The Edible South-Book Review

While checking out the local/regional shelves at Lemuria Books in Jackson MS (yes you need to stop in there if you are a booklover. And if you live around Jackson, I might even suggest a nice trip one hot weekend to spend a half day in the bookstore, some time in the Fondren co-op and maybe a stroll through Eudora Welty’s garden), I spotted this large book facing out, published last year but one that I had not heard of previously. The title was underwhelming, but the subtitle did intrigue me, as did the identification of it being the same author as Matzoh Ball Gumbo, which I had read and appreciated.

The book is broken into 3 sections: antebellum and post antebellum Southern food (“Plantation South”), late 19th c/ early 20th c (“New South”) and post 1950 (“modern South”), which is a very useful way to think about food and folkways in any American region actually. Each section has fascinating information about growing food or cuisine and uses scads of citations from prior research and popular books to showcase each.

The author, Marcie Cohen Ferris is a professor of American studies at UNC Chapel Hill and is well known among local food activists across the South. She has taken a wide view of Southern food since Jamestown days, using a great many of our most respected scholars work to weave a compelling and absorbing narrative. What is tricky about the long history here is the need to address earlier inaccuracies and overt racism embedded in some of that scholarship. The author does a deft job addressing those shortcomings without deleting what is useful from her predecessors’ work.

The Plantation South section was less comprehensive than I had hoped, especially knowing the beginnings of my own region around New Orleans as a tobacco company for the French, which has led to a commodity and export agricultural system that extends to this day. I had hoped for more about that era and more details of the enslaved and forced labor system of the Southern agriculture system, but it is quite likely that the scholarship was just not there to use.

The New South section should be required reading for any researcher or embedded activist working in the South. The founding of the Extension Service, of the home economics and demonstration movement and the research into healthy foods to reduce diet-based illnesses across the impoverished South are examples of the rich tapestry Cohen Ferris does explore and, for my money, is the best part of the book. Many times, I found myself referring to the notes and bibliography to record the name of the book she refers to in the section. Additionally, I much appreciated the section on Old Southern Tearooms and the account of the deliberate development at the turn of the 20th c of the myth of the genteel South, where a “southern narrative of abundance, skilled black cooks, loyal servants and generous hospitality of gracious planters and their wives” was displayed at places like Colonial Williamsburg, Charleston and of course New Orleans and as a result was completely accepted as the true story of a much more complicated and less romantic time. I certainly hope that her detailed work here separating fact from fiction may help put these embellished or completely fabricated stories of the “old South” in their proper place.

The Modern South section adds history on civil rights (how does it relate to food you say? lunch counter sit-ins, men’s-only lunch rooms anyone?), and history on federal programs like national school lunch program which are thoughtfully offered. The pieces on organizing natural food coops and buying clubs were so very welcome as little is available in popular research about how important these efforts were to the beginnings of the current local food/farmers markets) movement happening today. That leads to my main disappointment with the book – the scarce information on the farmers market/community garden movement of the 1970s-1990s, much less over the last 25 years which has been a dizzying and somewhat gratifying time for food sovereignty work. I can understand how the author was able to extract more from the researchers and writers of the Southern food system who focused on home cooking rather than to the (largely) nameless and transient activists and ideas of those same systems, but still, much has been written in the last 45 years not covered here. I can only hope for another book from this author that has the same level of detail, covering the last era from a grassroots or even a policy point of view. In any case, as I told a market leader in one of those vibrant places of local food in the South, this book is definitely a keeper and one destined to be used extensively among researchers, activists and policy makers.
View all my reviews


Jaime Lerner’s “Pinpricks of Change 

“good acupuncture is about drawing people out to the streets and creating meeting places. Mainly, it is about helping the city become a catalyst of interactions between people.”

“street peddlers represent an institution as old as the city itself. Think of open-air markets. At a given hour, in a given neighborhood, street merchants go to work — often hours before the lights go on in traditional storefronts — and then vanish along with their wares and jerry-built booths, leaving hardly a trace.” Commerce is then kept alive day and night, which also makes streets feel safer.

Link to book

The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism -Review

The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of CapitalismThe Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism by Jeremy Rifkin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, I agree with other reviews that suggest author Rifkin often has a “Gatling” approach to supplying facts and theories, and a tendency to offer the same theory over and over in his writing which can be tiresome after a bit-all true.
Even so, his contribution here that pure capitalism is in a transition to a hybrid economy made up of part capitalism and part collaborative commons is valid and worthwhile enough to pick this up.
He reminds us that the feudal system transitioned to the market economy starting in the ninth century and then with The Great Enclosure Movement of the 16th-19th centuries, built a legal system that protected private property just as the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. Now, he predicts that another shift is happening: capitalism has begun to share the global stage with one that uses collaborative data, has free or almost free goods and services available (because the cost of producing more goods is zero online) and allows for more efficient (or sufficient) use of natural systems.
How businesses will make profit in this future economy is certainly undecided and just as economists from Keynes to Marx wondered about it too. In other words, there are some scary unplanned moments ahead.
It’s also important to discuss how the collection of data (which is almost always used as a negative in popular media) has allowed the emergence of shared information for distribution systems, food production, human health, social revolutions and of course communication and is allowing for more interdisciplinary scholarship and maybe most importantly a reduction in ecological impact.

