Earlier this week, the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that “documents, studies, and celebrates” Southern food culture, received criticism for a blog post it published. In the post, SFA acknowledged the work of a Baltimore-based group – Operation Help or Hush – which fed protesters.
Jenna Mason wrote in that post:
As we, as individuals, as an organization, and as a nation struggle to do the painful work of addressing the enduring systemic injustices that lead to these present crises, let’s remember that the lens of food also offers us a way to do something tangible and immediate. In the 1950s, Georgia Gilmore helped to sustain the participants of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by selling her food to raise funds for their meetings. Countless other volunteers devoted their time and energy to nourishing Civil Rights activists on the road.
Now Mason has penned a response to the criticism. It contains a message that seems particularly resonant now.
To break bread with someone is to recognize a shared humanity. It is to acknowledge that at the most basic level, we are alike because of the nourishment we need. Organizations like Operation Help or Hush are meeting that most basic need, but their timely provisions also carry a deeper meaning.
These words from Will Campbell’s novel, Brother to a Dragonfly (which Georgeanna Chapman cited in her Southern Food Primer) sum up the intangible significance underneath the Southern tradition of sharing food in troubled times:
“Somehow in rural Southern culture, food is always the first thought of neighbors when there is trouble. That is something they can do and not feel uncomfortable. It is something they do not have to explain or discuss or feel self-conscious about. ‘Here, I brought you some fresh eggs for your breakfast. And here’s a cake. And some potato salad.’ It means, ‘I love you. And I am sorry for what you are going through and I will share as much of your burden as I can.’ And maybe potato salad is a better way of saying it.”