Today is the third day of the University Press Week (#UPWeek) Blog Tour, and we are celebrating “The Neighborhood.” One of the South’s oldest, richest, and most diverse traditions is put on a plate every day. To celebrate our regional food traditions, we interviewed Sandra Beasley, editor of Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Beasley is a poet and creative nonfiction writer. She is the author of three poetry collections and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir and cultural history of food allergy. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post Magazine, Oxford American, Creative Nonfiction, and the Wall Street Journal. She has won several prizes for her work, including the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Beasley resides in Washington, D.C., and teaches as part of the University of Tampa’s low-residency MFA program.
Vinegar and Char is an anthology of over fifty poets, spanning across two decades, all from a diversity of southern identities. The Southern Foodways Alliance seeks to celebrate food, community, and the South.
Reading your introduction, I was reminded of my own mom (born and raised in Mississippi) cooking black eyed peas for New Year’s Day. Even though I hated the mushy texture, I ate them anyway because they’re supposed to bring good luck. What are some other uniquely southern ways that we mystify food?
First things first: If the day comes that you make black-eye peas in your own household, I recommend adding a second batch of thin-sliced celery—assuming you’ve started with some kind of “holy trinity” base of onion, pepper, and celery—to maintain that crisp texture you’re looking for. If cooking from dried beans, there is a magical moment where you can add apple cider vinegar to maintain firmness—but too soon, and they’ll end up tough. I’ve made that mistake. I add a few dashes of vinegar-based hot sauce at the end for sure. I slide a ham hock in there, if I have one, or else rendered bacon to start.
Notice what’s not in the above: ingredients, but no measurements. Any cooking tradition handed down generation-to-generation does this, modeling with real-time instruction and a lot of intuitive seasoning. Southern cuisine is utterly flavorful and full of small nuances earned through practice. That’s not unique, but it’s special, and it’s worth celebrating.
Jake Adam York’s “Grace,” which gives the collection its title, reminisces on the communal aspect of food and how it connects us to others even when they aren’t present. How do you think food ties us together? To our community, to our family members, to our distant ancestors?
Jake and his brother Joe used to host whole-hog roasts together. The family prized my grandmother’s pecan pies at every Thanksgiving. Cooking is often an intergenerational process experienced in the shopping or hunting, the assembly, and the big-table meals. This anthology captures how nourishment is an essential part of the process of daily life for many—whether experienced in sickness or in health, in celebration or in grief. The food doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, but it’s a literal expression of our care for one another.
Poetry collections can be intimidating because of the notion that they should be read in order, in one sitting. I loved your explanation of the “ideal” way to read the book—in bite-sized pieces rather than all at once. What is it about Vinegar and Char that makes it ideal for that? Should we read all poetry collections like Vinegar and Char?
There’s no “right” way to read a poetry collection! I never assume people read my collections sequentially or in a single sitting. But I realize that many folks think of poetry as a vaunted art, and that can make the reading process intimidating rather than enjoyable. Let’s relax that, especially since this book has many authors rather than representing one vision. In my twenties, feeling pressured by a full-time job, I used to give myself exactly the amount of time to read that it took to stir a pot of steel-cut oatmeal to perfection every morning before work.
People can be deeply protective of their cooking. Some secret family recipes are hoarded like dragon’s gold or venerated like Holy Scripture. I remember my mom talking about potlucks at family reunions, churches, schools as if they’re a competition to see who goes home with empty plates. How does the collection address the reputational currency food holds in the South?
The territorial aspects of southern cooking have been thoroughly covered in media, such as the debate between Texas and North Carolina over what constitutes an “authentic” barbecue sauce, or whether cornbread should contain sugar. That thematic vein doesn’t interest me much as an editor, especially since I embrace a flexible and progressive definition of what it means to be southern. The tensions in these poems tend to be contained within a personal relationship, rather than between egos or as part of a geographical divide.
But this question makes me think of two favorites on these pages, which I’d urge people to check out: “Eating a Muffaleta in Des Moines,” in which poet Brian Spears examines how a New Orleans favorite is attempted outside the South, and “Pesach in Blacksburg,” by Erika Meitner, which looks at trying to preserve Jewish traditions within rural Virginia. Both critique food as an extension of reputation and heritage. I’m also proud to note that both of these poems were written specifically for and original to inclusion in the anthology.
How did you find the book’s illustrator, Julia Sola? What aspect of her work speaks to what this collection is about?
My collaborator Sara Camp Milam deserves all the credit for an initial round-up of candidates, and then the two of us sat down to look over the options. We were open to any medium, whether painting, or photography, or line drawings, or works on paper. What grabbed us about Sola’s work is that her style is warm and often humorous, without betraying the literal reality of her subjects. She has created a vocabulary of images—food, animals, and nature imagery—that is recognizably hers, as is her rich use of color washes.
You’ve spoken about your food allergy extensively in your memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, and briefly touched on it in the introduction to the collection. Has your experience with food given you more sensitivity when choosing poems for this collection?
My food allergies haven’t instilled me with apprehension so much as curiosity. I don’t just want to know how a dish has been prepared made; I need to know. In Vievee Francis’s “Salt,” I was surprised to run across the reference to someone making a menu choice based on allergies—I don’t see that often in poetry—but my principle motivation in choosing the poem was its compelling craft, and its sharp attention to the iconography of watermelon.
There are so many amazing poets in this collection, all from different backgrounds and points of view. What was your process for choosing the poems in this collection?
For years, the Southern Foodways Alliance has featured poetry in its gatherings. We began with a commitment to those living poets who had already contributed to the SFA community, querying them for poems to choose from. We asked W. Ralph Eubanks to contribute a foreword that would bring gravitas to the implicit question at hand—Why is this anthology needed? What role can the book play in what Ralph calls “our region’s seemingly constant quest to define itself”? He did a fantastic job, as did Julie Sola in her original illustrations.
While celebrating past contributors, we wanted this anthology to represent forward momentum and future partnerships, so we curated in the other half of the poets. In an ideal world, I’d have issued an open call for submissions, but there wasn’t time—we were on an accelerated track to publish in tandem with the 2018 symposium.
I kept track of the state or area to which the author traced their “southern” affiliation, because I wanted to be sure there was an even balance. I was conscious of seeking gender parity and other matters of inclusivity, which resulted in a stronger and more vibrant array of poems than I’d have had by defaulting to those frequently credited as southern voices. That said, there are people and traditions that I missed. Five years from now, I hope that SFA sets about assembling another volume. In the meantime, I’m proud of the work we’ve done here.
This post was a part of the #UPWeek Blog Tour by member presses of the AAUP. You can visit today’s posts by our colleagues from other presses at their websites here:
University of Manitoba Press, Syracuse University Press, Fordham University Press, Northwestern University Press, University Press of Mississippi, Temple University Press, University of Alberta Press, University of Texas Press, University of Washington Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, University of Illinois Press, Rutgers University Press, Oregon State University Press, Columbia University Press, and University of Toronto Press.