Deep-Fried and Divided
Conference chews over how food has shaped racial relations and identity in the South
OXFORD, Miss. – Growing up in Chicago, Audrey Petty played air guitar
and sang along to white-bread rock like "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Her best friend was white and Jewish.
And she ate chitlins only to please her mother.
"Chitlins were straight-up country — k-u-n-t-r-e-e. If you called someone `country,’ you were calling them out."
The thoroughly assimilated daughter of Southern black parents, Petty
grew up to be an assistant professor of English at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And she came to Mississippi this month to
deliver a lecture, "The Sacred and Profane: Late-Night Chitlins With
Chew over. Swallow. Digest.
Is it a coincidence they are all words that can describe both eating and discussing?
The fifth annual Southern Foodways Symposium convened on the campus of
the University of Mississippi Oct. 7-10 to chew over, swallow and try
to digest the meaning of Southern food.
After years of lectures that danced delicately around loaded issues of
race in Southern food, this time the theme was squarely on the table:
"Southern Food in Black and White."
Food and tension
The symposium, organized by a group of writers, historians and
interested eaters who call themselves the Southern Foodways Alliance,
has always aimed at finding the common ground under the plate.The
organizer and driving force is food writer John T. Edge of Ole Miss’
Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Edge’s genius has come not
only from organizing an academic gathering that lures people of diverse
backgrounds to talk about controversial subjects.
It’s also in the way he has gone about it, giving lectures and events
absurd names. This year’s conference included "The Fried Chicken Throw
Down" and "Possum & Taters: Where Have You Gone?"
The names are slightly silly, easing the discomfort of the subjects
they disguise: symbolic foods that are fraught with tension and the
contested ownership of traditions.
In that context, watermelon, fried chicken and chitlins aren’t just
foods. They’re symbols of the way we have defined ourselves and others,
and the terrible gulf in between.
In America, a land of "familiar strangers," we get mixed messages, said
Adrian Miller, this year’s program chair. A special assistant to
President Clinton who helped organize the White House’s Initiative for
One America in the 1990s, Miller pointed out the difficulty: We’re
taught to look past racial differences at the same time we’re taught to
That makes it hard to talk, he said.
"We don’t have shared memories of history."
`Still talking about race’
Will D. Campbell, the civil-rights and anti-war activist and preacher,
started the conference with his own memory of history. A white
Mississippi native, he was literally driven out with his family 48
years ago, escorted to the Tennessee border by state troopers.
Some things never change, he said. "We are still `Ole Miss,’ and we are still talking about race."
York County, S.C., peach farmer and author Dori Sanders followed,
taking the lectern to describe growing up on a black-owned farm. "It
wasn’t always so wonderful," she said. After the Civil War and well
into the 20th century, most black farmers were reduced to sharecropping.
"The S stood for `slavery’ and the C stood for `continued,’ " she said. "It was slavery continued."
And Diane McWhorter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Carry Me
Home," about growing up white in segregated Birmingham, Ala., described
Southern civility as "the balm" that allowed whites to live with
Along with several other speakers, McWhorter noted one of segregation’s greatest ironies:
Black servants could cook and handle white people’s food, but they
weren’t allowed to use the same water fountain or bathroom or share
that food at the same table.
After leaving the South, McWhorter found she identified more with blacks than with her Northern neighbors.
"Southern culture is black culture, in a way."
The discussions continued for three days, chewing over issues like
"toting privileges," which allowed black cooks to take leftovers home
to their families, and the relationships between domestic servants and
their employers. White employers called servants "like a member of the
family" but never gave them holidays and Sundays off to be with their
own families."I learned to cook at 11 years old," said Dr. Trudier
Harris of UNC Chapel Hill. Her own mother was a domestic who had to
leave early to cook breakfast for white families.
But as the lectures continued, through brief histories of watermelon
rind pickles and descriptions of presidents who loved ‘possum and sweet
potatoes, an interesting pattern emerged.
People talked about food. And they talked about race. But they never really talked about food and race.
The closest moment came in an informal meeting on the porch of Taylor
Grocery, a catfish restaurant near Oxford, when Guelel Sanghott, a
musician from Senegal who has lived in Mississippi for a year, took a
break from playing for the crowd.
Since Senegal is in West Africa, the origin of most of the slaves who
were brought to America, Sanghott was asked if Southern food seemed
Oh yes, he answered enthusiastically. Jambalaya, okra, rice. They are
all food from home. He described a fish stew made with rice and "tomato
pasta" (tomato paste).
Skip the fish and it would be a close cousin to Charleston’s red rice.
Stripping the myths
Unlike past years, when the symposium brought emotional debate over
points of history like the origin of fried chicken, this year’s
symposium was almost pointedly polite. A New York Times article the day
before it opened had predicted fireworks that did not come to pass.
But maybe the reason the Southern Foodways Symposium didn’t cover race
and food is for the same reason that discussions stayed so respectful:
Maybe Americans are finally reaching a point where differences are less
important than similarities, where ownership of tradition is less
important than keeping tradition alive.
"This is a process, not a product," said cookbook author Ronni Lundy, a
founding member of the alliance. "We keep coming back to the table to
strip away the embroidery," to free Southern food of its myths, both
romanticized and demonized.
If the differences are disappearing, what we are left with is respect
and the right to own our own experiences without denying someone else
the right to own them, too.
Maybe the end of conversation is the beginning of understanding.
Program committee chair Adrian Miller is the director of outreach for
the Bell Policy Center in Colorado and a former special assistant to
President Clinton. He offered a list of community activities to foster
discussions of food and race. He also requested that anyone who tries
them report the results by e-mailing email@example.com.
• Dinner club. Host a dinner with diverse guests and feature Southern
food items. Discuss how many people in the South eat the same things.
• Book club. Read a Southern cookbook and a soul food cookbook. Compare the similarities and differences.
• Gardening. Start a community garden and share the harvest.
• Faith community. Have a joint worship service with another faith institution. Conclude with a pot-luck supper.
• Oral history. Identify the great cooks, black and white, in your community. Interview them together.
• Chefs. Do a "chef exchange" between white and black chefs at Southern restaurants.
© 2004 Charlotte Observer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.