At the Common Table


VFH Fellow Jamie S. Ross explores the history of southern foodways

African American Heritage | Culture & Identity | Fellowships | VFH News

Ingredients for making hot water cornbread.
Ingredients for making hot water cornbread.

Jamie S. Ross is the director of Red Dirt Productions and a non-residential Fellow at VFH. She’s working on a film, At the Common Table, that traces the history of southern food. By delving deeply into the core cuisine of the South, At the Common Table explores the creativity and ingenuity of those responsible for the origins of many traditional southern foodways.

We recently caught up with Ross to ask a few questions about her project.

Can you tell us a little about your current project?

Well, in the past we [Red Dirt Productions] have done films on social, political, and environmental history primarily in the South. Our current documentary project looks at the roots of what we understand as southern culture, using food to tell that story. We use the history of southern food to tell the story of the African, Native American, and European cultural intermingling that became the foundation of the South.

How did you become involved in filmmaking?

When I was in graduate school, I had a colleague whose partner, Ross Spears, had just been nominated for an Academy Award in documentary filmmaking. I was very interested in history and social change, and I went to work with him after I left graduate school, doing research for his projects.

For me, filmmaking was a great blend of my interests in telling stories and practical research. I really believe that story is the way to change peoples’ hearts and change the world. Recently, film has become even more important in getting stories out to the public. Our films combine a number of interdisciplinary topics, like anthropology, geography, history, economics, and even science. Biology, horticulture, and the history of plants help us tell the story of human beings. Filmmaking brings all of this together in a form that can more easily reach people.

Does the fact that you are working on a film alter the approach you take to research?

Only slightly, I think. In filmmaking, you rarely directly reference a particular book or paper. Rather, those things serve as the foundation for what you’re doing. With a firm footing in research, it’s easier to know what questions to ask. It changes what you ask your interview subjects.

For instance, we tend to think of the South as a very divided place, but in the early days of settlement there was an incredible transfer of knowledge and cultural mingling between Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, much more than we imagine. Thanks to research into the DNA analysis of plants, we know that collard greens come from Europe and not Africa. Then we ask the question, “Well, how did collards become identified as an African American soul food if they really are a European vegetable?”

Research helps us get past common perceptions and to the factual roots.

How did collard greens become known as a soul food if they originally came from Europe?

Collards were brought to America by European colonists who called them colewort. The Europeans, especially the British, weren’t very imaginative in their cooking techniques, but enslaved Africans were able to take collards and really make something from them. Collards were actually similar to the greens slaves had access to back in Africa. Once in the hands of African cooks, they would chop them and season them with meat and pepper. Collards quickly became something everyone wanted to eat, so you would find them on tables in the plantation home, in the slave quarters, and on poor white farms.

A lot of what we call soul food is actually southern country food that freed slaves took with them to the North once slavery was abolished.

Where do Native Americans fit into the story of southern food?

One of the most important things that Native Americans brought to the table was corn and cornbread. Each tribe had cultivated its own variety of corn to grow in their specific ecological niche. They shared their seeds and farming techniques as well as dozens of different recipes for making bread out of corn. Various types of cornbread became important survival tools for enslaved Africans and poor whites.

While corn was extremely important, Native Americans also introduced squash, beans, and pumpkins. Sweet potatoes, even, came from South America. Africans were used to yams, an African vegetable that doesn’t grow well in the American South. Sweet potatoes, however, bear a likeness to yams and enslaved Africans incorporated them into their diet. And of course, tobacco—originally cultivated by Native Americans—is what gave the American colonies their economic viability.

Native Americans were incredible farmers, and they passed some of their knowledge on to early European settlers and enslaved Africans. But there were some things that Europeans didn’t learn. For example, Native Americans practiced a system, called the three sisters, where corn, beans, and squash were cultivated together. It was a sophisticated system where beans would cling to the tall cornstalks while the squash provided shade to the plants below. Europeans, however, clung to row agriculture.

Can we still see this cultural mixture in our food today?

Of course. I grew up in rural Louisiana eating a particular kind of cornbread. Some people call it fried cornbread or hot water cornbread. It’s made with a little cornmeal, a little salt, and hot water mixed together. We would dip our hands in cold water and form the cornmeal into patties. The patties are then deep fried in fat inside of a cast iron kettle.

That hot water and cornmeal mixture is the most basic form of cornbread. That’s Native American. Frying the patties in hot oil is an African technique that has been adopted with great enthusiasm in the South. The cast iron kettle that holds everything together is European in origin. It’s a great example of the kind of cultural mixing that has occurred in American southern cuisine.

How fast did this exchange of foodways take place?

I think someone once said, “Hunger is a powerful motivator for cultural change.” I think it happened fairly quickly, but it wouldn’t have happened painlessly. One thing we forget is that corn was so foreign to Europeans. Wheat was the symbol of western civilization.

Many places in Europe still look at corn as the food of animals rather than as a delicacy like we do in the South. But within a hundred years, people were eating corn. The first documented southern cookbook by Mary Randolph has probably a dozen recipes using corn, and she cooked for Thomas Jefferson.

What’s your personal connection to the South?

My family has been in the region since the seventeenth century, gradually moving farther and farther south, going from Virginia to Louisiana.

I grew up in a segregated South, and when I eventually attended an integrated school, made African American friends, and got to know their culture a little better, I got to looking at the food my friends ate and noticed the similarity. I asked myself, “How did this happen?” These people lived completely separate lives under Jim Crow, but all the foods that signify home and comfort to me and my family were the same for their families.

Once you step outside the South, one of the things you realize is that what makes the South special is the diversity and other cultures. There’s a lot of complexity there, and food gets at that story, black, white, and Native American.

For instance, all you need to do is look at the food that slaves ate to see the deep inhumanity and cruelty of that system. The fact that plantation owners ate the food of Africans, but wouldn’t eat at the same table with Africans perplexes me. I’m always trying to understand the complex society that I grew up in, and one way to do that is through the food we eat.

What makes food a good medium for the story you are trying to tell?

I think it was one of the advisors on our film who said: “People love to talk about food, much more than they’d like to talk about race.” Food makes a good entry point into that conversation because all people, southerners included, have a relationship to food.

It also allows us to tell the story of people across the South who largely didn’t leave records, journals, or log books because they were too busy trying to survive. Their food, which we can still see today, remains a repository of their creativity and humanity. Today, we can flesh out this story further using botanical and DNA research on plants and crops to track the path that foods have taken. Through the history of food we can see the history of humans.

Finally, what has your fellowship at VFH enabled you to do that wouldn’t otherwise?

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities really gave me access to resources. Having this fellowship has allowed me access to original documents and databases not available to the public. My field research is much easier as a result.

One thing I discovered while filming my previous project was that academics orient themselves in their own silos. Geographers find out where people ate collard, while botanical scientists trace the collards’ genetic history. Lots of times, people will be on parallel tracks, and as a filmmaker it’s the most exciting thing to bring those tracks together. VFH gave me the luxury of being able to look at anthropology, history, economics, and the hard sciences so I could weave them all together.

About Jamie S. Ross

Jamie S. Ross is an independent author and the producer of APPALACHIA: A History of Mountains and People—a PBS film series that chronicles the history of one the oldest mountain ranges on earth and the diverse peoples who have inhabited them.

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