Book Review: A Mess of Greens by Elizabeth Engelhardt

A Mess of Greens: Southern Food and Southern Gender
By Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011)
$24.95, paper.  ISBN 9780820340371, 265 pp.

 

Elizabeth Engelhardt’s A Mess of Greens sprouts from an intimate story about North Carolinian food traditions in her own family presented in the introductory sections of the book.  She reaches back to their mid-eighteenth century roots before settling on the Progressive-era timestamp of the rest of the book.  A Mess of Greens is about Appalachian women renegotiating identities through foodways in a Southern landscape undergoing unprecedented changes.

New technologies and economies were reaching Appalachia around the turn of the twentieth century, and the women of Engelhardt’s book are portrayed in the process of adaptation.  Identities “rearranged and rebuilt” (pg. 10) in a rapidly changing world is the main theme.  The mess of greens is a lattice of what she calls “shared food moments” (pg. 166), conveying a sense of collective identity that can be expressed in many and complex ways.  Shared food moments are difficult to characterize, she argues, defying the simplicity of the written word.  Despite the elusiveness of these moments, Engelhardt energetically and successfully navigates the mess to bring the reader many vivid instances where food is a marker of collective identity.

Though the regional focus of the book is Appalachia, Engelhardt addresses the broader question of where and who are the Southern people and how did they adapt in a changing world?  From a rich and diverse selection of source material, ranging from historic literature to personal journals to market bulletins, she creates an analytical montage of the Southern feminine experience through food from the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries.  The topics she discusses—moonshine, corn bread, tomato clubs, pellagra, etc.—are easily relatable regional markers.  She examines each from a local perspective, illuminating how women participated in defining their local culture.  I liked especially how, through a careful selection of historical materials, Engelhardt was able to deconstruct some of the stereotypes surrounding Appalachian women and reveal their individual identities as businesswomen, providers, or workers trapped in a purposefully exploitative system.  Too often, gender and age roles are assumed to be narrow, whereas Engelhardt readily highlights a wide range of roles.  One thing I wish she had addressed more directly is the relationship of men, particularly male family members, to the feminine experiences she describes.  Excluding them only allows the reader to have part of the story.

The concept of race is not conspicuous in the stories Engelhardt tells, but nonetheless these women were having ethnic interactions.  When race was an issue, more often than not, cooperation was central, not conflict, exemplified by the tomato club organizers, black and white women that cooperated for the good of their cause.  Tomato clubs were a short-lived, but relatively successful effort to empower young rural women in the first part of the twentieth century.  Class is seemingly a far more prominent issue for these women.  While Engelhardt defines her group as middling, she also believes they were somewhat outside the set of other white Americans.  The Appalachians’ interactions with outsiders in the stories she presents carry a strong undercurrent of class tension.

In a larger context, Engelhardt’s book makes the argument that people define and are defined by their local society, and national and global society by extension.  Food is one of the aspects of culture that is an undeniable part of our identity from local to global scales.  Everyone needs to eat, but what and how we eat can reveal a lot about larger cultural processes when we examine shared food moments, as Engelhardt has done with her book.  While the book has a specific local focus, it is a good model from which to draw for comparative research.  I recommend this book for historians and anthropologists of the American experience who are interested in how local identity is defined in a changing world.

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