Author Dishes Up Stories of Race, Class, Gender and Place in Southern Food

barbecue1The South has always been celebrated for its food. From collard greens and okra to heaping plates of biscuits and gravy, Southern food is as much a state of mind as it is a matter of geography.

Combining the study of food culture with gender studies, Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American studies, explores the many hidden culinary contours of Southern life below and beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

Digging deep into community cookbooks, letters, diaries, and other archival materials, Engelhardt describes the five moments in the Southern food story: Moonshine, biscuits versus cornbread, girls’ tomato clubs, pellagra as depicted in mill literature, and cookbooks as means of communication.

Engelhardt recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to discuss her new book “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which she will be presenting at the Texas Book Festival this Saturday at 11:15 a.m. at the Capitol. Go to this website for more details.

How can the choice of serving cornbread or biscuits say a lot about a woman’s social standing?

As I was finishing my first book on Appalachia “Tangled Roots of Feminism,” I kept running across these references to something called the “Beaten Biscuit Crusade.” This was when 9780820340371judgments about Appalachian women were based solely on whether they made biscuits or cornbread for their families. And these judgments extended to a woman’s class, morals, hygiene and even religion. Biscuit baking demonstrated class consciousness, the ability to afford specialized ingredients, marble-top counters and stoves. Cornbread, however, symbolized ignorance, disease and poverty.

What caused this rift between cornbread and biscuits?

In the late 1800s, single women with college educations from the Northeast, Kentucky and other parts of the non-mountain South were coming into Appalachia to build communities and make lives for themselves. One of the sources of tension between the newcomers and the women who had been there a long time was over education reform. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized the women who were coming into that region wanted to start by reforming the food that Appalachian women were cooking.

With the idea of helping the less fortunate, they advocated better cooking standards and public health concerns began to surface about diet-based diseases. Cornbread, which was made from locally milled corn and cooked over an open fire, became a target. Ironically the beaten biscuit recipe, which uses finely milled white flower and very little milk, may have been less nutritious than the cornbread local women were cooking for their families back in the 1800s.

How did Tomato Clubs empower young women back in the early 1900s?

In 1910, Marie Samuella Cromer, a young rural schoolteacher in the western South Carolina town of Aiken, organized a girls’ tomato club so that the girls would “not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.” The tomato clubs and the women who organized them wanted southern food to transform Southern society—but not from the top down.

The girls had to plant one-tenth of an acre of tomatoes, which would provide more tomatoes than they or their families could use in a year. This forced them to learn how to can, market and sell them – and they could do whatever they want with the money. Glass jars were scarce, so they had to use big pieces of equipment to can tomatoes in tin. In order to finish a year in the Tomato Club, they had to write a report about how they harvested, presented and sold their tomatoes. It was a real lesson in technology, science and entrepreneurship.

What chapter of the Southern food story often goes unnoticed?

When we think about Southern food, we often think of abundance. But there’s also a story about lack of access, the absence of healthy eating, the vanished pieces. Back in the 1900s, pellagra – a disease caused by a vitamin-B deficiency – sickened tens of thousands of Southerners in poor communities. Described as the disease of the four Ds: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death – pellagra made many of its sufferers suicidal or dangerous. It struck people in the rural South whose diets typically consisted of the “three Ms,” meat, meal and molasses. They were often described as “mill type ” or “white trash.”  Behind the stereotypes hid a hungry, tired and ill version of the South that even today is difficult to understand.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I hope people leave the book with a resolution to ask family members (however they define family) about their own food stories. And I hope they learn a little about what is behind the final plate on the table, the messages in every meal about who we are as women, men, people of different races and ethnicities, and people of different classes. I hope readers join me in keeping the conversation going about the collective, collaborative and changing southern food stories that are all around us.

Do you have a favorite Southern dish?

