I’m an outsider to the South. I grew up under the big skies of Montana with mountains always visible in the distance. I moved to Norman, Oklahoma for college and to me, it felt Southern. Compared to my mountains, the land was flat as far as the eye could see, the air thick with humidity. Locals spoke with a twang, politely punctuating sentences with yes ma’am and yes sir. They ate okra, catfish, and chicken fried steak. But I was quickly corrected. This wasn’t the South. Maybe it was the Midwest. Perhaps it was part of Texoma. But it wasn’t purely Southern.
The Southern Foodways Alliance introduced me to many souths—the old south and the new, souths local and global, nostalgically imagined and future focused—first through a graduate research conference in 2015 and again during their 2019 summer field trip. Comprised of two days full of talks, meals, fellowship, poetry, and art, this year’s trip met in Bentonville, Arkansas.
With just under 50,000 people, Bentonville and the cities surrounding it, stretching southward to Fayetteville, anchor Northwest Arkansas. This corner of the state has boomed and blossomed due to the historical presence and sustained economic investment of large corporations: Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt trucking, and most prominently, Walmart. While knowingly committing many wrongs against their workers and the environment, Walmart undeniably influenced this place.
Bentonville has grown into a city of great restaurants, a twice weekly farmers market, a world-renowned coffee importer and roaster, and miles of bike trails. As Angie Maxwell shared, Walmart has infused the University of Arkansas with much needed funds, not for ego-fueled named buildings, but for dissertation fellowships, child care services, and a new School of Art. Since 2011, Bentonville has also been home to Crystal Bridges, one of the nation’s best, most innovative, and most inclusive museums of American art (founded by Alice Walton) where admission is always free, sponsored by Walmart.
How should we interpret a place and its food, however alluring and thriving, that has been sustained and perfected by private funds, by resources that have been largely concentrated in a small area without supporting the rest of the state?
This question proved troubling and difficult to answer, but such narratives of progress and problems are not the only ones that shape life and food in Northwest Arkansas. In prose as delightful to hear as to read, Jay Jennings of the Oxford American introduced us to the state’s history and culture. Unlike Louisiana, which Angie Maxwell described as “culturally rich, but closed,” Northwest Arkansas is a place of fluidity, hybridity, and change. Cherisse Jones-Branch reminded us this has long been a place of catfish and barbecue, and likely always will be, but of so much more too.
Jeannie Whayne taught us of nineteenth-century Italian immigrants, who worked Sunnyside Plantation and began the Tontitown Grape Festival and the enduring dish of spaghetti with red gravy alongside fried chicken. Since the 1970s, this area has become home to significant Hmong, Marshallese, and Latino communities. Today’s shifting demographics have brought tortillerias, halal butchers, specialty grocers, restaurants, and markets full of gorgeous produce, which all stimulate new Arkansan foodways.
Culture here was shaped not only by those who arrived, but also by those who stayed. Jones-Branch told us the early-twentieth-century stories of the rural black women in Northwest Arkansas, too often overlooked, who didn’t migrate North, but who remained and organized “everybody” through their activism. Though in-home demonstrations provided an excuse to gather together, these women were interested in “more than just tomatoes,” motivated by poll taxes, reproductive rights, and the health and safety of their communities.
And yet, Jennifer Jensen Wallach reminded us that food and politics are not separate endeavors. Food is politics. “You can enjoy food in a very thoughtless way,” she said, but once you engage thoughtfully, you must balance that joy with everything else. In her history of Arkansas foodways, lyrically titled “From Unicorns to Plant Based Meats,” Wallach forced us to wrestle with how Tyson literally delivered the Republican prosperity promise of “a chicken in every pot,” as it supplied affordable and abundant whole birds, breasts, and nuggets to tables across the country. Tyson altered not just local diets, but national food culture, at the same time that it irrevocably affected the environment, workers, and global businesses practices.
Drawing connections between past, present, and future, Wallach drew our attention to Tyson’s more recent efforts to develop plant-based meats. Asserting that our current foodways are unsustainable, Wallach stressed that we need a new paradigm, a transformation in what we eat and how we produce it. It remains to be seen if and how plant-based meats might provide a remedy. Changes to our diets are, and will be, inherently painful said Wallach, given the myriad ways that food shapes and reflects our identities, ways of life, and senses of place. The more we read, the more we know. The more we know, the more it hurts, the more we must do something.
The SFA provides a space for these stories and conversations, but in ways more folksy and quirky than a traditional academic conference. As but one example, our days began with a benediction from poet and Arkansas native Patricia Spears Jones. When asked if she was a preacher, she chuckled, “Oh hell no,” but she nevertheless prepared us for our days of thinking and eating in a deliberate and soulful way. We need such inspiration as we face a future of food that is strained and uncertain.
Such discussions struck me as special given the context of a summer field trip. I listened to these talks surrounded by dozens and dozens of people, folks not just interested in a weekend of gastrotourism and indulgent eating, but in learning to critically unpack these complex issues. As their craft-made podium art decrees, the SFA is about “working together” toward something good and lasting. I found a sustaining dose of that with them in Bentonville.
Image Credits: Emily Contois, 2019