"Men are the new carpetbaggers..."
February 16, 2016 7:04 AM   Subscribe

The Testosterone Takeover of Southern Food Writing In which Kathleen Purvis asks why male voices have come to dominate big-market Southern food writing and pokes at the genre's resulting obsessions with "bourbon, barbecue and pork belly." From The Bitter Southerner.
posted by Miko (41 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
[A couple comments deleted; maybe let's start off more with an eye toward reading the link?]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:24 AM on February 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


Obviously, the author should have said, "Men are the colonizers of Southern food writing" or "Men are appropriating southern food writing." But she had to use vocabulary her audience would understand.
posted by deanc at 7:32 AM on February 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


And yes, a pretty good handful of them were influential editors of Southern publications, publications in which I sometimes supplement my income as a newspaper food writer, a field that’s disappearing faster than the sand in the Witch of the West’s hourglass.

That pretty much answers the author's own question. There aren't that many paying places with a little class where a writer can catch enough interest to get traction and people willing to read for the long haul. Attention spans have been reduced to those of gnats. Men and women will go where there still is a market. They have bills to pay and hope it translates to a cooking show, and book and endorsement deals.

The recipes offered,however, guarantees that readership will die out from heart attacks.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:35 AM on February 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I liked this. I especially like it because I am in the process of putting together and launching my all-female (hosts, co-hosts, interviewees) podcast about women in the very male-dominated industry of craft beer and spirits. I am going to expect a lot of blowback from men on this mostly because those stories are often told by men about men in the same industry. In the history of booze, women are either regulated to opponents (Temperance movements, drunk-driving associations) or busty babes shilling you alcohol on TV, in print, or in person. The fact that so many amazing women are fiercely carving out a niche is fascinating and empowering to me, hence: the podcast.
posted by Kitteh at 7:35 AM on February 16, 2016 [41 favorites]


But she had to use vocabulary her audience would understand.

Her choice says a lot about who she considers her audience to be.
posted by enn at 7:37 AM on February 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Southern people who aren't necessarily down with all the hippest Yankee Social Justice vocab.

She discusses her decision to use the term "carpetbagger" very, very early on in the piece.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:43 AM on February 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


Interesting read. As an avid fan of food and cooking media (whether it be television or writing), I think she is on the money when noting the pork/barbecue/bourbon trend, and when noting the sharp rise in male participation and influence in Southern food media on the whole. Sean Brock, for example. Ed Lee. Multifaceted chefs and talents to be sure, but honestly, their widespread popularity is rooted in the pig and bourbon end of things.

I think she doesn't directly hit on the main reason why, though. Personally, I think it's a function of focusing Southern food writing on marketability and television, as Alexandra Kitty points out. The "Food Network effect."

With the rise of bourbon as a popular craft spirit in the last 10-20 years, making a book or a TV episode that screams "check out our Pappy Van Winkle feature" will get eyeballs from consumers throughout the country. Americans from throughout the country love pork and love barbecue, so those easily get attention as well.

A feature on chiffon cake, or buttermilk, or chicken gizzards, or the use of various greens... not so much.

One final thought..

I wonder: Are female Southern food writers the only cultural group left whom it’s OK to treat as tokens?


i feel she misses an opportunity to identify the most underrepresented group in Southern food media: female African American cooks and chefs.
posted by Old Man McKay at 7:44 AM on February 16, 2016 [32 favorites]


To those of us descended from the people who were known, pre-Vietnam anyway, as the only conquered Americans

Uh...
posted by asterix at 7:49 AM on February 16, 2016 [24 favorites]


If an obsession with bourbon, barbecue and pork belly is wrong, I don't wanna be right.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:54 AM on February 16, 2016 [11 favorites]


The current gender disproportion in the industry is something that should be addressed, but terms like carpetbagging or cultural appropriation seem off base to me. Southern men, just like men everywhere, have always been a part of culinary culture. It's their culture too, they aren't appropriating it. I don't see how they are being exploitative of the customers any more than any other food author just because they are playing up a trend. I didn't think the article ever really made that case successfully.

