Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Southern Lady, Northern Food

Edges are the most fruitful places to look for information about what is and what used to be historically. An edge is a point of time when things are changing and people experiencing change comment on what went before. An edge is a stressful situation, like war, deprivation, or new settlement. An edge can also be a traveler in a new place commenting on differences between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

A good example is this little bit of insight I dug out of the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I love this little passage from a letter written by Mary McNeill McEachern, a young woman raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who went to spend a bit of time with friends in Fishkill on Hudson, New York, in 1876. She spoke quite a bit about food and living arrangements, even household apparatus like furnaces and cisterns which impressed her very much for the comfort that they provided. She even commented on the manner of dressing in the North writing, “the people don’t dress much – they seem to go for comfort more than looks, and in their actions and dress are much more regardless of what the world will say than we are at the South.” As I reckon we still are. (I always take my make-up when I go South.)

Here are Mary's observations of food:

"Now I must tell you what I get to eat. In the way of fruits we have quantities of currants growing in the garden; it is beautiful fruit - I wish you could see it growing, We have also two or three kinds of raspberries and also quantities of cherries of different kinds, gooseberries --- after a while they will have quinces and pears and grapes. I see and hear but little of apples and peaches and think that these fruits that I have mentioned are the only ones that are much cultivated. We never sit down to table without those kind of fruits on it - always raspberries and currants and often pineapples and oranges."

If there are currants, she is writing in summer, and apples and pears will come later.

"In the fish line we have salmon for supper every night - for breakfast we have mackerel and for dinner we have "holbert" [halibut] - I reckon that is the way to spell it; it is beautiful white fish and is cut in slices and fried - no bones in what we have had; the fish they say is very large, sometimes a yard or more long. One day we had clam fritters for dinner and they were nice, tasted like oysters. Mrs. Van A let me see her open the clams and she roasted one for me to eat."

"We have beef but I never would have recognized either the dish or the appearances-it is much whiter meat than our beef and does not taste so strong. Mrs. Van A says the difference is in the feed. I have seen corn bread once, but the meal was so yellow it looked like sponge cake made of brown sugar; they never get white corn meal. That cornbread was the only hot bread I've tasted - light bread all the time and it is delicious."

Mary McNeill McEachern Papers, 1871- 1876 (Coll. 5094 SHC)

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