Inventing Authenticity is an investigation of the relationship between food labeled “authentically Southern” and the performance of “real Southern” identity.
This study takes up authenticity as a rhetorical construction and a cultural practice by examining the language used to define authenticity in the discourse of Southern food, namely in the stories told in cookbooks. The recipe headnote – the conventional paragraph of introduction that precedes a recipe – is the main method that cookbook writers use to communicate authenticity to the reader. I am calling recipe headnotes that tell stories about the roots of food traditions “origin narratives,” and this study identifies three specific forms of origin narrative (historical, citation, and personal narratives) that attempt to convince a reader of the recipe’s authenticity by providing evidence of the recipe’s invention in the South. My book focuses on the rhetorical moves that writers make to construct “authenticity” out of narratives of the past by naming and defining the machinery that constructs and supports arguments of authenticity.
Origin narratives necessarily reference history and tradition as a claim for authenticity. Many origin narratives in contemporary Southern cookbooks, however, reveal a general squeamishness about the South’s past: particularly about slavery, wide-spread poverty, segregation, racism, and violence. The narratives in New Southern cookbooks must negotiate a delicate balance between needing the past to prove authenticity and needing to steer clear of narrating a history that may alienate readers.
The obfuscation of history in arguments of authenticity is not only about avoiding uncomfortable subjects and accusations of racism. To the contrary, the need for alternative narratives of authenticity is motivated in part by a vested interest in broadening the borders of the New South, making space for a more cosmopolitan New Southern identity. While these New Southern cookbooks problematically obscure (and often erase) the pain of the Southern past, they do so in service of a capacious definition of Southern identity.
Cookbooks play a vital role in the story of the contemporary South, a region whose identity is still in the making – or perhaps more accurately, always in the remaking.