Women at Work: Marcie Cohen Ferris

September 9, 2013 | By | Comments (0)

The Southern Foodways Alliance will host its 16th annual Southern Foodways Symposium called “Women at Work” on October 4-6 in Oxford, Mississippi. While much attention has focused on women as stewards of home and hearth, the SFA asks how these farmers, artisans, and cooks built businesses and forged identities outside the domestic sphere. This year’s symposium is sold out, but the SFA will blog about the proceedings throughout the weekend and post videos and podcasts soon after. Between now and October 4, we’re introducing you to some of the women who will be presenting at the Southern Foodways Symposium.

 Women at Work: Marcie Cohen Ferris

Spotlight On: Marcie Cohen Ferris
Her Work: Associate Professor of American Studies and Southern Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill; author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South (UNC Press, 2005)
Home Base: Chapel Hill, North Carolina (a native of Blytheville, Arkansas)

Marcie Cohen Ferris, a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, is delivering the opening talk at this year’s Southern Foodways Symposium. She’ll introduce us to five women—most of them unsung, or known for accomplishments outside the culinary realm—who shaped the history of Southern food.

Dr. Ferris has written extensively on Southern Jewish foodways. If you’re the kind of person who served your Rosh Hashanah noodle kugel with a side of barbecue, you’ll consider her a kindred spirit.

Ferris sees food as a means of storytelling and identity formation among Southern women past and present. “A rich cultural conversation is found in the historical interactions of Southern women across the region’s fields, waters, plantation households, working kitchens, mills, lunch counters, and tourist venues from the Lowcountry to the Mountain South,” she says. “Food foregrounds the once-silenced voices of women whose hands and minds have so deeply shaped Southern Cuisine.”

By way of a preview to her SFA presentation, she shared these three vignettes of women at work in Southern history:

Ruth Hastings, a young, white, northern-born schoolteacher-nanny, came to work for white cotton planters in South Carolina in 1852.  As an outsider, Hastings’ introduction to slavery and the plantocracy was largely shaped in the domestic worlds of the household, including the table of her elite employers. She wrote her New England family frequently, sending vivid descriptions of food and the racial ‘etiquette’ of the antebellum South. Hastings couldn’t have known that her letters would find an audience beyond her family, but today her correspondence provides a valuable window into domestic history.

Zora Neale Hurston, an African American anthropologist, folklorist, and one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance, captured the culinary cultures of her Florida childhood in her literary work, including documentary work for the “America Eats” project of the Federal Writers’ Project.

Isabel Bevier, a white professor of chemistry and “household science,” moved from Ohio to study the food patterns of rural black families near Hampton, Virginia in 1898. Her ethnographic interviews and observations were critical to period studies of pellagra, a dietary disease which ravaged the South’s working poor.

Ferris’s next book is The Edible South: Food and History in an American Region. A social history of Southern foodways, it will be published by UNC Press in 2014.

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