Cornbread or beaten biscuits? Breaking the food code

Posted by | November 20, 2012

This 2005 interview with Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt of the University of Texas/Austin ran in that school’s Office of Public Affairs newsletter. Full article here.

When you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal this week, will the dressing on your plate be made with cornbread or wheat bread? Will it have oysters or sausage or chestnuts? When the words, “Please pass the…” come from your mouth, will they be followed by “cranberry chutney” or “green bean casserole” or “giblet gravy”?

The answers to those questions may offer clues to more than your holiday menu. According to Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt of the University of Texas/Austin, our family tradition is not the only thing represented by our food choices. At the local and national level, food does the work of culture.

Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

“All kinds of stories are hiding in our food,” says Engelhardt, assistant professor in the Department of American Studies and in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. “Breaking the codes of food begins with its uses, preparations and costs but ends with the social histories of race, class, gender and place that hide in the recipes, ingredients and food practices we embrace.”

Engelhardt first started paying attention to the richness of stories in food when she was doing research for her first book, “The Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature.” She noticed again and again that food worked as a code in women’s letters, diaries, novels and in newspaper columns, suggesting everything from education level to hygiene. Closer investigation showed that something as simple as the choice between cornbread and biscuits in the South can be filled with messages.

Having grown up in western North Carolina, Engelhardt was used to finding both biscuits and cornbread on her family table and in restaurants. At the turn of the century in Appalachia, however, things were much different.

“Many Appalachians preferred cooking cornbread because it was easy and quick,” Engelhardt says. “You could literally cook it on a hoe outdoors and you didn’t need a lot of equipment. You didn’t have to be a farmer to produce corn. It could be grown as a garden plant. And you didn’t need kitchen help to fix cornbread for your household.”

Cornbread was, essentially, the food of the people. It required only local ingredients and the recipe was adaptable and forgiving. It was a staple in Appalachian households.

At the turn of the century, public health concerns began to surface about diet-based diseases and people both inside and outside the community in Appalachia came to believe Southerners were getting diseases because of their diets. Cornbread became a target. [see ‘Musty corn and the dread scourge pellagra.’]

Making cornbread with relief flour. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia; October 1935.

Making cornbread with relief flour. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia; October 1935.

An alternative offered was the beaten biscuit, a recipe that was crowned as the height of domestic achievement. The biscuit required not just wheat flour, hardly available to many households, but also elaborate equipment that included baking sheets, an oven with regulated temperatures and even a suggested marble slab for beating the dough a full 300 strokes (and 500 for company).

Beaten biscuits, a national recipe imported into Appalachia, were clearly a middle class food, requiring special ingredients, equipment and extensive cooking time. They served to separate the poor from the moneyed and, by extension, the unhealthy from the healthy.

“In the South, biscuits and cornbread have a lot to say about food as a path to morality,” Engelhardt says. “Hidden in the choice between cornbread and biscuits is an entire cultural history.”

Engelhardt found this true of many foods, and it became the focus of her follow-up book, “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food.”

Greens too have a complex history in the South. They were something that people could go and gather after working a long shift at the factory. So although greens were one of the earlier items to be canned and sold, people didn’t choose to spend their grocery money on them when they first had money to do so.

“Greens can be seen as a protest against the time clock that industrialization introduced,” Engelhardt says. “Gathering greens served as a means for both men and women to resist new factory and mine-driven gender roles, as a walk in the woods did not involve company scrip or time clock.”

“Thanksgiving interests me because we have all of this wealth of food available, but many family Thanksgiving traditions are curiously stable,” Engelhardt says. “Even when faced with an amazing diversity of choices, we end up making the same kind of choices year after year. This has something to say about the way the holiday was celebrated in the past and remembering people who are no longer here.”

The choices themselves carry interesting histories, and they’re not always as simple as they may first seem. Engelhardt points to families who use oysters in their Thanksgiving dressing. It might seem like this tradition would suggest having come from the coast or having had the money to purchase this relatively expensive ingredient. Not necessarily, Engelhardt says.

“Oysters were one of the earliest canned products in the United States, so at the turn of the century they were available to people of all means,” she says. “Today we tend to think of oysters as a luxury treat, but that wasn’t so much the case. So if your family uses oysters in its holiday stuffing it may connect to this changing class structure and changing food supply networks in the country.”

Understanding the origins of our comfort foods, our holiday favorites and our dietary staples generally requires a look at the women in our families and communities, as women usually carry food traditions through generations. And the questions that lead to the origins can be varied.

“It’s a matter of teasing out what the story really is,” Engelhardt says, “looking at letters, diaries, contexts. What are the trends? When did your family move to town? How long have they been in the country? Where they always an urban family? Who ran the grocery store in your family’s town?”

These questions and others may reveal the messages hidden in our food choices, but our favorite foods, with all of their stories, will surely lure us to the table again this holiday season.

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