Visiting historians take up issues of women and food

College of Charleston

The food piled atop school cafeteria trays in the postwar South and the contributions of female gumbo vendors to the 1884 World’s Fair are among the topics on the agenda for the triennial meeting of the Southern Association for Women Historians, scheduled to open at the College of Charleston on Thursday.

“Far from being erased from the historical record, these women -- their pralines, fruits, vegetables, and recipes -- all are right there in our histories and cultures,” says University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill professor Elizabeth Engelhardt, who’s chairing one of two food-themed sessions.

Engelhardt’s panel is devoted to the ways in which women of color shaped the development of New Orleans’ food culture; fellow UNC professor Marcie Cohen Ferris, author of The Edible South, is chairing a session on Southern cookbooks. Here’s what a few of the presenters plan to cover:

“I’ve been working on an oral history of Judith Jones since the spring of 2013,” says Sara Franklin of New York University. Jones, now 91, is the legendary Knopf editor who championed Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey and Edna Lewis, the Virginia-born Southern food advocate who served as Middleton Place’s chef-in-residence during the 1980s.

According to Franklin, Lewis was one of the authors who “not only altered the way Jones thought about women in food, women as professionals and food narratives, but deeply influenced Jones’s sense of self, both as a woman and as an editor.”

Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking, published in 1976, was the first of Jones’ projects that could be classified as political, Franklin adds.

“Though both Jones and Lewis resisted publicly affiliating themselves with political movements, in relationship, and in print, both put forth messages of subtle political resistance,” she says. Those messages came in the form of stories and recipes.

King Cotton is usually just a figure of speech, but the state of Mississippi was determined to render it real for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Its leaders commissioned wax artist Francisco Vargas to create for the St. Louis fair a 30-foot-tall wax giant, surrounded by five human-sized African-American cotton pickers, also rendered in wax.

But Vargas and his descendants were perhaps better known for their souvenir dolls, six-inch beeswax figurines dressed as food vendors. The dolls were sold across the French Quarter, as well as at F.A.O Schwartz in New York City and the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville.

As Theresa McCulla of Harvard University points out in her paper, the dolls perpetuated white nostalgia for an imagined time when African-American women happily catered to their customers’ gustatory desires. By the time the dolls were sold, most of the city’s food vendors were Sicilian – most of whom, according to McCulla’s research, were eager to find better jobs.

Online registration for the SAWH conference has closed, but organization members can register on-site for $100. Non-members are asked to pay $150 for the four-day conference; the fee for graduate students is $60. For more information, visit thesawh.org.