The consumption of the New South

Celebrating a progressive South means supporting the whole economy of practices that enabled our traditions in the first place. That means supporting the actual communities and the actual restaurants that have been here—that made this place a here in to begin with.
Matt Hartman
March 9, 2016
Sean Brock’s Husk in Charleston, South Carolina
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Nicki Dugan Pogue

 

Bullock’s Barbecue has been open since 1952. Located in Durham, North Carolina, a block off of a commercial highway and across from a Coca-Cola bottling plant, you can still find the founder’s son, Tommy, passing to-go containers through the kitchen window every day, surrounded by photos of bygone movie stars and telling anyone who’ll listen about the time Lucille Ball ate his food. The restaurant’s wait staff seems to be almost entirely composed of middle-aged women, all of whom boast a drawl strong enough to seem like caricature, and a politeness genuine enough to assure you it’s not. Add in the fact that Bullock’s still serves a large sandwich for $4.95 and it starts to seem like Bullock’s is the “traditional barbecue joint” that John Reed, founder of the Campaign for Real Barbecue, described to the New Yorker as “a place in the South where people from all walks of life and all races, from the sheriffs’ deputies to the construction workers to the town bankers, gather to eat the local specialty at a price just about anybody can afford.”

But Bullock’s is not true barbecue, according to the Campaign for Real Barbecue. A Southern version of groups like the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, the Campaign exists “to celebrate and to promote barbecue’s wood-cooking heritage, to identify and to honor those who stay true to the traditions of their place and provide the benchmark for Real Barbecue.” The group’s benchmark for “Real Barbecue” is not based on the sauce, nor even the kind of meat—arguments often overheard in Durham, near the dividing line between North Carolina’s two major styles, Lexington and eastern North Carolina style—but the method of cooking, which is the “one constant” for this most American of American foods. Real Barbecue must be “slow-cooked with smoke from wood or wood coals,” because that is the only way to maintain the “taste, tradition and a sense of place” that is “increasingly lacking in today’s world.” Bullock’s, which no longer cooks over a wood fire, doesn’t meet the criteria.

If you’re craving Real Barbecue, you can find it a few miles from Bullock’s at The Pit. Founded in 2007, The Pit is owned by Empire Eats, a restaurant group that also owns Lebanese and Italian-American operations. It “preserves the art of North Carolina barbecue” by creating an upscale dining experience complete with an artful array of meat cleavers pinned to a wall, a curated wine list, New York Times coverage, and—of course—a genuine commitment to cooking with wood. It all adds up to a sandwich that costs almost twice the one you can find at Bullock’s. “If this is what it takes to introduce barbecue to the next generation,” Reed told the New Yorker, “so be it. Things change. On the other hand, a wine list is wrong.”

“There was a South of slavery and secession—that South is dead. There is now a South of union and freedom—that South, thank God, is living, breathing, and growing every hour.” So said Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady in 1886, as he advocated for a South that, in the aftermath of the Civil War, rebuilt itself as an industrial center, thriving on manufacturing, wage labor, and railroads: the New South. Adapt Grady’s arguments to today’s post-industrial version of cultural capitalism and you get an economy based on selling Southern culture as a consumer good. But not just any culture: a version of the South that explicitly seeks to complicate the image of it as backwards and redneck and regressive and racist, replacing it with one of a thriving, diverse region that has birthed the most praiseworthy aspects of American vernacular. “The paradigm is shifting in the South,” writes Patterson Hood (frontman of famed Athens, Georgia, band the Drive-By Truckers) in a 2013 Bitter Southerner article titled “The New(er) South.” “Several of the midsized cities considered among the best places to live in the country are Southern. Louisville, Ky., boasts great art and food and a diverse music scene (anchored by My Morning Jacket, certainly one of the most vital bands of the last two decades). Birmingham, Ala., is in a bankrupt county and has more than its shares of issues, but it also boasts incredible restaurants and art and music and some beautiful old architecture.”

