Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Home cooking, bottlenecks, & flooding

A friend of mine visited New York City recently and returned with a striking photo of a restaurant menu. One of the signature items listed was “Southern Fried Chicken” with a side of a biscuit and pickles for $28. Southern food has been trendy for quite some time — there are restaurants from San Francisco to Chicago flaunting offensively overpriced comfort food, tinted mason jars, and dilapidated farm chic.

The obsession over Southern cooking does make sense. You can’t talk about the South without talking about food. That’s why most regional magazines and festivals revolve around food — it’s integral to the culture, to how we understand race, politics, gender roles, socioeconomics, and history. But that story, the real, complicated, evolving story of Southern food, is often taken out of context and oversimplified.

Earlier this week, John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about just that. For so long, the South has been seen as the poster child for bad health: too many food deserts, high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. But, he said, “the South is more than a locus for food-system problems and a battleground for policy arguments. Throughout its history, the region has incubated bold American solutions to hunger and food access.” Largely, those solutions were created by black women, who challenged white plantation farms and the connotations they carried. They wanted to take back the land for themselves in order to achieve food sovereignty, Edge wrote. In the 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights activist, created a livestock share program and communal farm in the Mississippi Delta and eventually acquired over 600 acres of farmland even as conservative white people threatened her and the project. Her story illustrates the radical roots of Southern food, and the struggle for black Americans to reclaim agriculture in the South. Edge’s new book, “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South,” which traces the history of food from the Civil Rights Movement to the present, is out next week.

The Times also published a profile of Edge, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. The profile focused on how other food writers view his work. Some critics say he ignores the topic of women in the food system, whether it’s their roles on farms or in kitchens; others say he fails to address the culinary history of poor whites in Appalachia. I mentioned in this newsletter a few weeks ago that other well-known food writers have been tackling similar issues for decades, even though Edge’s voice is touted as the most prominent.

Now, as more immigrants move to the South and put new spins on classic dishes (one example was fried okra with fish sauce), more layers of complexity are added to our understanding of food in a region where the cuisine has always been diverse — whether its Gullah/Geechee dishes in South Carolina, French cooking in New Orleans, or Spanish restaurants in Tampa. No one can seem to wrap their head around this completely, but that’s probably a good thing. Having a diverse array of perspectives on what food and agriculture means in the South is just as critical as confronting its uncomfortable history.

Back in 2014, Edge wrote one of his columns for Oxford American about how he came to understand the Civil War and the history of slavery. The whitewashed version he heard in school differed greatly from what actually happened. In the end, he comes to terms with his anger over the South’s divisive history with a belief that food is a unifying symbol of the multiracial cultures here, but the full power of that still isn’t tapped: “Overt racism is no longer the issue. Our divisions today are cloaked. Squabbles over identity and symbols are now more insidious. What Southerners have in common, however, remains. In addition to an arguable shared ear for music, and an abominable habit of too often electing bad leaders, we possess a definite shared palate, honed over four centuries of cooking out of the same larder, if not always eating at the same table.” All oversimplifications and misnomers about Southern food — and flaws of food writers — aside, it’s a valid point.

Stories worth your time

Fifty billion dollars worth of energy projects are on hold because the president has yet to fill commissioner positions. Without them, there’s not enough people to vote on project applications.  Many of those projects are new pipelines in the Southeast. “It’s a bottleneck that can be traced to the White House in the hectic days following the inauguration,” Bloomberg reports.

The Washingtonian tells the story of the 2016 deadly flood in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and how the town is trying to bounce back through two perspectives: one is from a woman named Becky Phillips, who worked for an hourly wage at Greenbrier Resort, the primary employer in town; the other, Jim Justice, billionaire owner of the Greenbrier (and now governor of West Virginia).

Last week, North Carolina’s governor vetoed a bill that would have protected the hog industry from lawsuits from communities that have to deal with their increasing pollution. Civil Eats takes a deep dive into the efforts of Duplin County residents who have been trying for years to stop hog feces contamination.

This NPR story is about Northerners who, feeling kinship with the South but having no actual ties there, let their Confederate flags fly high. I remember seeing the same thing out West.

The EPA abruptly closed a civil rights complaint regarding a landfill in Tallassee, Alabama, citing “insufficient evidence.” Mother Jones takes a look at the 14-year-long case.

News flying under the radar 

There’s been a lot of talk about one coal company that is building a solar farm on top of an old strip mine in Eastern Kentucky. I was curious how feasible that really is, so I wrote a story on it. Spoiler: It’s more complicated than it sounds.

The Black River in Arkansas overflowed last week, breaching the local levee systemAccording to experts, “the extensive use of levees to control floodwaters can actually exacerbate flooding when they fail, as they did in Pocahontas. And the problem is only likely to get worse as climate change continues to cause more and heavier downpours.”

More flooding news: parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, and the Midwest received 10 to 15 inches of rain in the past week, which led to record numbers of rivers cresting. Flooding is increasing in towns all along the Mississippi River, especially in the Mississippi Delta.

I thought Kentucky topped the list, but Florida also has an insanely high number of drinking water violations. About 7.5 million people use water from treatment plants that have violated laws.

Thanks for reading, y’all. See ya soon!