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Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre (eds.), Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South

Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis

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1Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre (eds.), Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South

2Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. Pp. 231. ISBN: 978-1-4968-0918-6. Hardcover.

3Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis

  • 1 Prior to the publication of Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South, Ashli Que (...)

4Critical Southern food studies is not uncharted territory. Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South is a new, valuable addition to this burgeoning field, which is constantly being broadened by such scholars as John Edge, Frederick Douglass Opie, Jennifer Jensen Wallach, Psyche Williams-Forson, and many others. Various researchers use ethnographic, historiographic, cultural studies, historical and anthropological research methods to consider how Southerners situate themselves through foodways in relation to their fellow Southerners and social milieu. In Consuming Identity Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre add distinct methods of research and analysis of communication studies to the analysis of the role food plays in forming Southern identities.1 The authors’ professional interests weigh heavily on the scope of the book. Both scholars pursue research in rhetoric studies and are professors in communication studies – Stokes at UNC Charlotte, where she is also director of the Center for the Study of the New South, and Atkins-Sayre at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is also director of the Speaking Center.

5Most admirable in Consuming Identity is the selection of the primary sources. An immense amount of research data was collected during journeys through ten Southern states. The fieldwork data retrieved from “roadside produce stands and farmers’ markets, and gas stations and grocery stores … [was] recorded through extensive notes, gathered literature (menus and such), photography, and audio/video clips, [it] provid[ed] rich written artifacts that could be analyzed” (11). Stokes’ and Atkins-Sayre’s various personal experiences and recollections of their region, oral histories, and readings of various alternative texts facilitate a “Southern exposure” of sorts and allow the authors to enrich the debate about Southern distinctive identities.

6The subtitle of the book, The Role of Food in Redefining the South, reveals that its authors position food as an interpretative tool through the study of which they can explore how Southern identities are created, shared, and maintained. The table of contents creates an impression of scholarly order, with Part One providing general comments about the rhetorical potential of Southern food, Part Two encompassing more detailed explorations of individual foods and drinks of the region, and Part Three supplying concluding remarks. The chapters in Part Two are thematically ordered; thus the book maintains a strong coherence. This apparently neat division, based on the metaphor of a meal (cocktails, main courses, sides, and desserts), gets slightly blurred when the content of the individual chapters is examined more closely. Because of a few recurring issues – most prominent among them that of culinary authenticity and nostalgia – there is a slight impression of repetitiveness in the line of argumentation throughout Part Two.

  • 2 Here I refer to such publications mentioned by Stokes and Atkins-Sayre:

7The introduction, “The Stories, Subjectivities, and Spaces of Southern Food,” is the book’s intellectual foundation, providing theoretical touchstones for the further analyses. The authors explain that the “book explores the types of identities, allegiances, and bonds that are made possible and are strengthened through Southern foods and foodways” (3). Identity as a performative, never finite construct can be studied through the lenses of culinary choices that define people’s allegiance to a given social group. In social exchanges identities, relations and dependences are formed, and food is often used as the material and symbolic content of such negotiations. Stokes and Atkins-Sayre aim to explore “how food acts rhetorically” (4) and thus add their voice to the already existing research on the communicative power of food.2

8While writing about the rhetorical potential of food, the authors bring up the important issue of food and the stories surrounding it, which “provide a significant and meaningful way to open up dialogue in the region” (5). Such a discussion of the ability of Southern food to define a cultural identity has to revolve around not only dialogue with the past, heritage and history, but also around the present ascension of Southern food (6). Celebrating shared culture takes many forms, through various websites popularizing Southern foodways, the “lardcore movement,” and the Southern Foodways Alliance promoting traditional and contemporary Southern foodways. What connects all these various initiatives is not simply a love for Southern food, but also the ability of Southern food to create an arena for conversations about Southern pride, distinctiveness and the region’s haunted past and its present ills. In a sense, Stokes and Atkins-Sayre prove – to quote Edge’s argument that “food offers entrée to talk of big-picture issues. Like race and class, gender and justice” – that food is “the perfect rhetorical opening for these conversations” (12).