Add to that list literary stars like Wiley Cash and Jesmyn Ward, an emphasis on the role of blues and other folk traditions had on popular music, plus a fascination with Southern craftwork, and the contours of this New Southern culture takes shape. Media outlets like the Bitter Southerner and Garden & Gun even offer dedicated coverage to feed deepening interest, and a budding tourist economy is propped up by hip recommendations by tastemakers like the New York Times and Bon Appétit. But there’s a reason that when Beyoncé wanted to call out her (Black) Southern roots in “Formation,” she referenced portable hot sauce and the unique culinary traditions of this region. As Mikki Kendall writes at Eater, “she’s talking to the Southern and Great Migration Black Americans listening—to them, to us, it hearkens to home. To childhoods spent at fish frys, church picnics, and visiting relatives. It’s a reference to a cultural connection, one that spans the diaspora of Black American identity.” In fact, most definitions of Southern identity, Black or otherwise, tend to reference food in this way, because food is at the center of Southern culture. Hood even calls chefs the new rock stars.

Writing in Time in 2010, the late Josh Ozersky gleefully praises the high-end versions of New Southern cuisine that offer a commercial outlet for the traditions that Hood, Beyoncé, and others reference. Calling it, inexplicably, “lardcore,” Ozersky writes, “Typically, lardcore features unapologetically low-rent proteins like pork jowls and catfish, and treats them the way Paul Bocuse treated foie gras… Lardcore, at its best, is not trying to consciously class up the classics, but to reinvent them, quite literally, from the ground up. The movement bypasses the old high-low distinctions—soul food vs. gourmet food, home cooking vs. restaurant cooking, lard vs. oil and butter.” Marking the same progressive shifts Hood emphasizes, Ozerksy also claims that this New Southern cuisine is “the most purely democratic, un-status-conscious cooking to come along in a long time.”

Though perhaps Ozersky was more interested in how to find slightly cheaper high-end meals in New York City during the Great Recession than he was with a fair representation of Southern culture, his words strike a particularly sour note today. The economics simply have not borne out his assertion: This revival of Southern cuisine has been neither democratic nor any less status conscious than other, previous interest in Southern culture, like, say, the blues. More often than not, this new celebration of the South has focused on transforming culinary traditions into fine dining that can be sold to wealthy, mostly white tourists.

 

Hood cites Sean Brock as one bright spot in the South, as does Ozerksy, who calls him the “unacknowledged leader” of the New South food movement. Yet supper at Brock’s restaurant Husk starts at $30—hardly a democratic price point. Brock is not alone either. Barbecue is being upscaled by places like The Pit. Elsewhere, hot chicken, once a staple of Nashville’s black community, turned into a trend that spread across first the city and now the country—even KFC is offering a take on the dish. While renewed interest offers a broad celebration for these once ignored pieces of American culture, they also remove them from their origins. As Rachel Martin details at the Bitter Southerner, the new hot chicken restaurants popping up across Nashville are mostly “run by young white men in popular gentrifying districts.” It’s not just that the price point is rising; it’s that turning these traditions into consumer goods often erases the communities that birthed them.

Seattle chef and native Southerner Edouardo Jordan put it even more starkly in a feature at Lucky Peach: “Name a black chef who’s won an award besides Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a celebrity show, culinary politics. I did a little research and I’m going through everything that I can possibly find, and there are maybe one or two minority chefs recognized by the James Beard Foundation a year, if that. It’s pretty fucking sad… Is that their problem or my problem? Or our problem?”

The diversity the New South claims to highlight disappears along with successful black chefs. Brock’s Husk claims to “explore the reality of Southern food” by “exploring an ingredient-driven cuisine that begins in the rediscovery of heirloom products,” and Husk’s website quotes Brock as saying, “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.” But a myopic focus on the crops and methods devoid of any broader economic connections blinds us to questions about who can dine at the restaurant, whose traditions are being expropriated, and who is enjoying the profits. If to be authentically Southern is to take part in this version of the South—the one represented in glamorous food magazines, not the diverse one found in the community’s kitchens; the one praised by the Economist for GDP growth, not the one with soaring poverty rates—then that South is a white aristocracy, which is anything but democratic.

Of course, that fact might also make it authentically Southern—just Southern in the very way that New South wants to renounce. Pointing to the grandeur enjoyed by the wealthy was long an excuse for the aristocratic ways of the Old South, and claiming authenticity on the grounds that your crops date back to slave times is a strange way of creating something new and progressive and forward-looking, just as blatantly appropriating Black culture is a strange way of creating something inclusive. On the other hand, given that Henry Grady’s version of the New South aimed to reform the economy while preserving white supremacy, perhaps these movements fit the bill.

