion of Southern culture, are there other subjects that aren’t getting covered at all?
Try proposing an article on chiffon cake. Or the contributions of Henrietta Dull, who wrote the landmark 1928 “Southern Cooking.” Or household arts like pickling and canning, or the historic role of female caterers or the cooking of Mexican grandmothers. Try proposing Southern food articles on anything that doesn’t involve standing around big pits of burning wood and listening to the squeals of butchered pigs.
I did finally return to Southern Foodways. And while I didn’t find a vastly changed agenda, I did find that John T.’s support staff has been doing due diligence. While 2012 brought the second symposium on barbecue (the subject was pitmasters, a couple of them, at least, pitmistresses), once that had been thoroughly raked over the coals, women, at long last, got a turn.
In 2013, the subject was working women. Emily Wallace and Diane Roberts gave presentations on Eugenia Duke and “Sister Schubert” Patricia Barnes. Marcie Ferris spoke about the powerful voices of women across the culinary arc of Southern history, featured in her recent book, “The Edible South,” and Rebecca Sharpless of Texas Christian University gave an enlightening talk on the racial politics encountered by Southern domestic workers.
And Kinsman, with The New York Times’ Kim Severson, roused the crowd with a Lincoln-Douglas debate on cake vs. pie.
Still, the stage dressing did give me pause. Ferris, a respected professor at the University of North Carolina, had to give her keynote address from behind a stove. (As she mused herself later: Would an Appalachian history expert be asked to stand behind a still or an outhouse?)
I’m glad the South has become so interesting to so many people. I’m delighted, mostly, when New York’s hip-hop chef Eddie Huang finds his way to Oxford, Miss. I gladly joined the standing ovation for Monique Truong’s love letter to Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, North Carolina. Those voices are rich and rewarding. If they’re carpetbaggers, I wouldn’t mind if they stuck around. They liven up the joint.
The outsider perspective of Matt and Ted Lee, who ply the roads between New York and Charleston, has mined meaning from “Charleston Receipts” and the value of community cookbooks. Christensen, Quatrano and Vivian Howard, of The Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, have gotten attention they richly deserve.
It’s just that sometimes, when I watch the speaking roles get doled out or I flip to the table of contents in the latest collection of work, I wonder: Are female Southern food writers the only cultural group left whom it’s OK to treat as tokens?
How can you tell the complete story, the full story, of the South without all of us at the table?
When the assignments are pitched and the speaking roles are assigned, don’t relegate the female writers, particularly not the Southern ones, to just preparing the side dishes while the men fire up the pit. Don’t just turn to us for “the woman’s perspective,” or when you want to read the history of cake.
When you dig into the Southern food feast, there are plenty of ways to divide the pie. Just don’t forget to give the sisters their half. After all, they probably baked the damn thing.