9Chapter one, “Consuming Rhetoric: How Southern Food Speaks,” is a poignant opening volley, which offers a well-informed exposé of the theoretical touchstones for further analysis, namely constitutive rhetorical theories, such as those by R. Craig, M. Charland, and N. Cordova. The authors also explain that sensory experiences are rhetorically constitutive, addressing the issue of the material and symbolical meaning of food and foodscape (21-44). Moreover, they analyze sensory experiences as constitutive of discursive practice (45-49), thanks to which “we can ‘ventriloquize’ policies, ideologies, rule, norms, values, accents, and so on” (48).

  • 3 “A Spoken Dish: Celebrating Southern Food Traditions and Demonstrating How the Food We Put on Our T (...)

10Chapter two, “A Troubled Region and its Possible Culinary Fix,” offers an alternative perspective on building Southern identity not on “race and class divisions and regional stereotypes” but rather on “diverse, humble, and hospitable roots” (51). They skillfully situate Southern food movements, such as the “Southern Revival” and the “lardcore movement,” within the region’s history haunted by slavery, racial discrimination and violence. They mention the historical ills of the South and the more recent Paula Deen controversy, and use them to speak out against “historical amnesia” and confront a divided image of the South. Food is especially helpful in this endeavor, due to “its ability to serve as a source of identification and reconciliation” (55). The following detailed discussion of the Southern Food Alliance is particularly important in the context of the rhetorical power of food to craft identities and open up “discussions about a shared but difficult history” (65). It is a pity, though, that Stokes and Atkins-Sayre do not mention in this context A Spoken Dish, a storytelling project run by Georgia Organics, the Southern Foodways Alliance, and the Whole Foods Market to celebrate and document food memories and rituals from people across the South. Personal and professional recollections shared by home cooks, writers, artists, chefs, farmers, and children offer a window into the kaleidoscopic South of “the Civil Rights Movement, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Migration, traditional hog killings, magic pickling rocks, southern spaetzle, paw paws, gumbo, and more.”3 The inclusion of A Spoken Dish initiative would complement their research and insightful comments on Southern food movements.

11Stokes and Atkins-Sayre use chapter three, “Sipping on Southern Hospitality: Drink as Rhetorical Invitation,” to explore cocktails through the prism of Southern hospitality. Through printed texts, oral interviews, documentaries, cookbooks, travelers’ accounts, literature, and fieldwork material Stokes and Atkins-Sayre explore the rhetorical function of hospitality encoded in Southern alcohol-based creations such as mint juleps, Shiner Bocks, and Sazeraces. Their conclusion about the rhetorical message that could be extracted from drinks – “the drink can serve as a symbol of the identity of the host, emphasizing his or her likes and dislikes, regional affiliation, class, gender, and so forth” (101) – refers not only to the projected image of Southern hospitality as a regional identifier, but also to its limits, namely to “front porch hospitality” (101). Some generalizations, such as “Southern drinks are about sharing stories and building relationships” (79), or “Drinks in the South are made for conversation” (84) can just as well be applied to other cultures. Hospitality expressed in drinks and cocktails is symptomatic of a general human desire to create a sense of commonality and of identification with others: it is unlikely that this is limited to the South.

  • 4 The newest additions to the research about the importance and diversity of barbecue in the South in (...)

12The next chapter, “Turf Tussle: Uniting Through North Carolina Barbecue,” is a rich exploration of BBQ as “a type of cultural synecdoche that continues to bring different types of people together, telling stories that simultaneously shape and express contemporary Southern identity” (15). Echoing the opinions of many scholars,4 the authors claim that barbecue has a great potential to build community (105). Stokes and Atkins-Sayre analyze the role of barbecue as a bonding and/or inclusive strategy along three themes: authenticity, masculinity, and rurality. In conclusion to this chapter they also point to the challenges and changes in the BBQ foodscape. New proprietors / pitmasters, chain restaurants crowding out old joints, and changes to the Southern diet threaten to violate the primacy of the sacred BBQ. However, as the authors observe, barbecue will retain its iconic status as long as “it is able to incorporate the rhetorical markers such as authenticity and rurality” (132).

