Susan Leonardi argues in her landmark 1989 essay “Recipes for Reading” that recipes are an “embedded discourse,” meaning that they communicate in a system of complex social relationships, rhetorical and narrative strategies, and historical times and places. Recipes – the stories they tell and the networks they represent – serve as an entry point into the discourses of history, memory, regional identity, race, gender, and class in which they are embedded.
My book project, The Stories of Southern Cooking: Authenticity and Identity in Recipe Origin Narratives, explores how writing about the origins of food is a way of telling about the South, forming and reforming what it means to be a Southerner.
Food is central to representations of Southern identity in popular culture; the stories that Southerners tell about where their food comes from says a lot about how Southerners define themselves and their region. Authenticity is often used as a measure of a particular food’s value, determined by its fidelity to tradition. The writers of New Southern cuisine face particular challenges when it comes to authenticity. Their recipes often deviate from tradition in order to create original dishes, and the writers must explain how their new recipes connect to old traditions. Sometimes, the writers are not native Southerners, and they must convince readers of their ethos as Southern cooks in a global community. Perhaps the most significant challenge facing all kinds of New Southern food writers is the difficulty of talking about the complicated Southern past in the celebratory tone of the recipe headnote. As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, the “potential for awkwardness and offense is enormous” when talking about foods that might have been invented by slaves, supported by sharecropping, or otherwise connected to the “sins” of the Southern past.
This project examines how writers support their definitions of authenticity in the face of these challenges. When history or tradition is unavailable as a valid basis for arguments of authenticity, what alternative strategies are available to contemporary Southern cookbook writers?