Earlier this month I gave a talk on Southern cookbooks to Stephen Berrey’s class for his course "The American South: A History of Race and Culture since Reconstruction." (History 262/American Culture 263)
The story of Southern cooking is a long and complicated one, with diverse cuisines feeding into it in various ways. And the account of Southern cooking in Southern cookbooks is more complex yet, as elements of that history are romanticized, rationalized, highlighted or suppressed.
One thread that runs through Southern cookbooks is the figure of the African American in the kitchen. After about 1880 this figure, usually female, often explicitly a “mammy”, is praised for her cooking skills, and often lionized as being at the foundation of good southern cooking.
The (usually white) authors take for granted that these culinary artists belong in a servile position, having always occupied one in the south.
There’s more to the characterization than good cooking, however. The black cook is portrayed as a creature of instinct, not of reason, one who has a mysterious sense of how to cook, likened to magic, or to a cult.
Here’s the sequence of images I show the class, which (since there will be another post on the class next month) I'll allow to speak for themselves:
Cooking in other women's kitchens : domestic workers in the South, 1865-1960 / Rebecca Sharpless. 2010
Cooking in other women's kitchens [electronic resource] : domestic workers in the South, 1865-1960 / Rebecca Sharpless. 2010
Guide to African-American-Authored Cookbooks