13Chapter five, “Authenticating Southernism: Creating a Sense of Place Through Food,” charts Southern food through the prism of regionalism and different forms of authenticity: “true” authentic, “fake” authentic (fauxthentic), and “new” authentic. Stokes’ and Atkins-Sayre’s general observations about the place of food within the rhetorical nature of regionalism revolve around the issues of seasonal availability, simple and humble ingredients, as well as abundance of food, traditional ingredients, and food events which define the region. They skillfully introduce the issue of “fauxthenticity” – a category which balances authentic and inauthentic, “showing glimmers of the true, while also pushing the boundaries” (149) – using the example of Cracker Barrel, a nationally recognized chain from Tennessee, as juxtaposed with the authentic rebranded Ruby’s. They tellingly call Nouveau Southern cuisine “überauthentic,” presenting it as a modern revitalizing movement that “starts with the historical concept in some way and then takes artistic leeway with the ingredients or with the recipe and deviates from the historical food” (154). Farmers and locavores scouring farmers’ markets play a key role in sending messages about regional belonging.

14Chapter six, “Nostalgia, Ritual, and the Rhetorical Possibility of Southern Baking,” expands on some of the questions and interpretations raised in earlier sections of the book; it delves into the issue of “the potential of food, especially dessert, to help communities find connectedness, empowerment, and resilience in a South burdened by its history and seeking salvation” (159). The discussion of desserts touches on such issues as the rituals of baking, nostalgia, the reinforcement and the challenging of gender norms, the soothing capabilities of Southern cakes, and the potential of pies and cupcakes to affirm cultural health (161). Theoretical considerations of (food) nostalgia and rituals (of baking) are taken up in the analysis of a Southern dessert: pound cake. It is never explained why the ritual of making various desserts, particularly the act of baking, is especially likely to bolster friendship, provide memories, and connect cooks with their communities (170), or why “dessert serves as a site of identification, but it also crafts authority, developing empowerment and agency” (176). Is it not true of other Southern culinary dishes? While the validity of such statements as “Tinkering in the kitchen allows one to embrace the good parts of the South’s traditional baking rituals while transcending its troubled history (but not forgetting it)” (169) cannot be denied, one wonders whether they do not describe all Southern foodways, not just desserts. Is baking the only example “of edible nostalgia”? Could other foodstuffs from the region qualify for this status?

  • 5 The term foodways encompasses activities associated with the procurement, preparation, service, and (...)

15Part Two of the book, consisting of chapters from two to six, suffers from some thematic repetitiveness. Rather than have the issues of authenticity, hospitality and nostalgia dealt with in one sub-chapter, which would create a greater sense of cohesiveness, these issues are mentioned time and again throughout the chapters. Additionally, the authors omitted a chance to steer the discussion about Southern fare towards the considerations of foodways and foodscape.5 Such a re-orientation of thoughtful musings could rephrase the analysis of the symbolic and material effects of Southern food and thus make the book even more stimulating. While analyzing the aforementioned issues in one sub-chapter might have been a more effective organizational strategy, ultimately the structure of the book does not detract from the authors’ aims.