However, it was really interesting to read about how men entering a field in which they had previously been discouraged led quickly to dominating the stage as surely as if it had been the case for a century already. As someone who really wants to get men and boys more interested in traditionally feminine activities because it's good to be a well rounded person, it's definitely a danger to take note of. The general imbalances in society are always exerting influence.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:57 AM on February 16, 2016 [9 favorites]


i feel she misses an opportunity to identify the most underrepresented group in Southern food media: female African American cooks and chefs.

Yeah, she nods vaguely in that direction, but otherwise the article is very White Feminist. It does succeed in being provocative and shining a light on some topics that a lot of people in this particular circle might not have spent a lot of time thinking about, though.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:00 AM on February 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I forget where I read it, but someone has postulated that many men who feel alienated from traditional markers of masculinity (eg. sports, making things, the military) tend to compensate by attempting to assert their dominance in intellectual pursuits (everything from academia to having an encyclopedic knowledge of records/movies/whatever) or fields that were in the past considered the purview of women (like, say, cooking). The more I think about this the more I believe it explains an awful lot about modern life.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:00 AM on February 16, 2016 [23 favorites]


"First, allow me to insert some shuffling and bowing here and declare how much I appreciate, revere and am beholden to the Southern Foodways Alliance. "

What the shit?! Did the author really invoke images of being a slave to a Food writers alliance. Did this really just happen on a website called the Bitter Southerner?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:04 AM on February 16, 2016 [18 favorites]


I forget where I read it, but someone has postulated that many men who feel alienated from traditional markers of masculinity (eg. sports, making things, the military) tend to compensate by attempting to assert their dominance in intellectual pursuits

I don't think it's really compensation for being bad at something else, it's just some men do that no matter what task you give them. Being competitive can be very fun, and sometimes the line between competitive and trying to dominate is perceived as super blurry.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:04 AM on February 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I don't care who writes about my precious bourbon, barbecue, and pork belly as long as people write about my precious bourbon, barbecue, and pork belly. Have at, ladies!
posted by echocollate at 8:04 AM on February 16, 2016


> Being competitive can be very fun, and sometimes the line between competitive and trying to dominate is perceived as super blurry.

I think the problem is that as soon as these guys decide something is Serious Man Business they immediately do everything they can to exclude women from taking part and/or denigrate the contributions women have made to it in the past. They might get angry about being bested by a man, but they get angry if women even try to take part on an equal footing.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:11 AM on February 16, 2016 [28 favorites]


Southern men, just like men everywhere, have always been a part of culinary culture. It's their culture too, they aren't appropriating it.

Hm, well, I'll believe that when I meet more Southerners who grew up in households where men did most of the cooking. In my (rather extensive) experience as a Southerner who eats food, it seems like men's role in culinary culture is either to be a) eating food that women prepare, b) showboating at the grill a few times a year, or c) becoming restaurateurs, capitalizing on this taste for nostalgia and "authenticity," and getting All the Praise.

Among the many variables here are the awful social safety net for women, particularly women of color (this is industry-wide) that prevent women from being more visible in this world and/or from having enough time to make food, then write about it, then promote it.

I am glad to see this addressed, and glad that academia stepping up to correct some of these gaps in visibility. Also, the oral histories up at Southern Foodways Alliance are really top-notch and appropriately diverse in perspectives.
posted by witchen at 8:17 AM on February 16, 2016 [33 favorites]


Card Cheat's last comment there makes me a little sad because that's too true. I'm an "expert" (as much as being a loud mouth makes you an expert) in a field that is indeedly male dominated.

It makes me sad to see some of the levels of resistance (usually of the passive variety, sometimes of the "we're not biased against women - they can come play. I hope they like my {insert sexual innuendo name}" varety).

