Driven by consumers’ desire for slow and local food, craft breweries, traditional butchers, cheese makers and bakeries have been popping up across the US in the last twenty years. Typically urban and staffed predominantly by white middle class men, these industries are perceived as a departure from tradition and mainstream lifestyles. But this image obscures the diverse communities that have supported artisanal foods for centuries.
Using the oral histories of over 100 people, this book brings to light the voices, experiences, and histories of marginalized groups who keep Southern foodways alive. The larger than life stories of these individuals reveal the complex reality behind the movement and show how they are the backbone of the so-called "new explosion" of craft food.
In 2018, The Inn at Little Washington became the first and only restaurant in the Washington, DC, region to receive three Michelin stars, arguably the world’s highest rating in the fine dining restaurant industry. Michelin stars are awarded by the Paris-based guidebook based on anonymous reviews surrounding the atmosphere, cuisine, and entire dining experience of a restaurant. The 2018 guidebook listed 104 restaurants in the world holding the coveted three Michelin stars. Of those restaurants, only 14 were located in the United States, with a majority located in major metro areas such as New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. The Inn at Little Washington appears to fit the positioning as a fine dining restaurant located in one of the United States’ most important and influential cities.
Yet The Inn (as locals and industry insiders often refer to it) is not located in Washington, DC, or even in one of the affluent suburbs of Virginia or Maryland. The Michelin Guide for the region provides many helpful maps for patrons to use to find highly rated restaurants. For each restaurant, the map that has the location of the restaurant is noted with the entry to make it easier to find your way to a table. However, for The Inn, the map notation is “N/A” because you literally must travel off the guide’s maps, down Interstate 66, then traverse country highways for another 40 miles to reach it (Michelin, 2020).
Blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay spiced with Old Bay seasoning. Fresh shrimp off the coast of Louisiana dropped off in kitchens across the bayous and into the heart of New Orleans. Rockfish, porgy, crawfish, and spot, among many other varieties of seafood, are central to the heartbeat of food culture along the coastlines of the South. The commercial fishing industry across the southeastern United States offers an in-depth look into the connection between the current local and craft food movement and the harsh reality of continually operating a business that’s livelihood is vulnerable to natural and human disasters. Yet the resiliency embedded in this industry strengthens the social solidarity within these communities that line the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast, similar to the social networks that exist between producers and consumers in the craft beer industry, allowing these businesses to thrive despite pushback from other sources (Borer, 2019). While restaurant chefs are able to highlight their dedication to local seafood through their menus and the self-selecting clientele who are seeking out the associated status conveyed upon those who choose to eat local (Johnston and Baumann, 2010), in this relationship the chef is often the center of attention from both the diner and the media. However, their success is dependent on their suppliers, in this case the fishermen and women who endure hurricanes, oil spills, and various forms of government regulation to provide their customers and local chefs with fresh seafood while also continuing to operate their family businesses, which in many cases have been in operation for multiple generations.
As a child growing up in Virginia, when asked to describe our hometown, my classmates and I would say the cows outnumbered people almost three to one, and they still do today. The rolling hills leading up to the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side and the increasing sprawl of Washington, DC, on the other are dotted with cattle, red barns, and apple orchards, although today many of the orchards are gone and instead vineyards cover the hills. It is not uncommon to see a tractor on the main highway, and a majority of the full-time residents who do not make the hour-plus commute into northern Virginia are employed in some form of agricultural work. Homegrown food was not a rarity for my family. Both of my grandfathers planted large gardens as long as their health allowed and were frequently dropping off baskets of corn, tomatoes, and the always present zucchini at our back door. Despite growing up surrounded by agriculture, it was not until I was an adult and moved to the first of several college towns that I have called home in recent years that I was able experience a farmers’ market for the first time.
It was here that I experienced produce that tasted better than anything I had bought in a store and saw the prices on the same types of canned goods that my grandmother had always kept lined on shelves in her pantry when I was a child.
