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Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South

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While a luscious layer cake may exemplify the towering glory of southern baking, like everything about the American South, baking is far more complicated than it seems. Rebecca Sharpless here weaves a brilliant chronicle, vast in perspective and entertaining in detail, revealing how three global food traditions—Indigenous American, European, and African—collided with and m While a luscious layer cake may exemplify the towering glory of southern baking, like everything about the American South, baking is far more complicated than it seems. Rebecca Sharpless here weaves a brilliant chronicle, vast in perspective and entertaining in detail, revealing how three global food traditions—Indigenous American, European, and African—collided with and merged in the economies, cultures, and foodways of the South to create what we know as the southern baking tradition. Recognizing that sentiments around southern baking run deep, Sharpless takes delight in deflating stereotypes as she delves into the surprising realities underlying the creation and consumption of baked goods. People who controlled the food supply in the South used baking to reinforce their power and make social distinctions. Who used white cornmeal and who used yellow, who put sugar in their cornbread and who did not have traditional meanings for southerners, as did the proportions of flour, fat, and liquid in biscuits. By the twentieth century, however, the popularity of convenience foods and mixes exploded in the region, as it did nationwide. Still, while some regional distinctions have waned, baking in the South continues to be a remarkable, and remarkably tasty, source of identity and entrepreneurship. Rebecca Sharpless is a professor of history at Texas Christian University. Her most recent book is Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960.


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While a luscious layer cake may exemplify the towering glory of southern baking, like everything about the American South, baking is far more complicated than it seems. Rebecca Sharpless here weaves a brilliant chronicle, vast in perspective and entertaining in detail, revealing how three global food traditions—Indigenous American, European, and African—collided with and m While a luscious layer cake may exemplify the towering glory of southern baking, like everything about the American South, baking is far more complicated than it seems. Rebecca Sharpless here weaves a brilliant chronicle, vast in perspective and entertaining in detail, revealing how three global food traditions—Indigenous American, European, and African—collided with and merged in the economies, cultures, and foodways of the South to create what we know as the southern baking tradition. Recognizing that sentiments around southern baking run deep, Sharpless takes delight in deflating stereotypes as she delves into the surprising realities underlying the creation and consumption of baked goods. People who controlled the food supply in the South used baking to reinforce their power and make social distinctions. Who used white cornmeal and who used yellow, who put sugar in their cornbread and who did not have traditional meanings for southerners, as did the proportions of flour, fat, and liquid in biscuits. By the twentieth century, however, the popularity of convenience foods and mixes exploded in the region, as it did nationwide. Still, while some regional distinctions have waned, baking in the South continues to be a remarkable, and remarkably tasty, source of identity and entrepreneurship. Rebecca Sharpless is a professor of history at Texas Christian University. Her most recent book is Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960.