Most of the dudes though are pretty game if slightly befuddled by the need to extend a welcoming hand.
posted by drewbage1847 at 8:21 AM on February 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


So far as I can see she seems to have started with the inflammatory claim and then failed to make either the insult or the substance stand up to examination. Still, she sold a piece and churned out the words, and here we are tediously reading them.
posted by Segundus at 8:22 AM on February 16, 2016 [4 favorites]


we must be reading very different articles and threads, Segundus
posted by runt at 8:25 AM on February 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


Try proposing an article on chiffon cake. Or the contributions of Henrietta Dull, who wrote the landmark 1928 “Southern Cooking.” Or household arts like pickling and canning, or the historic role of female caterers or the cooking of Mexican grandmothers.

Oh shit, now it's on. If the Patriarchy is getting between me and tres leches cake, I'm dismantling the goddamned thing myself this afternoon with my own little teeth.
posted by Lou Stuells at 8:26 AM on February 16, 2016 [7 favorites]


This is all so strange, for me, as a Louisianan, where men have prided themselves for centuries on their abilities to prepare gumbo, jambalaya, boudin, cochon de lait, catfish/oysters/shrimp, boil crawfish (or crabs, if that's your thing), and venison.

Men writing cookbooks or being 'food personalities' has never so much as raised an eyebrow.

There were certainly dishes that women tended to cook more frequently (etouffee and red beans always seemed to be favored by women - along with a whole host of casseroles and desserts), but we've probably had better male representation in the kitchen here than just about all other states.

And, FWIW, 'grilling' seems downright boring to anybody who's had the delight of making a cold-weather gumbo.
posted by The Giant Squid at 8:34 AM on February 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


To those of us descended from the people who were known, pre-Vietnam anyway, as the only conquered Americans

This writer seems like a really unpleasant individual.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 8:36 AM on February 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


In my (rather extensive) experience as a Southerner who eats food, it seems like men's role in culinary culture is either to be a) drinking bourbon, b) haggling over barbecue recipes, or c) grilling, smoking meat.

Corrected for you based on my rather extensive experience as a Southerner who eats food.

Snark aside, the idea that men have not been involved in food preparation or the Southern culinary tradition is complete nonsense and I don't really get why you'd even go there.
posted by echocollate at 8:38 AM on February 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


I've lived in North Carolina for 20 years and I find that barbeque is kind of dog food and college basketball is boring THERE I SAID IT
posted by thelonius at 8:46 AM on February 16, 2016 [7 favorites]


I've lived in North Carolina for 20 year and I find that barbeque is kind of dog food and college basketball is boring THERE I SAID IT

Saying that the day before Carolina-Duke is just trolling, friend.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:47 AM on February 16, 2016 [11 favorites]


To those of us descended from the people who were known, pre-Vietnam anyway, as the only conquered Americans

Native-Americans? Black slaves? Mexicans in Texas after the Mexican-American war? The aboriginal Taíno people of Puerto Rico? Kalākaua and his supporters in Hawaii?
posted by maxsparber at 8:48 AM on February 16, 2016 [13 favorites]


otherwise the article is very White Feminist. It does succeed in being provocative and shining a light on some topics that a lot of people in this particular circle might not have spent a lot of time thinking about, though.

Well, she's not a scholar, and it shows. I agree that she's made a couple of cultural-politics missteps (though I think the "carpetbagging" one is appropriate, as an analogy, and she's using it knowingly among a knowing audience). I saw the major contribution of this article as calling out a male-dominated professional editorial culture that continues to seek out the same kinds of voices and to give them larger stages and more remuneration. From the trenches of the middle echelons of food writing, as a practitioner herself, she's spotted some inherent biases that have shaped the general commercial market for food writing, and she's naming them. Even if she's doing so imperfectly, I think the work is important.

