The following is an excerpt of “The Rooster, the Rattlesnake, and the Hydrangea Bush,” from Black Folk Could Fly: Selected Writings of Randall KenanThe book was published posthumously in August 2022. The essay originally appeared as the introduction to The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food (Eno Publishers, 2016).

Read our monthly books column by author Wiley Cash for more on Kenan’s new book.

Certain of us sons and daughters of the South have a chip on our shoulders about stereotypes regarding the American South. Portrayals, clichés, misconceptions about what it means to be a Southerner in the 21st century in North Carolina can be worrisome at best. 

Friends of mine I presume to be more secure than I don’t give a flying rooster what people in New York or Los Angeles or Paris, France, think of them, and they ask me, “Why do you care? You have no investment in this North vs. South silliness.” 

Nonetheless, some of us still smart as if by hornet bite at the residue of the implication that Southern means backward, ill-educated, lazy, superstitious, unhygienic, and dumb. But I suspect, at bottom, my aloof friends do care, but just don’t care to talk about it. 

One thing I’ve learned as an adult is that not all superintelligent people are necessarily reflective about themselves and about the world.

Foodways are too often lumped in with all the other overarching folksy, old-fashioned, technophobic, churchified, photocopies of Mayberry and The General Lee. Things get even more complicated when the element or icon in question holds a special place for the Southerner (Andy Griffith, grits, okra). Yes, many of us adore fried chicken; yes, a great many of us have strong feelings about barbecue, and sweet ice tea. 

That does not mean everything we eat is fried (from turkey to Milky Way bars to butter—though some do—and it is true that in my mother’s home town, Rose Hill, you can find the world’s largest frying pan, used each year to fry a record-breaking amount of chicken during the Poultry Jubilee), or that vegetables are of little import and are meant to be boiled into shameful, tasteless mush, if not fried. Historical nuance is rare in these too-frequent caricatures. 

A great many Southerners aid and abet these visions of the Old North State and its environs—so much so that sometimes railing against stereotypes feels quixotic at best, futile even on a good day. Nonetheless, we find ourselves like William Faulkner’s young Quentin Compson having to state the affirmative with a denial. “I don’t hate it … I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t.”

Why food?  

So let me tell about the South. Let me tell what do they do there. How do they live there. Why do they.

The serious study of food and foodways in the academy is still a relatively young discipline, and is still having a hard time gaining the respect it deserves (see Marcie Ferris’s “The Big Book of North Carolina Foodways,” this book’s afterword). Eating is something we must do in order to live. I know people who think of food as merely fuel for their body. Something to stave off hunger. To them thinking overmuch—and surely writing—about food is pure decadence, the stuff of gluttony and the idle well-off. For so long gastronomy (the technical name for food writing) was the province of the elitist gourmands with money to burn and no concern for their health or waistline.

In conjunction with those who actively disrespect food writing and the study of foodways are those who don’t think of food at all, beyond chomping down on a Quarter Pounder, finding the cheapest Chinese buffet lunch, or scarfing down Buffalo wings and fries while watching the NCAA tournament. 

Speaking of fancy French words, the guy who came up with the idea of a dedicated discipline to writing about food and who gave us the word gastronomy was a Frenchman named Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826). His masterwork, The Physiology of Taste, is often quoted, in particular this line: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” There, truly, is the rub.

History, geography, business, culture, science, demography, labor, narrative, myth, and folklore, even music, all intersect in the world of food. Can there be a North Carolina without sweet potatoes, blueberries, and cucumbers? (Do most North Carolinians know that our state produces more sweet potatoes than any other state? This represents 50 percent of the United States’ supply. Or that our still youngish wine industry brings in over $1 billion a year; but more, that our industry grew on the backs of the muscadine, which is one of the few grapes indigenous to North America and prolific in North Carolina.) 

These connections are neither vague nor frivolous, but central to our state’s character and the character of its people, even those who sincerely believe their lives are untouched by food they don’t put in their mouths. Very serious stories like the crisis among black farmers losing their farms, the ecological damage caused by industrial hog farms, and food insecurity in Southern urban areas (ironically), all embrace economics, the environment, race, social justice, health, and so much more.

There is a place in Atlanta I insist on visiting every time I’m in town. The Dekalb Farmers Market. Few places—especially in the American South—bring together so many cultures, so many foods, so many people from around the globe. I like going there not just for the grains from Ethiopia, the nuts from Israel, the fruits from India and Malaysia, the fish from Europe, or the vegetables from Venezuela—foods you won’t be finding at the local Food Lion or the Harris Teeter—but also to see the people, this polyglot, multiethnic, multicolored parade of humanity coming together over one thing: food. 

People from warring backgrounds, people who are sworn enemies, gather together peacefully in a foreign land. Israelis and Egyptians, the Japanese and the Koreans. To me this is a more practical United Nations, and effectively so. This represents the power of food, more than to stop hunger, more than to feed gluttony, more than sales and business.

Of course I recognize that this is a naive daydream of a world-besotted professional dreamer. I know that food cannot accomplish what politics, mighty armies, crushing economies, and slick science can achieve. Though I do know that all generals and senators eat, as do business moguls and geneticists. 

Nowadays places like Carrboro and Durham and Raleigh and Charlotte and Asheville and Wilmington are becoming more like the Dekalb Farmers Market. It is a gradual thing. Incremental. And to be sure, some of my fellow North Carolinians harbor a lot of anxiety over that change. “What will happen to the old ways?” they mutter. They see falafels as a threat, cactus pads as enemy combatants, sea cucumber as an arch invader. 

I hasten to remind them that in London and in Toronto, two of the world’s most multicultural cities, you can still easily get spotted dick, Welsh rarebit, and poutine. Barbecue and fried chicken are not going away anytime soon. (Today salsa outsells tomato catsup in every state in the Union. Yet the Constitution still stands. Meanwhile taco trucks are blossoming all over our state like the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. in April. And we’re the better for it.)

Some folk see the American South as a bug trapped in amber; others see the South as an integral part of the great American Experiment—still aspiring to get it right, to make it better—an ongoing thing, rich with contributions, opportunities, and possibilities. 

I do dream and wonder about our state’s culinary future. What will newcomers bring and support, what of our past will they adopt, what blends and hybrids might occur, what new crops will we begin to grow, what new uses might we discover for sweet potatoes and tobacco plants and pine needles and the humble butter bean? 

You can listen to a podcast discussion on this story as well.

Randall Kenan (1963–2020) was the former chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lived in Hillsborough, North Carolina.