Cultural Influences

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K Kruger

TVWBB 1-Star Olympian
In the 1987 book Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History, author John Egerton posits that the diverse geography of the South, its rich diversity of wild game and fruits, and its moderate climate, attracted the first European migrants who then (in short) wiped out the native population and exploited the possibilities of 'their' new lands largely on the backs of Africans. The society that resulted was unjust but supported by law and if needed, by force.

In his article, "The Endurance of Southern Food" (Oxford American, Issue 49, Spring 2005), Mr. Egerton asks, "How can we reconcile this wrenching anomaly of a grossly unjust society being heralded for its food and hospitality?"

He states, correctly, that "[t]here are no obvious answers." but says, "Bad places make good books, good music, good art, and good food. The more messed-up the place, the more inventive and freewheeling its creative voices." I find this very interesting. He continues:

Consider the music that has boiled up out of the hardscrabble South--every original American category, arguably, from jazz, blues, and gospel to country, rock & roll, and bluegrass.

And condsider Southern cookery. Here were the finest foodstuffs. And here, too, were the people who applied creative excellence in the one place where their talent was not just tolerated, but publicly encouraged: the kitchen. When virtually every other opportunity was close to them, people of African ancestry often found that they had free rein there (if only because the endless labor was typically shunned by whites), and they made the most of it.

And, later in the article:

Consider barbecue, the de facto dish of the South. Its distinction and diffusion would be impossible to imagine as the work of whites only. On the contrary, it would come closer to being a black art.

I find this fascinating. In light of your research and travels I would be interested in your comments.

I'm very much looking forward to reading your book.

Lolis Eric Elie

New member

You've thrown Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.

John Egerton is a friend and mentor of mine. He got me involved in the Southern Foodways Alliance, and for that I will forever be in his debt.

In the midst of the American slavery--official and de facto--one could hardly in good conscience highlight those aspects of Southern culture that were worthy of praise. If a guy is shooting at you, you don't take time to admire the fine carving on his rifle butt.

Though many of our problems are still with us, we can look at them from a critical distance and realize some heretofore unheralded realities. As for black folks, the combination of being in such close proximity to Anglo American culture, but being denied entry into it, was the crucial factor in the creation of our contributions to broader American culture. If we had been allowed in, perhaps we would have been merely dark Anglo Saxons. Had we not been in such close proximity as the braun and often the brains in the construction of this country, we might not have been close enough to see anything in white culture worthy of imitation, appropriation and alteration.

As for white Americans in the South, their insular nature, their refusal to bow down to European culture and Notheastern norms meant that they evolved a more American culture than evolved in the northeastern capitals of the country.

As for Egerton's last comment about barbecue being a black art, it is all but impossible to draw straight lines in American culture and say "this is white," and "this is black." But, much about the history of barbecue points in the direction of it being more black than white in its origins and execution.

First of all, barbecueing is hard, hot, dirty work. Only the poorest of the poor white people in the South did this sort of work. It was done mostly by black people. Even now, many of the middle aged white people I talk to remember the black man in their town who was the de facto barbecue caterer.

Also, if we look at the barbecue diaspora, those places outside the South like Kansas City and Chicago, the barbecue was brought to those places by the Great Black Migration. White Southerners did not do this.

Calling barbecue a "black art," is apt to ruffle the feathers of a lot of avid, white barbecuers, whose talent and dedication can not be dismissed. But consider how ruffled black feathers have been for the past couple of hundred years when the assumption was that Africans contributed nothing to the country but brute labor.

For what it's worth, those are my reflections on Egerton.

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