I also see it as a contribution to an encouraging trend in which invisible/underrepresented culinary artists and professionals, both those working today and in the past, are beginning to receive due reconsideration for their impact on cuisine. My previous post about Michael Twitty, from the same magazine, contains links that deal with some of those ideas; recent pieces on Edna Lewis and Dora Charles (along with a lot of more academic scholarship about black women's (and men's) cooking, of which there is a decent and growing amount), are also adding long-absent context to the record. This author, I think, has a good point about the cooking and writing of women, both black and white, both being marginalized. I have read one shit ton of food writing, and it is very true that one group it's always okay to hate on are the women's magazine and newspaper food writers of the 20th century and the kinds of cuisine they represent. I think it's a good idea to call for a re-evaluation of their work, even as we take into account the social constraints they worked within, the support they got from white supremacy, the appropriation they did, and their embrace of now déclassé ingredients and food combinations. I wouldn't say this piece is non-problematic, but I would say it is provacative in a useful way; it has a strong central point worthy of engaging with: what forces shape the promotion and evaluation of food writing by women, especially in the highly fetishized American South? I hope the conversation continues.
posted by Miko at 8:49 AM on February 16, 2016 [16 favorites]


Saying that the day before Carolina-Duke is just trolling, friend.

I am on UNC campus right now and I honestly had no idea that this game was this weekend. It's just background noise to me.
posted by thelonius at 8:52 AM on February 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


I am on UNC campus right now and I honestly had no idea that this game was this weekend. It's just background noise to me.

Solidarity, my friend. I could care less about basketball* (most sports, honestly) and I work for the University of Kentucky. 'How 'bout them 'Cats?' they ask, to which I reply 'Oh, they're at home, chillin'. Prolly on the couch, battin' at Norma**'.


*-Though I am getting excited about the prospect of renting my house out during playoffs and making three months of mortgage in two weekends: I mean, it's not like I'd want to be in town for that traffic clusterfuck, anyway.
**-Norma is a very large philodendron that runs the great state of Living Room. The cats are at war with Living Room. The cats have always been at war with Living Room
posted by eclectist at 9:13 AM on February 16, 2016 [13 favorites]


eclecticst, right on!
posted by thelonius at 9:32 AM on February 16, 2016


Native-Americans? Black slaves? Mexicans in Texas after the Mexican-American war? The aboriginal Taíno people of Puerto Rico? Kalākaua and his supporters in Hawaii?

Yeah, she should have fixed that with white/caucasian adjectives. Though, I do find it a fascinating element to being Southern, as a nation, that as a whole, prides itself on a great martial tradition from time to time, there's a whole region which got the snot beat out of it and rightfully so. How did it cope with that? Make up the story where it's still the winner, despite losing.

In terms of cooking, I was definitely raised in a world where my mom and my grandmoms were the chefs in the house. The result being that as I grew older and learned about the bias against women in restaurants as chefs, I was genuinely perplexed,"But they're the best cooks!"

Also, for anyone curious about watching about Southern cuisine, A Chef's Life, a 30 minute show now into its third season about a native North Carolinian who was living in New York City as a chef, but was lured back to her East Carolina hometown by her parents, who offered to pay to establish her own restaurant. Every episode she tries to pick one essential Southern ingredient or dish and explores it as part of developing a menu for her place, and in the process, goes to the farmers and what not to learn more about its history.

A word of warning: Don't watch on an empty stomach.
posted by Atreides at 9:56 AM on February 16, 2016 [7 favorites]


Yeah, she should have fixed that with white/caucasian adjectives. Though, I do find it a fascinating element to being Southern, as a nation, that as a whole, prides itself on a great martial tradition from time to time, there's a whole region which got the snot beat out of it and rightfully so. How did it cope with that? Make up the story where it's still the winner, despite losing.

The whole region did not get the snot beat out of it. "Southern" and "white Southern" are not the same thing, and part of what makes Purvis' article offensive is the unspoken assumption that they are. Similarly, the observation that the negative characterization of "carpetbaggers" might be appropriate for Southern people who aren't necessarily down with all the hippest Yankee Social Justice vocab ignores that fact that there is a huge segment of the Southern population whose relationship to carpetbaggers is very different than the one the author is drawing on. If you aren't writing about those people, you are writing about "white Sotherners" rather than Southerners, and if you are talking to those people, you are talking to "white Southerners" rather than Southerners.

