Edible South author talks importance of food to our region's history
Posted March 31, 2015
In the 1960s, many children spent time spinning a globe and imagining where the future might take them. Growing up in a tiny Jewish community in northeastern Arkansas, Marcie Cohen Ferris looked to her dinner plate. Filled with foods flavored with both Southern and New England traditions, its contents hinted at a world of opportunity for the burgeoning scholar. “Very early, food became a way for me to view both my own life and the study of social history,” she says. “It helped me to understand the many contradictions and complications of Southern life.”
Marcie – the author of The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region, published by UNC Press in September – has worked and taught in some of the most important historical and academic institutions in America, including her current tenure at UNC’s American Studies Department, where she coordinates the undergraduate concentration in Southern Studies. Her husband Bill directs UNC’s Center for Studies of the American South.
Marcie points to two formative experiences as turning points in her life: first, earning her master of arts in history in 1985 from the College of William & Mary, where her appetite for public history – especially folklife, material history, foodways and Jewish life – took hold. And then reading John Egerton’s instant classic, Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, and in History, which was published by Chapel Hill Books in 1987.
“My mother gave me a copy right when it came out. It really touched me,” says Marcie, for whom Egerton became a key influence and mentor. “He transformed how we understand local and Southern foodways as a lens for history and culture. It’s a complex place to understand all the basic forces of Southern society.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Amazon recommends Southern Food as a companion to The Edible South.
Food remains a key focus of her work, especially now, when an obsession with celebrity chefs has “flattened” the landscape and “disconnected people from who and what created our food.” In her book, she is particularly eloquent in addressing the long suppressed voices of women, starting with enslaved cooks whose extraordinary skills were usurped by Southern plantation hostesses. “That’s been part of my work, to complicate the story a bit,” says Marcie, who has been working on the scholarly yet highly accessible The Edible South since 2007. “One of my students described history as moments of collision. I think they provide collective ways to understand the importance of food in the South.”
Editor’s Note: On April 26, Marcie will offer a narrative of North Carolina’s food history at the Roots of North Carolina Dinner, a four-course meal by Amy Tornquist at Watts Grocery that will feature wine pairings by Piedmont Wine Imports. Tickets are on sale now at the Taste 2015 website. This is part of the Taste food event series, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Durham Branch of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern N.C. WRAL is a sponsor of Taste 2015.