All of this should be interesting to anyone who hears the argument against the collaborative commons almost daily. My experience is that people’s concern is based on the legal implications of (in Rifkin’s words) how we are “moving from exclusive ownership to conditional rights.” His statement that “markets are giving way to networks and ownership is less important than access” is beguiling language for any community activist and as a farmers market partisan, I already believe in the power of the commons and see every week how informal relationships can build a new economy. I also regularly see fear and mistrust of this type of collaborative production or virtual distribution as many believe it impairs adding or improving necessary infrastructure. I might argue that we need to reduce our dependence on that as our main economic driver in municipal or civic systems anyway.
Do I worry about loss of privacy from all of this new activity? Some, but less so from my neighbors and fellow citizens who are bound by networks of social capital or because of the lack of shared networks with me, I am warned against sharing information or goods. Anyway, these virtual networks are less important than my existing (more important) physical networks and maybe that is one of the lessons of community food systems too.

Rifkin’s theory is that this will not be a total eclipse, but only a partial one and will allow for more diverse relationships and systems in other sectors while still retaining some capitalist characteristics when valid, like maybe in local food production. It may also reduce the possibility of monopolies or at least reduce their length, since technological innovation is harder to stifle in collaborative systems.
As for Rifkin himself, I like his quirky way on these subjects, but he should never be your only theorist on economic systems. If you are interested in reading someone who expands his thinking and has long embraced the need to address the ecological impacts of modern life, you need to read this.

View all my reviews

Designing Urban Agriculture: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance and Management of Edible Landscapes — City Farmer News

This book, coupled with Tanya Denckla Cobb’s excellent book on urban agriculture organizing,Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement is Changing What We Eat seem like a good pair to have in any local non-profit’s library.

Designing Urban Agriculture: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance and Management of Edible Landscapes — City Farmer News.

A Food Atlas For Everyone

Food AtlasFood Atlas by Darin Jensen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love maps. When I travel, I study maps online to have some sense of the geography underfoot, as much to understand who the people might be as not to get lost. It’s amazing how people appreciate that bit of homework when you go to their place.
I have maps of my city (New Orleans) and of my river (Mississippi) on the wall of my house and the Slow Food RAFT map (see below) on my business card.

Slow Food RAFT map

Slow Food RAFT map

I have books of maps authored by favorites such as geographical historian Rich Campanella and activist Rebecca Solnit, whose collaborative map book (“Infinite City”) of her home of San Francisco is a thought-provoking juxtaposition of right and wrong, culture and place.

When I came across the Kickstarter campaign for this Food Atlas, I jumped at the chance to support it. It arrived last week and I have read it while sipping my morning coffee (while reading about Strong Coffee traditions in the Middle East and “Bird Friendly” coffee origins), referred to it while writing about farmers markets (the one on SNAP and farmers markets) and studied the Texas Seafood Landings map after making flounder tacos just north of Lake Pontchartrain, home of most of the seafood catch for my bioregion. It’s a very new book and so won’t be found everywhere yet, but you can buy it from them now at

It is a wealth of maps on food production, distribution, security, exploration, identities and to pick out my favorites is to shortchange the breadth of this book.
It’s not just for activists, or “foodies” but for everyone and I think it could affect (and galvanize) people just as M. Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” did. I grow tired of long text articles about food (Yes, I do include myself in that finger pointing!) and would hope that this sort of map project could become a new way to educate and illuminate the small world that we live on.

I can’t wait for the editors to follow up on their promise to expand the reach of this series including to add more Asian and African food maps and to get this Atlas in hands everywhere. Its a bit heavy on maps of the West Coast and of the US, so much so that it occurs to me that having a set of food maps that show the lopsided view we have of ourselves in the US versus how others see us or experience us might be a good edition. In any case, hurrah.


View all my reviews

Review of “Black, White and Green: Farmers Markets, Race and the Green Economy”

Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green EconomyBlack, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy by Alison Hope Alkon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very well done snapshot of a piece of the Northern California local food system, especially its history. As much as I thought I knew, I learned some more about how it began from this book. I appreciated that this book was centered around these two farmers markets and their environmental and social justice leanings, which is a great lens to view multiple types of organizing, intentions and sets of outcomes.
I especially like the time she takes to link the work in each market to their larger community goals AND to the economic goals of the green economy.

here are some wonderful passages on the tensions and values of this emerging alternative system:

“One becomes an environmentalist, for example, through the consumption of green products such as organic food rather than the traditional means of voting, lobbying or attending protests. While this strategy allows supporters to inscribe their social movement goals into their everyday life practices. it also creates individuals who infuse the logic of the market into both their ordinary behavior and their desires for social change (Larner and Craig 1999)”

“The promise of the green economy is that the market can be made to value, and therefore to protect, humans and the environment.”

“In these markets, actors choose from among competing narratives to envision and emphasize the spaces where buying and selling green products leads to environmental protection and social justice.”

“Furthermore, proponents of the social change potential of the green economy attempt to redefine capitalism not as an exploitative system that must be overcome or restricted in order to protect people and the environment but as a tool to create a more just and sustainable world.”

“…Working towards these goals (environmental sustainability and social justice) becomes possible, in part, because participants in each farmers markets define environment and justice in ways that render them compatible with one another.”

“The compatibility between sustainability and justice achieved at these farmers markets is not inherent. Farmers market managers, as well as some vendors and regular customers, actively work to conceptualize strategies that speak to both goals.”
>As a community food system organizer, I believe this book is a necessary whistle stop on anyone’s travels to successful organizing around food.
Take the time to read this thoughtful book and then pass it along to your friends and comrades.

View all my reviews