As I native of Alabama, it makes me wretch.
posted by layceepee at 11:16 AM on February 16, 2016 [10 favorites]


Well, you've got the basis for a good response piece there.
posted by Miko at 12:06 PM on February 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


You mean the cuisine created by black slaves and servants?

Kathleen needs to dig a bit deeper on where appropriation started. Maybe with the MeFi post.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:30 PM on February 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


You mean the cuisine created by black slaves and servants?

I read a piece on Twitty over on Facebook a mere five minutes before reading this. It was interesting.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:51 PM on February 16, 2016


Still, even in the re-illuminated light of history, there is something to that idea that sticks in the craw of anyone born in the modern South: that sense of being schooled by the North. Even sympathetic descriptions of carpetbaggers, permanent settlers or not, come with that idea that the South needed to be guided by the North.

The thing is, the South did need to be guided by the North. I'm a lifelong Alabamian and my craw is decidedly unstuck over such a claim. This along with the whole "only conquered Americans" thing just rubs me the wrong way. Lately I have started to find that happening more often with pieces in The Bitter Southerner.
posted by ndfine at 2:38 PM on February 16, 2016 [3 favorites]


I read a piece on Twitty over on Facebook a mere five minutes before reading this.
I'm guessing this profile in the Washington Post? It's been everywhere today. He was just named a TED Fellow.
posted by Miko at 2:52 PM on February 16, 2016


The thing is, the South did need to be guided by the North.

Slavery was a multidimensional moral stain that had to be dispensed with. No question.

But when I read your statement I think about the sectarian violence in Iraq, which, though not a precise comparison, has a similar character to race relations in the South during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow period. The North was no better positioned to guide the South than the United States was to guide Iraq.

Even had Reconstruction not been cut short, I can't imagine how it would have addressed the underlying resentments anymore than the U.S. sticking around Iraq indefinitely would have lead to a bloodless sectarian reconciliation. The North was always going to be considered an occupying force, just as the United States was, and deposed sooner rather than later.

The North was no more a magical, wise, prudent agent in the South than the United States was in Iraq. Yes, black Southeners benefited in many ways in the short term (not all "carpet baggers" were parasites and crooks), and the Kurds have done pretty well post-invasion, but nobody with any sense would look at either Reconstruction or the post-Iraq invasion and call them net goods.

In the end, Southerners alone are responsible for reconciling themselves to one another, and we should do everything in our power to make it happen in a mutually beneficial way.
posted by echocollate at 8:19 AM on February 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


But when I read your statement I think about the sectarian violence in Iraq, which, though not a precise comparison, has a similar character to race relations in the South during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow period. The North was no better positioned to guide the South than the United States was to guide Iraq.

Cut it out. You're shifting the goal posts for no good reason. The North was far from perfect, everyone knows that. But frankly, the fact the South had to be dragged, fighting all the way, to the fact that people should not enslaved, does in fact mean the South needed not to just be guided but thoroughly beaten and forcibly occupied. That fact that region immediately rolled back any gains and gleefully and quickly re-instituted slavery in all but name makes a case that it should have occupied for much longer.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:17 PM on February 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


A follow-up from the Southern Foodways Alliance: Writing and Righting Wrongs.
[Purvis] asks, “How can you tell the complete story, the full story, of the South without all of us at the table?”

Yet when she describes SFA, she dismisses the role of everyone who contributes to the organization save founding director John T Edge.

Women commission and edit the overwhelming majority of the content we produce, women lead the study of Southern foodways in our classrooms, women oversee the day-to-day operations of SFA, and women primarily execute our events. ...

We’re in this fight, to be sure, but we’re fighting on the same side.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:26 PM on February 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


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