Well, it’s early fall, and I come from a county in the North Carolina mountains that is famous for its heirloom apples. This time of year, I find myself most longing for fried apples, homemade applesauce, and apple spice cake. But only if the apples have come from one of those bent, almost forgotten, but still glorious trees on the edge of an old home site, where the fireplace is all that’s left standing but the bees have done their work and the apples are ugly but amazing.

About the author: Having grown up in western North Carolina and spent much of her life in the South, Engelhardt is dedicated to preserving Southern culinary heritage. Her other books include “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket” (University of Texas Press, 2009), “Beyond Hill and Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies” (Ohio University Press, 2005), and “Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature” (Ohio University Press, 2003). She is the coordinator of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Texas branch of the Southern Barbecue Trail Oral History Collection.

Faculty Authors Showcase their Works at the 16th Annual Texas Book Festival

tbf_logo_brownBook lovers, foodies, artists and scholars will partake in an annual rite of fall here in Austin: The Texas Book Festival. The 16th annual Texas Book Festival will take place in and around the Texas State Capitol and nearby venues on Oct. 22-23.

The lineup includes more than 250 authors, an eclectic mix of top literary names, bestselling novelists, political and nonfiction notables, cookbook superstars, Texas writers, children’s authors and promising newcomers.

The talent pool also includes University of Texas at Austin faculty authors. Here are just a handful of professors who will be presenting their books this weekend:

H.W. Brands, the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History

0292723415“Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It”
Saturday, Oct. 22, C-SPAN/Book TV Tent

In “Greenback Planet” (University of Texas Press, Oct. 2011), Brands recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power – and the enormous risks – of the dollar’s worldwide reign.

030774325X“The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield: A Tragedy of the Gilded Age”
Sunday, Oct. 23, Lone Star Tent

In “The Murder of Jim Fisk” (Anchor, May 2011), Brands traces Fisk’s extraordinary downfall, bringing to life New York’s Gilded Age and some of its legendary players, including Boss William Tweed, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the railroad tycoon Jay Gould. Go to the Texas Book Festival website for the full summary of both books.

0820340375“A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food,” by Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American Studies
Saturday, October 22, Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.030

Engelhardt’s “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, Sept. 2011) offers a different perspective, taking into account industrialization, environmental degradation, and women’s increased role in the work force, all of which caused massive economic and social changes. Engelhardt reveals a broad middle of Southerners that included poor whites, farm families, and middle- and working-class African Americans, for whom the stakes of what counted as Southern food were very high. Go to the Texas Book Festival website for the full summary.

1608194809“The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us,” by James Pennebaker, professor and chair, Department of Psychology
Saturday, October 22, Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.016

What do Quentin Tarantino and William Shakespeare have in common? They both write their men like men and their women like men. How can you tell when someone’s being straight with you? They use more verbs, more details (numbers, dates, figures) and more personal pronouns (I, me, etc.). And for the liars: more positive emotion words. These are only a few of the insights found in “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” (Bloombsbury, Aug. 2011), James W. Pennebaker’s far-ranging work on the use of life’s “forgettable words” and their many hidden meanings. Go to the Texas Book Festival website for the full summary.

Check out the official book festival website for a complete schedule of book signings, panel discussions, author interviews, cooking demonstrations and more.

Suiting up for Wall Street, UT Alumna Shares Her Memoirs

Suits_coverNina Godiwalla’s memoir of working on Wall Street begins with a sweaty walk to work through New York City, catching her heel in a grate, begging for help from a nearby blood-soaked fishmonger and eventually arriving at the JP Morgan office only to discover that she was at the wrong building.

Little did she know that temperamental high heels would be the least of her troubles in the years ahead.

Godiwalla, BBA ’97, chronicles the rest of her harrowing finance career in her book, “Suits: A Woman on Wall Street” (2011, Atlas & Co. Publishers). Described by The New York Times as “The Devil Wears Prada” for investment banking, “Suits” details Godiwalla’s experiences at Morgan Stanley, where, as a second-generation Indian American woman from Texas, she fought daily to overcome her outsider’s position.

