Finding Foodways: A Southern Trip “Culinary” Adventure

Foodways are an often-underrepresented part of material culture. Luckily the past few decades have seen a steady rise in the popularity of this branch of historical research, but I still often receive a blank or inquisitive stare when I tell people that I study foodways.

Merriam-Webster defines foodways as the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period. But how do you go about studying foodways when the food itself often does not survive? Cooking spaces, tools, and recipe books all provide important context and detail for understanding the consumption patterns of a particular person or group. As we embarked on a trip to the South, I was excited to explore a region where food is a quintessential part of the culture; cooking practices and ingredients often define local identities and food traditions can create intense interpersonal competitions. Plus, I knew we’d get to eat great food!

The group about to dig in at Payne’s BBQ in Memphis.

Kitchens are one of the more obvious food-related places I expected to encounter, but I found it particularly interesting to compare some of the different kitchen spaces we explored. I noticed how their contents and arrangement revealed personal and telling information about their owners and users. Perhaps the starkest contrast was the massive kitchen complex at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and the small, one-room kitchen at Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Overflowing with tools and appliances, this is just one of the many kitchen spaces at Biltmore. Image courtesy Biltmore House Gallery at

With an abundance of utensils, appliances, storerooms, walk-in freezers, and entirely separate rooms for roasting meats and baking sweets, the Biltmore kitchens were not conceived as a homey place for family bonding, but as a self-sufficient machine. The materials on display spoke of access and financial power. The Vanderbilts could afford exotic citrus fruits and spices, pots and pans in every shape and size, and the latest in cooking and cooling appliances.

Inside the kitchen at Elvis’s childhood home.

Food safes functioned as storage pieces for both dishes and food. Though hard to see here, an intricate pattern of punched holes in the tin doors provided decoration as well as ventilation for food.

In comparison, Elvis’s home in Tupelo was a two-room, shotgun style house where the kitchen served multiple functions: prep space and dining area, as well as a room for washing clothes and storing household items. Though created with considerably lesser means, there was still an obvious attention to both comfort and decoration, just look at that wallpaper! This was a space that was going to be well used and therefore needed to be enjoyable as well as functional.

We were also lucky enough to see kitchen spaces at Graceland in Memphis, the Hermitage in Nashville, at the South Union Shaker Village in Auburn, Kentucky, and at the WPA planned community Arthurdale, in West Virginia. But there were also many times along our winding course that we encountered foodways in more unexpected places.

During our tour of the Birmingham Museum of Art, I noticed these decorative ceramic pie molds, perfect for shaping and cooking elaborate meat pies, and similar to many objects we saw on our trip to England in January.

Two ceramic pie molds; the left has a decorative rabbit handle and the right has a cauliflower.

Nearby sat a couple of beautiful ceramic jelly molds; their delicate enameled flowers would be a show-stopping display underneath a layer of transparent gelatin. Winterthur has a couple very similar examples in their collections too!

After placing the matching lid overtop of these jelly molds and inverting the joined pieces, colored, liquid gelatin could be poured into holes in the base. After cooling, the lids would be removed to reveal the now solid but transparent layer of jelly underneath, which acted like a colorful wiggly windowpane, showing off the decorative enameled painting through the jelly!

The South Union Shaker Village in Auburn, Kentucky, displays a reproduced list of garden seeds for sale. This is a valuable record of the produce options known and available on the tables of Shaker men and women, and also provides evidence for one of the methods used to financially sustain their community.

This seed list is also a great record of some creative and descriptive names for different types of vegetables!

These are just a handful of the times I was able to get a closer look at the foodways of the South. But perhaps the most unexpected and fun discovery was this decorative Okra Table from the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville – a modern craftsman’s take on a traditional candlestand form. You just never know when you’re going to find something food related!

The top has been carved and painted to look like the cross section of an okra and the table legs have been carved into whole okras too!


By Rachel Asbury, WPAMC Class of 2018

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