Reading Shirley Abbott’s book Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South for a class today, I decided to save some snips. It’s fairly well written, I think, and it makes some provocative assertions:
To grow up female in the South is to inherit a set of directives that warp one for life, if they do not actually induce psychosis. This is true for high-born ladies as well as for farm women, and no one has ever quite explained it. A North Carolina journalist named Florence King made a good try, though, in a book called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. All Southerners, she observed, are insane and most especially is the Southern woman insane. The reason is that “the cult of Southern womanhood endowed her with at least five totally different images and asked her to be good enough to adopt all of them. She is required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained— all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact she succeeds.” (3)
Tracing the lineage of Southern settlers to the Ulster Scots, Abbott returns to colonial records to find gems. I was taken by her description of Reverend Woodmason’s (from around 1766) perception of Southern cooking:
Their cookery, if indeed it can be so called, is, he says, “filthy and most execrable.” What provisions they have consist mostly of bacon and cornmeal, and clearly the women have already acquired the habit of drowning everything in grease. (40)
Now that I think about it, the quick exploration of the cooking dovetails nicely with her thesis that Southern ladies/gentlemen see themselves as descended from the English aristocracy. British food isn’t exactly renowned either. One of the interesting techniques used to frame her elaborate historical tale of family is that she marks the ahistorical perspective of her Southern mother against her Yankee father who feels attached to history. From this perspective, she deeply explores the nature of Southern identity as manifest in Arkansas.