Godiwalla saw tremendous success on Wall Street, but found herself struggling with the consequences of her ambition and the choices it forced her to make. Critics praised the book as “heartwarming, heartbreaking” and “a must-read for anyone aspiring to a career in high-finance.”

What made you decide to write a book about your life on Wall Street?Nina_Godiwalla_3x4[1]

One of the courses I took [for my master’s degree in liberal arts] was a creative writing course and I wrote one short story about my experience on Wall Street and one short story about my family. [My professor] loved the writing. We ended up pulling [short stories] together to become a thesis for my degree. There was never an intentional “I’m going to sit down and write about this.” It was more that I had someone telling me that I had a lot of potential. The story was worth hearing and it was different. 

Growing up, did you consider yourself to be a good writer?

Before that I had a very big insecurity about my writing. I actually once failed a class with a writing component. I just avoided writing. What I didn’t realize until later is there is a big difference between research-type writing, where you’re just passing on information, and creative writing, where it’s really about story and narrative. I think we all just take for granted the word “writing.”

Did you keep a journal while you worked on Wall Street, or did you start completely fresh for this book?

I never went to the experience thinking that I would write about it, so I did have to start fresh. I kept a long document that had these notes, stories I remembered. If I had kept detailed notes of everything, it would have been harder to write that book because there would have been so much information. This was just what was memorable enough about the experience. If it didn’t stick in my mind, it didn’t get in the book.

Did you ask other people about their memories to help fill in the gaps?

At first I started to try that, but when you’re writing a memoir you start to realize that everyone remembers things a little bit differently. So then I started to get confused, specifically with a lot of the family stories. Everyone had a different version, but that wasn’t what I remembered and so in the end I just decided that it would be what I remembered.

Do you think the essence of a memoir is really more about that personal feeling rather than trying to get a 100 percent completely accurate retelling of events?

The only way you’re going to get that is if it’s recorded and everyone can go back and look and see exactly what happened. I think there’s a continuum of everyone’s idea of what you can do with memoir, but to me it’s really how you remember it, to the extent that you’re not completely making stuff up. It’s your interpretation of the situation; I think everyone interprets and remembers life differently.

Why did you choose to start the book the way you did, with your horrible walk to work on the first day of your internship?

For an East Coast reader, who’s so comfortable with all these things, they don’t have a sense for how different it is. For a New Yorker that’s just like, “Well, this is normal.” I was trying to give people an idea of how different the world I was coming from was, when you’re coming out of a suburb or something. I became part of that New York scene, but it very much wasn’t where I was from and it was all very new to me. I wanted to paint that picture for a start.

You share fairly intimate—and not always flattering—moments in the book, both personal and professional. How did your family and former coworkers respond?

I think from my colleagues, it was amusing because it was a very intense experience. Some of them were bad memories, some of them were just kind of funny to rehash and think about. My family was surprised that something like this was going to get published. They are fairly private, so they don’t really want information about them out there. At the same time, they saw the bigger picture and what the story is about. I think their first reaction was surprise. Then after that it was, “Yes. Go for it,” and “Hope it does well.”

In your opinion what is the bigger picture and the point of the book?

This process helped me redefine my idea of success. Part of the back story about my family is giving people an idea of how my idea of success and the American dream was formed; the epitome of it was being on Wall Street. I had to rethink my whole life’s idea of what success is, and that was a turning point for me.

One of the things for me was that there was kind of a silencing amongst women. I would see so many women have that embarrassing story, a story they’re not so proud of. I felt I kind of carried this story around like a secret. Here I am later, this very comfortable businesswoman, in control of situations, and I kind of cringe every time I remembered that experience. I saw a lot of women who had that shame. I wanted to bring a voice to that type of experience because I think so many people go through that early in their career. I wanted people to be more empowered if they were to go through a situation like that.

After nearly a decade working for Fortune 500 companies, Godiwalla founded MindWorks, which trains professionals in meditation, creating positive corporate culture and stress management.