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You Are What You Eat

Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt studies how your food choices can carry stories of race, class and culture.

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Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt studies how your food choices can carry stories of race, class and culture.

When you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal, will the dressing on your plate be made with cornbread or wheat bread? Will it have oysters or sausage or chestnuts? When the words, “Please pass the” come from your mouth, will they be followed by “cranberry chutney” or “green bean casserole” or “giblet gravy”?

The answers to those questions may offer clues to more than your holiday menu. According to Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt, our family tradition is not the only thing represented by our food choices. At the local and national level, food does the work of culture.

“All kinds of stories are hiding in our food,” says Engelhardt, assistant professor in the Department of American Studies and in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. “Breaking the codes of food begins with its uses, preparations and costs but ends with the social histories of race, class, gender and place that hide in the recipes, ingredients and food practices we embrace.”

Engelhardt first started paying attention to the richness of stories in food when she was doing research for her first book, “The Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature.” She noticed again and again that food worked as a code in women’s letters, diaries, novels and in newspaper columns, suggesting everything from education level to hygiene. Closer investigation showed that something as simple as the choice between cornbread and biscuits in the South can be filled with messages.

Having grown up in western North Carolina and spent much of her life in the South, Engelhardt was used to finding both biscuits and cornbread on her family table and in restaurants. At the turn of the century in Appalachia, however, things were much different.

“Many Appalachians preferred cooking cornbread because it was easy and quick,” Engelhardt says. “You could literally cook it on a hoe outdoors and you didn’t need a lot of equipment. You didn’t have to be a farmer to produce corn. It could be grown as a garden plant. And you didn’t need kitchen help to fix cornbread for your household.”

Cornbread was, essentially, the food of the people. It required only local ingredients and the recipe was adaptable and forgiving. It was a staple in Appalachian households.

At the turn of the century, public health concerns began to surface about diet-based diseases and people both inside and outside the community in Appalachia came to believe Southerners were getting diseases because of their diets. Cornbread became a target.

An alternative offered was the beaten biscuit, a recipe that was crowned as the height of domestic achievement. The biscuit required not just wheat flour, hardly available to many households, but also elaborate equipment that included baking sheets, an oven with regulated temperatures and even a suggested marble slab for beating the dough a full 300 strokes (and 500 for company).

Beaten biscuits, a national recipe imported into Appalachia, were clearly a middle class food, requiring special ingredients, equipment and extensive cooking time. They served to separate the poor from the moneyed and, by extension, the unhealthy from the healthy.

“In the South, biscuits and cornbread have a lot to say about food as a path to morality,” Engelhardt says. “Hidden in the choice between cornbread and biscuits is an entire cultural history.”

Continue reading You Are What You Eat feature story.

Original run date: Nov. 21-28, 2005