G.R.I.T.S – Girl Raised In The South

G.R.I.T.S – Girl Raised in the South

Written by Kayla Williams, GW ’17, Sustainability Collaborative Executive Coordinator

In January, I learned about the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) based in Oxford, Mississippi through the University of Mississippi. The goal of SFA is to document and share stories of the changing American South – through podcasts, documentary, essay, oral history, and events. I came across SFA’s 2018 Winter Symposium, held February 24th in Birmingham, Alabama. The theme was “Narratives That Transform” and with my own background in storytelling combined with my goal of figuring out my relationship with the American South, I had to go!

I am Jewish and I was born and raised in the American South. I am proud of both of these identities, but pride for my Southern identity (granted, my entire family is from Brooklyn & New Jersey) comes with more hesitation due to the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era of the South – particularly when thinking about the history of food and agriculture in the region. Throughout my time in Washington, DC, arguably the least Southern region below the Mason-Dixie line, I’ve been interested in the power of rhetoric to change habits and opinions, specifically how it relates to diversity and sustainability in the American South.

Dolester “Dol” Miles cornmeal cake, photo taken by Julia Turshen (@turshen on Instagram)

When I walked into the venue around 9:30am, the conference had already begun – I drove from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia that morning – but Dolester “Dol” Miles, Executive Pastry Chef at Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, Bottega Cafe, and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham, gave me a warm smile and handed me a slice of perfectly moist cornmeal cake with strawberry preserves. Later in the day, Ava Lowery showcased a film about Dol’s life as a black female pastry chef in Alabama making spectacular desserts for more than four decades. The film was so heartwarming, I found myself dabbing my eyes by the end.

I made my way towards the sound of La Victoria, a female mariachi band from Los Angeles, the group that has performed at SFA multiple times. The group performed songs about assaults that many undocumented female farmworkers experience in the fields, the fear of being stopped by ICE, but also about the foods that remind them of home and the power they have to create unlikely alliances. La Victoria set the stage for the day: sharing often untold stories of diverse people through the medium of food.

There were three stories that stuck out for me. Clay Risen, a writer for the New York Times, joined Fawn Weaver, an author writing a book and living in the old Jack Daniels farmhouse. Together, they told the heartwarming and important story of Nearest Green, a slave working at the Jack Daniels farmhouse. Nearest taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey, and without him, we wouldn’t have Jack & Gingers. Risen wrote about Green in June of 2016 and Fawn Weaver immediately connected with Nearest’s story. Fawn, a black woman, would eventually buy the property in Lynchburg, TN. She has converted much of the space into a historical collection documenting Nearest Green’s life and is working towards publishing a book. This story represents what I want the American South to be: telling the unknown stories of black men & women that quite literally built most of what we love and claim as Southern – from whiskey to Waffle House. I’m still shocked by the numbers of weddings hosted at former plantations in my hometown without any recognition of the violent history that those spaces represent.

Waffle House, a 24-hour breakfast restaurant with locations across the South. 

David Hagedorn, an author and chef based in Washington, DC, shared his essay, titled “The Thank You/Screw You Paradigm”, about returning to a small town in Alabama every summer to visit his father. He discussed the odd cultural subtext of the South: stay in your lane, be polite, and everything will be OK. David, born outside of “his lane,” as a gay Jewish man, had to find ways to get along with the community during those summers while being his authentic self by not “making a ruckus.” He found that through food – helping his female relatives and neighbors create beautiful, rich meals – collard greens, mac & cheese, all of it. Hagedorn’s story resonated with me in a personal way – that hesitation I mentioned earlier is certainly rooted in my Jewish identity not allowing me to “stay in my lane” as someone who grew up in a very Christian area. I’ve been asked if I have horns and seen one too many confederate flags flying on pick-up trucks at my high school for me to be unscathed. But, when I went to Biscuits & More, my local biscuit shop,  I have always felt comfortable and at home.

Me (fifth from the left) at Jewish camp in rural north Georgia on Shabbat

The final story that I’ll recall was from Julia Turshen, a cookbook author, founder of Equity at the Table (EATT), an online database for women and non-binary people focusing primarily on persons of color and LGBTQ folks working in food, and all around amazing leader. Although she’s not from the south, she spent time talking about her book, “Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved”, a collection of recipes and essays from diverse people in food across America created in the wake of President Trump’s election. All proceeds of her book goes towards the ACLU. Julia spent most of the time highlighting these various leaders rather than talking about herself. Turshen, like Risen & Weaver, is raising unspoken voices and telling untold stories.

Julia Turshen, speaking at 2018 Southern Foodways Alliance Winter Symposium

After the conference, I was hooked on SFA. The organization gave me a way to be proud of my Southern background while also being true to my own values. I took a deep dive into Gravy, a bi-weekly podcast hosted by John T. Edge, author of the “Potlikker Papers” and director of SFA. Gravy shares interesting stories of the new South from Korean immigrants in Montgomery, Alabama to the environmental & public health effects of hog production in Duplin County, North Carolina on a community of color and their fight for a cleaner and safer life. I listen often, subscribe to the newsletter, and hope to attend their symposiums as regularly as I can. Working towards a better represented American South is significant because once the stories are told, it can transform the narrative of what this region can be.