The popular imagery of the South is often grounded in the past—large oak trees dripping in Spanish moss, the harsh and too often overlooked history of slavery, and the correspondingly large elegant plantation houses where the horrors of slavery occurred—all of which are integral parts of the origins of Southern food. Southern food calls to mind barbecue cooked over hot coals in an open pit at a roadside stand, or fried chicken and greens served on plastic tablecloths at a small family-owned restaurant. The debate over Southern foodways is often broken down into Southern/white food versus soul/black food, grounded in the historical context of racial oppression in the South. The representations of the South intertwine with racial inequality, then as now, and with food, to highlight how, for example, soul food emerged from the limited ingredients given to slaves on plantations compared with the bounty of produce and meat available to wealthy white Southerners (Miller, 2013). Inequality shaped many aspects of people’s lives, including what appeared on their plates.
These representations only reflect part of the South. The South is often seen as exclusively white and black, trapped in the legacy of racial discrimination, characterized by conservative religious beliefs, and extensively rural and agrarian. However, more recently the southeastern United States has become known as the New South, with increasing appeal to tourists and those looking for a new region to call home (Stanonis, 2008). Immigration patterns have brought large numbers of blacks and whites back to the growing industry of the South as growth in other parts of the country has stagnated or declined.
I grew up in what is today labeled the Northern Virginia American Viticultural Area (AVA), a designation given to established wine regions based on the shared environment that contributes to the final taste of the wine or terroir. Yet these established AVAs and the plethora of Virginia wineries (over 300 at the beginning of 2020) are a relatively new phenomenon on the East Coast. Before most of the vineyards down the road from my childhood home were planted, the region was known as the edge of Washington, DC, and horse country, where cows outnumber people, and wine was not yet on the cultural radar. One Friday evening in the summer as a young teenager, I was left at home while my parents went to a dinner party I wasn’t allowed to attend. Less than 30 minutes after my parents departed for the party, my father returned and quickly rummaged through the pantry for several bottles of wine before leaving again. The party had begun with a wine tasting of a bottle each of red and white wine from the two wineries in the county where I lived. After trying each wine and subsequently pouring it out on the grass, my father decided to go home and get a couple of bottles he knew were good from long-established California wineries. Suffice it to say, the local wines that evening were not “up to snuff,” as my parents would say, and could have easily been confused with “purple vinegar” or syrup.
One early January afternoon in 2016, flames erupted from the Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, causing $2.5 million worth of ham and sausage, as well as the buildings and three generations of history, to burn to the ground. In 2019, the family that owns Edwards, the third generation in a business opened in the 1920s along the banks of the James River in Surry, Virginia, just across the river from Jamestown, still had not rebuilt. Although the business is still operating through a succession of other people’s smokehouses in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri, the farm-to-table chain the Edwards family had created around their ham products had not been rebuilt. The family sourced local heritage breed pigs raised on a specific peanut feeding system unique to the Virginia region where the original smokehouse was located, and where peanut farmers are plentiful; however, without the Surry smokehouse the cost of shipping pigs from Virginia to other states is prohibitive. Almost three years after the fire, the first batch of Surryano ham, the most iconic of Edwards products, was released, but it is not the same. The unique aspect of dry-aged or cured country ham is the specific combination of bacteria and yeast present in each smokehouse; it is the terroir of the country ham business that makes each brand unique. The popularity of Surryano ham extended far beyond the Tidewater region of Virginia: it featured prominently on the menus of award-winning restaurants in Washington, DC, and New York City, including David Chang’s Momofuku (Stolberg, 2016; Korfhage, 2019).
The food on our plates is not disconnected from the mechanisms of social stratification and inequality. Who picks the food, cooks the food, eats the food, and pays for the food are all part of this intertwined, unequal system. This concluding chapter places Southern foodways and the inequality embedded in traditional representations of it into conversation regarding the increasing media and tourist attention garnered by popular Southern foods. While advantageous to some producers, these trends reinforce the financial hardships along with the many racial, ethnic, and gendered stereotypes faced by others who are integral to these foodways and traditions. This final chapter explores the diversity embedded in Southern foodways if we choose to look beyond the popular stereotypes, while also considering some of the larger societal changes in the restaurant industry sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
Across each chapter the producers of craft food and beverages in the South have been shown to be grounded in the history of their industry and in place itself. History is important, whether it is geographical as in the case of Virginia and North Carolina winemakers recalling Thomas Jefferson’s goal to make wine on par with those being produced in France at the time and Sir Walter Raleigh’s planting of muscadine grapes, or family history as in the case of farmers and shrimpers who are the current generation in a long line of family members to make their lives on the land or water. In both cases, the importance of place, or terroir, permeates the decision-making process surrounding what products to grow that will thrive in the South.