We cited the present-day debate on the “appropriation” of Southern food—a quarrel led by male chefs, male food scholars, and male writers—as well as our deeply held belief that this argument only serves to encourage men in their beating-of-chests, seeking superiority over one another, while distracting us from other more important issues. Although black men are now welcomed into the argument, the conversation is not diverse. Early last year, Hillary Dixler wrote an article about appropriation for Eater that created a social media storm. But to Toni, Ronni, and myself, the theme itself wasn’t problematic as much as the fact that all of the voices quoted in the article were male—proof, we believe, that men still own the conversation. At the panel, we stated what should be obvious: such arguments over recipe ownership continue to leave out half the cooking population.
For centuries, white men, even among servants, had the advantage of education, social freedom, and power. For just as long, men in academia have controlled the narrative of food in the South, mostly without challenge. Or, as Toni argued about the African-American context in foodways: “Our creative intelligence has been largely left out of the written record. Slightly more is known about male butlers, White House chefs, and entrepreneurs, but when it comes to talking about the accomplishments of women, the records, until recently, have been mostly silent.” What we wanted to reclaim that morning in Louisville was women’s rightful place in what has become a rapidly developing conversation by chefs, writers, and scholars about the ownership and appropriation of Southern food.
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This idea stated that Americans were destined to expand across the western frontier and the world because the “superior” Anglo-Saxon race had received God’s divine blessing to do so.
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That turned out to be the main lesson I learned by writing a book in 2004 called Writing About Your Life. It’s a memoir of my own life, but it’s also a teaching book—along the way I explain the reducing and organizing decisions I made. I never felt that my memoir had to include all the important things that ever happened to me—a common temptation when old people sit down to summarize their life journey. On the contrary, many of the chapters in my book are about small episodes that were not objectively “important” but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them.