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Southern Cooking and Gender

Page history last edited by miranda.neff@okstate.edu 13 years, 4 months ago



     The role of women as the homemaker is a traditional one and one that had been internalized as a self-identity for southern women.  In the American south, the women’s function in the family unit was reinforced and re-institutionalized in the 19thcentury by the lack of industrialization, the impotence of the abolitionist movement in the southern states, and self-interest of men to sustain a patriarchal society (Inness 66).  This identity of wife, mother, and caretaker whose life was within the walls of the home was both confining and expressive at the same time.  That is, “even though food preparation perpetuates relations of gender inequality in the household, under given circumstances it can provide a valued identity, a source of empowerment for women, and a means to perpetuate group survival” (Beoku-Betts 536).  The arenas for both African American and white women to display their influence and creativity began in the kitchen and in the gardens which extended out into society (Inness 63).  Women were able to display power and polity through southern cooking not only in the home but also among the community with intrinsic messages, which still resonate a symbolic meaning in contemporary southern culture, sent through food items such as breads and cakes.



  A women's traditional role is to cook, tend to house chores, and rear children.

     This song by Robert Johnson is a blues song describing a woman who has become unrespectable due to "running around".  He offers her to come into his kitchen as a way for her regain her respectability, to be under his care, while she remans in her accepted place. 

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Come On In My Kitchen lyrics




Women Create Identity With Foods

 In the home, preparing and sharing meals served as the creation and preservation of tradition while passing down a valuable skill of preparing foods to younger generations.  The notion that the identity of a woman lies in her domestic duties did provide a liberating avenue toward developing a unique personal identity.  The personal identity found in preparing foods materialized in the form of secret recipes.  The oral histories captured by the WPA- Federal Writers’ Project, found in compilations such as America Eats and The Food of a Younger Land, repeatedly reveal hesitation and downright omission on the part of the recipe holder when disclosing beloved recipes.  This is done on the part of southern women (and even men) by digressing to vague directions such as “bake carefully” or “according to your fancy”, and becomes especially apparent upon attempting to replicate some of the recipes.  Individuality in a recipe was, and continues to be, internalized as a sense of individuality in the woman and as a sense of pride in having the best version, skill, or method in creating a dish.


Southern Cornbread

     In this video a woman named Peggy Dillard-Toone, from Greenville, South Carolina, shares her recipe for cornbread inspired by her mother who  wrote down or openly shared her recipes or secret tricks.  Peggy describes her opportunities for learning the recipe to create the cornbread (and other recipes) ultimately boiled down to working in the kitchen with her mother and trying to “pick up” what tips she could.  Peggy has added her own special twist to the cornbread recipe wich makes it now distincly her own, but she remains very proud that the basic recipe came from her mother's kitchen. 




The Economics of Bread

     A woman could make statements about her economic status by sharing her breads with neighbors or at a community event.  The lowest of the low relied solely on ingredients that were readily available, such as corn, which can be prepared without the use of any store bought items or a regulated heat source.  Hoecake is made only with cornmeal, salt, and water and received its name from being cooked over an open fire on a hoe or a shovel by slaves and, later, by civil war soldiers (Kurlansky 182).  The addition of eggs, buttermilk, oil/lard and possibly powder creates cornbread and is revealing to a higher status that would have access to these foodstuffs.  Biscuits, on the other hand, were upper class.  “Biscuit baking demonstrated class consciousness, leisure time for women, consumer marketed equipment, and nationally standardized consumption” (Inness 152).  Quick breads and ones made with soda are lower on the economic scale than beaten biscuits (which are labor intensive) or breads requiring yeast.  In summary, within the multitude of varying recipes using corn or flour there are degrees of associated economic status with the border line between lower and upper class drawn upon the use of corn versus wheat flour (Inness 157).



Cakes are a Statement of Social Power

            If one wishes to know the woman who owns the social power in any given southern get-together you need to only go so far as to ask who provided the cake (Inness 65).  Cakes are distinguished as a food belonging to the upper class, In the WPA files compellation called The Food of a Younger Land the recipes gathered from the prominent society in the American South consists of salty white cake and pound cake overshadowing the other dishes (Kurlansky 109-110).  Cakes need even cooking temperature and the use of many luxury ingredients but they bake up to be the perfect centerpiece for a southern social gathering.  Any event for which a cake is made there is potential for women to participate in power politics. “The relationship between women and cake, then, is one that is both complex and firmly entrenched in southern society. ”(Inness 64).  When a cake is made for an event it takes center stage among the other foods.  The cake may be placed in the middle of the table or even on a table all by itself.  Moreover it is culturally understood that the woman planning the event, or the woman who holds the social power, will provide the cake.  When merely being in attendance to a social event, one would bring a side dish, breads, or even a pie.  It would be acceptable to assist by providing nearly anything but the cake.    If an attendee were to be so brazen as to bring a cake this would surely be encroaching on the woman who spent the time planning and preparing for the event.  It would also only serve to confuse the guests as to whose event they were attending. 

     For a cake to make a resounding statement it must be perfectly baked and its presentation should be appealing and delicious.  A chocolate cake is out of place at the majority of formal events.  The coconut cake, which uses luxury and store bought fresh coconut, is a symbol of not only economic affluence but also a symbol of being in-style.  The coconut cake is only trumped by the pound cake which is used by southern women as an “ultimate” statement of power (Iness 66). 


Food Fights

     Knowing now the economics and power politics that can be displayed through a woman’s culinary skills, we should contextualize these customs and behaviors to gain a deeper understanding and unravel the complexity of how this plays out in the southern social arena: 

     Martha regularly attends her church bible study group and, as is customary, she always brings a dish to share with the other church women.  For years now she has brought homely cornbread, but today is different! She has brought a plate of fresh baked biscuits.  This action raises the eyebrows of the women in her study group who now chatter quietly amongst themselves to determine what this plate of biscuits may mean.  Several of the women strike up conversation with Martha, politely coaxing out personal details of her current financial state, until it is finally brought to light that her husband has received a promotion at work. Martha was able to share her good news in an unassuming and socially acceptable manner simply by creating biscuits as an alternative to her normal cornbread.

            Mary Beth is married to a well-known businessman and often plans parties as a means of networking and showing off her family’s prominent status.  Mary Beth decided to host the party in a beautiful plantation garden owned by a family friend instead of her own home.  She feels confident after sending out the invitations that the party will be a success and she decided to prepare an extravagant coconut cake to take center stage.  The day of the gathering is beautiful and the guest fawn over the gorgeous coconut cake taking the opportunity to ask who provided it.  Now that the guests are aware of who brought the cake they are all attentive that, despite the alternative location, this event belongs to Mary Beth.  That is, until a proud and scorned woman inches over the coconut cake to place her home made pound cake onto the desert table.  By all accounts, this is a very bold move, indeed! As more guests visit and chat around the display, there is confusion as to who is holding the power of this important event.  Gossip ensues about dissent amongst these high society women.  Mary Beth is now forced to regroup and find an appropriate avenue (such as a speech or a toast in her honor) to refocus the attention back to her so that she may still achieve her networking goals.















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