16The final chapter of the book, “Redefining the South Through Food,” draws attention to the fact that food expands the boundaries of the region and thus, through its rhetorical potential, helps redefine the South as we know it. Stokes and Atkins-Sayre do not lament the fact that “the South [is] losing its culinary tradition” (189); they boldly claim that “[i]n many ways, the authenticity of the food is less important that the role it plays in developing a strong regional identity, creating a symbol of the South” (189). The authors point to Southern food’s rhetorical potential of boundary crossing: food helps overcome alienation (hospitality), authenticates a region (regional identity), develops empowerment and agency (gender performativity), and emphasizes commonality (social inclusion), but most importantly “Southern food has the potential to cross racial, class, ethnic, religious, gender, and geographical boundaries, bringing a wide variety of consumers together to celebrate one thing” (193). The Southern foodscape mirrors the socio-historical metamorphosis of the South. The evolution of Southern demographics and the region’s shifting racial make-up can be sampled in the syncretic New Southern cuisine, which consists of such delicacies as Delta tamales, Texas kolaches, wok-cooked okra and many other Southern ethnic food combinations. Stokes and Atkins-Sayre conclude that “this boundary stretching might disturb some Southern food purists, [but] this is more reflective of the culture and allows for more rhetorical power” (194).

  • 6 The most recent book-length contributions to critical Southern food studies include:

17The publication of Consuming Identity is an important contribution to the increasingly vibrant field of critical Southern food studies.6 Ashli Quesinberry Stokes’ and Wendy Atkins-Sayre’s insightful and informative study affords readers a thought-provoking analysis of how Southern food reflects and redefines the region’s identities. Additionally, the selection of “texts” for analysis is the authors’ excellent strategy to cross-fertilize both academic and popular audiences. Insightful and appealing scholarly interpretations combined with popular discourse yield scholarship accessible to academia and beyond.

18Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis

19John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin

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Notes

1 Prior to the publication of Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South, Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre coauthored an article “Crafting the Cornbread Nation: The Southern Foodways Alliance and Southern Identity” (Southern Communication Journal, 2014). The article in question seems to be a starting point for an academic cooperation between two scholars.

2 Here I refer to such publications mentioned by Stokes and Atkins-Sayre:

Janet Cramer et al, ed. Food as Communication- Communication as Food. Peter Lang, 2011.

Joshua Frye and Michael Bruner, ed. The Rhetoric of Food: Discourse, Materiality, and Power. Routledge, 2012.
Carlnita Greene, Gourmands and Gluttons: The Rhetoric of Food Excess. Peter Lang, 2015.

3 “A Spoken Dish: Celebrating Southern Food Traditions and Demonstrating How the Food We Put on Our Table Reflects the Diversity of Our Communities.” http://aspokendish.com/ Accessed 30 June 2017.

4 The newest additions to the research about the importance and diversity of barbecue in the South include: Andrew Warnes’ Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food (U of Georgia P, 2008), Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt’s Republic of Barbecue (U of Texas P, 2009), Robert F. Moss’s Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (U of Alabama P, 2010), and James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin’s The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South (Vanderbilt UP 2011).

5 The term foodways encompasses activities associated with the procurement, preparation, service, and consumption of food and drink. Foodways, as part of a cultural system, reflect that system’s changing social and historical circumstances, and are co-constructive of the socio-cultural identities of those who operate within it. While foodways reflect and co-create culture and identity, the term foodscape relates foodways to places endowing them with specific meanings. Foodscape, as a physical space connected with food-related activities (foodways), is then a geographically situated reminder of the social interactions framed through foodways.

For more information about foodways, consult Charles Camp, “Foodways.” Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Vol. 2 Food Production to Nuts, edited by H. Katz. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, pp. 29-31; information about foodscape can be found in: Pauline Adema, Garlic Capital of the World: Gilroy, Garlic, and the Making of a Festive Foodscape. UP of Mississippi, 2009.

6 The most recent book-length contributions to critical Southern food studies include:

John Edge, et al, ed. The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, U of Georgia P, 2013,

Jennifer Jensen Wallach, ed. Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama. U of Arkansas P, 2015.

Frederick Douglass, Opie. Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution. The History P, 2017.

Edge, John. The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South. Penguin Press, 2017.

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Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, « Ashli Quesinberry Stokes and Wendy Atkins-Sayre (eds.), Consuming Identity: The Role of Food in Redefining the South », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2019-2, Online since 15 July 2019, connection on 30 November 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/14779

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