It’s impossible to embody a democratic vision of the authentic South with consumption as the primary mode of expression. It undercuts even historical projects, like the event chef and educator Michael Twitty planned at Durham’s Historic Stagville, a site that was once one of the largest plantations in the South. As an article in Garden & Gun explained, “the meal would be prepared in the style and manner of the era, out of doors, as close as practicable to what the black folk of the time would have eaten. But more: The experience was meant to educate and excite and draw interest to the lives of the enslaved.” Yet, despite that goal, “Twitty readily admits the [actual] fare would have been much harsher. ‘If I gave you the authentic, real deal, some of that stuff is horrific. It would not pass muster. The original slave food? Oh no, honey.’”

The reality is that market-based consumption will alter the presentation of any tradition, and those traditions must adapt to those willing and able to support them commercially. To claim that the result of that process is authentic, as so many avid critics and patrons have, is to define Southern culture by market share; the result will always be a fiction, and possibly a harmful one at that, which is just as true for New South restaurants today as it was for the plantation-themed nightclubs lining New York in the nineteen-twenties.

At their best, these claims to authenticity can highlight the contributions of forgotten Southerners, especially non-white Southerners like Jordan and Twitty. That’s the most charitable way to take Ozersky’s claim that New South restaurants are democratic, and the goals of publications like the Bitter Southerner or organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance, which hope to make clear the essential role African-Americans and African traditions played in shaping Southern culture, the melding of Southern and Latin American cultures, the long history of resistance movements indigenous to the South, the legacy of proud queer movements, and more.

But given the ways that the Campaign for Real Barbecue has ended up supporting some of the very restaurants threatening traditional barbecue joints, the ways that hot chicken is expropriated from Nashville’s black community, the way Twitty’s educational efforts are forced to assuage white patrons, and the way even leading New South organizations and publications too often fail to hire and support writers of color, it should be clear that the economics of cultural capitalism ensure that the New South looks a great deal like the Old South. As Twitty has argued, people of color are still, by and large, kept out of positions of power and acclaim within this movement. These restaurants, still, by and large, contribute to the uprooting of communities of color—even as they thrive on the interest in a more progressive South. Too often, the contemporary New South has adopted the traditions of these communities, transformed them into something only accessible to the affluent, and then claimed that their value stems from their role as a shared cultural inheritance. There’s something deeply contradictory about claiming authenticity on the basis of tradition while ignoring your dependence on the very things threatening those traditions, and the success of some doesn’t justify the ways in which the same processes erase others from their own cultures.

Minus a couple years in Chicago, I’ve lived my whole life in the South. But, given that I was raised by two white Yankees in the suburbs, my knowledge of Southern cuisine didn’t come from homemade grits, community fish frys, or Baptist revivals. It came from fast food. There was Chick-Fil-A before high school, Bojangles at college football tailgates, late-night trips to Cook-Out in college. But above all, though, there was Lizard’s Thicket. A local chain around my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, that dates back to 1977, the Thicket serves vegetables with as much pork fat as plant matter and daily specials like fried chicken livers. It’s still the only place I know of where you can get a genuine meat-and-three plate in a drive-through, and it’s going strong, having opened its fifteenth location in 2013.

Yet restaurants like it are rarely included in the discussion of authentically Southern food. Proponents of the New South prefer the goods that fit in with trends toward the craft economy or the slow food movement, or that can easily attract tourists and national press attention. But perhaps places like Lizard’s Thicket, or restaurants like Bullock’s Barbecue, are just as authentically Southern as anything Sean Brock cultivates. What makes anything Southern is that it belongs to Southerners, that it exists in the practices of the people who call it home. The “authenticity” that leaves out huge swaths of the population, especially those who shaped the culture in the first place, is suspect.

Certainly the practices of old need support, commercial and otherwise, if they are to survive the homogenization wrought by capital. But cut off from all the Southerners who birthed them, nourished them, these practices become empty facsimiles. Dining at The Pit won’t tell you much about the South, whatever its methods, though it will tell you a great deal about capitalism, and even if Bullock’s doesn’t cook the way it did in 1952, it still maintains a central place in local Southern culture. if we’re serious about celebrating a progressive South, we must support the whole economy of practices that enabled our traditions in the first place. That means supporting the actual communities and the actual restaurants that have been here—that made this place a here in to begin with. Whitewashed and cut off from its roots, there may be plenty new about the New South, but it won’t be particularly Southern.

March 28, 2016