Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South By Rebecca Sharpless

Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South
By Rebecca Sharpless
University of North Carolina Press
Hardback, 344 pages

Baking rises as ideal lens on southern culinary history

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

The only area of the country containing an iconic culinary culture competing with that in the South is adjacent to the Mexican border—notably New Mexico. Long hours lingering around Southern dinner tables, suffused with stellar storytelling, enjoy no equal.

Only those raised knowing the pleasures comprehend. “Grain and Fire” considers one aspect, baking. “More urban, more multicultural, more affluent than ever before but perhaps just as racist and tense as ever, the South defies easy explanation. Baking can give us a lens through which to view the contemporary South.”

Everyone inhabiting the South succumbs to its compelling cuisine. “As immigrants moved to the South, they adopted southern foodways into their family celebrations.”

The first English language cookbook in the colonies was published, in 1742, in Williamsburg—a reprint of one from England. The first authentically Southern cookbook came eighty years later.

Subsequently “Groups of white southern women, like their peers elsewhere, began assembling and publishing cookbooks… Community cookbooks provide invaluable information on local foods… Cookbooks by white women also articulated racial attitudes of the time and place through reflections on Black cooks—sometimes praise, sometime scorn, almost always patronizing.”

My family is implicated. A distant relative in an earlier generation—our connection is through Alabama brothers born in the 1820s—was a culinary commentator in Kentucky, quoted extolling the icebox rolls of “… Ollie, our substitute cook…’ As always, white women had much to learn from African American women.” African American influences upon the Southern culinary culture are appreciated and acknowledged more meaningfully, contemporaneously, within the family, region, and nation.

Early dichotomy was not racial but between corn and wheat. “… [G]rowing corn made more sense than growing wheat. Planted in small hills rather than straight rows, it required no plowing and no animal power, a real plus in a land heavily covered first with trees and then with stumps…. Wheat, on the other hand, demanded clear fields for growing. It was difficult to harvest and process, and it required complicated milling.”

Traditional grains in Mississippi were ollogolle and chipicholle, small grains resembling millet, found along riverbanks. I would thrill to locate both alongside recipes with which to prepare pre-Columbian repasts. Supply chain disruptions this decade telegraph a need to know foodstuffs collectible locally, since central distribution sources cease to be secure.

Americans are blinkered. “In 1890, 90 percent of the loaf bread in the United States was baked at home, usually by women. By 1930, 94 percent of it was baked outside the home, usually by men, in factories of ever-growing size and complexity.”

The fat of wild animals was used for baking before domesticated animals became abundant. Black bear oil was particularly prized.

Sugar only became commonplace after Barbados was colonized in 1627, even for affluent individuals.

Ginger was the most common and affordable spice in England and the colonies. Port cities provided a greater variety of seasonings to those able to afford them but, elsewhere, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg were largely the limit.

Fruit pies were popular. Apples, apricots, cherries, figs, peaches, and pears were available—at least in the Upper South. Citrus, coconuts, and pineapple could be purchased by the mid-nineteenth century. Raisins were the most common dried fruit.

Almonds were the most available nut, although Brazil nuts, English walnuts, filberts, and pecans were readily accessible as well.

Cakes were the desired dessert at weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries for middle and upper class Southerners, regardless of race. Fruit cakes were preferred as wedding cakes until white cakes became commonplace.

Tea cakes were the favorite cookie.

Adaptation and transformation has become de rigueur recently. “You can ad-lib a stew, but doing so with a layer cake will only spell disaster.”

The author concludes that, “If you’re a southerner or you live in the South or you’re baking a time-honored recipe from the South, it’s southern.”

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney


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