30 review for Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South

  1. 5 out of 5

    Beth Cato

    I received an advance copy of this book via NetGalley. Baking defines the south--but why? How did cornbread and biscuits come to represent a large chunk of the country and become what we know of as the ultimate in carbohydrate-graced comfort foods? Author Rebecca Sharpless explores the vast, complicated history of baking in the American southeast beginning with Native American tribes (who did indeed bake a lot by making bread using things such as acorn flour), to the arrival of early European exp I received an advance copy of this book via NetGalley. Baking defines the south--but why? How did cornbread and biscuits come to represent a large chunk of the country and become what we know of as the ultimate in carbohydrate-graced comfort foods? Author Rebecca Sharpless explores the vast, complicated history of baking in the American southeast beginning with Native American tribes (who did indeed bake a lot by making bread using things such as acorn flour), to the arrival of early European explorers, to the slave trade and the resultant innovations and influences of the enslaved upon the slavers, to Latin influences largely in Florida and Texas, up to the modern day where the diversity of the world fuses with southern classics. I found the book fascinating and utterly approachable, an academic read that any baking and history buff could dig into and enjoy. I see this as a strong companion book to Michael W. Twitty's The Cooking Gene, which touched on his personal exploration of black and Jewish influences on southern cuisine. Sharpless's book is broader in scope and incredibly inclusive of other influences, and talks not just about ingredients and farming, but major advances in technology from mechanical hand beaters to baking powder to the expansion of powerhouses like Krispy Kreme. Though the scope is broad, it still feels intimate. The author beings in many black voices whose experiences in slavery and afterward were recorded by WPA projects in the 1930s. The love--and sometimes embarrassment--around cornbread is an interesting theme across the centuries, too. Wheat didn't grow well in the south, despite rigorous efforts during colonization. The major reliance was on corn, and how attitudes around that have evolved over time is intriguing and often sad, as poverty and racism often are involved.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    Grain and Fire is a must-read for anyone who loves history and loves baking, though it is probably more geared towards the latter. While I went in expecting the historical narrative to drive the book forward, the middle chapters focused heavily on the development of different baked goods instead. Many, like cornbread, are inherently tied to racial dynamics in the South and serve as a fascinating mirror of historical life, while others can become repetitive when they remain relatively unchanged a Grain and Fire is a must-read for anyone who loves history and loves baking, though it is probably more geared towards the latter. While I went in expecting the historical narrative to drive the book forward, the middle chapters focused heavily on the development of different baked goods instead. Many, like cornbread, are inherently tied to racial dynamics in the South and serve as a fascinating mirror of historical life, while others can become repetitive when they remain relatively unchanged across the years. The first chapter, about Native American bakers, was definitely my favorite and I feel like I gained valuable information about both the time period and the qualities of different flours. The structure - which was chronological but compartmentalized according to different themes - did not work for me, particularly towards the end, but this was largely personal preference and I believe there would have been complications with any organization the author chose. Overall, I found it deeply engaging and I hope the history of baking gains more recognition in the future. Thank you NetGalley and the University of North Carolina Press for giving me an advance copy in exchange for my review!

  3. 4 out of 5

    =^.^= Janet

    Publication date: May 3, 2022 Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review an advanced reader's copy of this book. This in no way affects my review, all opinions are my own. From the publisher, as I do not repeat the contents or story of books in reviews, I let them do it as they do it better than I do 😸. While a luscious layer cake may exemplify the towering glory of southern baking, like everything about the American South, baking is far more complicated than it Publication date: May 3, 2022 Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review an advanced reader's copy of this book. This in no way affects my review, all opinions are my own. From the publisher, as I do not repeat the contents or story of books in reviews, I let them do it as they do it better than I do 😸. While a luscious layer cake may exemplify the towering glory of southern baking, like everything about the American South, baking is far more complicated than it seems. Rebecca Sharpless here weaves a brilliant chronicle, vast in perspective and entertaining in detail, revealing how three global food traditions—Indigenous American, European, and African—collided with and merged in the economies, cultures, and foodways of the South to create what we know as the southern baking tradition. Recognizing that sentiments around southern baking run deep, Sharpless takes delight in deflating stereotypes as she delves into the surprising realities underlying the creation and consumption of baked goods. People who controlled the food supply in the South used baking to reinforce their power and make social distinctions. Who used white cornmeal and who used yellow, who put sugar in their cornbread and who did not have traditional meanings for southerners, as did the proportions of flour, fat, and liquid in biscuits. By the twentieth century, however, the popularity of convenience foods and mixes exploded in the region, as it did nationwide. Still, while some regional distinctions have waned, baking in the South continues to be a remarkable, and remarkably tasty, source of identity and entrepreneurship. Rebecca Sharpless is a professor of history at Texas Christian University. Her most recent book is Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960. Baking is KING AND QUEEN in the south - oh, the biscuits alone I could wax rhapsodically about for days on end. I never thought of the history of baking in the region until reading this book but it is just full of history on so many levels. Now all I want for dinner is chess pie, biscuits, and a hummingbird cake with a side of baked cheese grits - I am a displaced southerner in Canada and this book is the perfect read for me and mom as well as it is well written and full of memories for both of us. The only thing missing is a good wood-fired Montreal bagel ... otherwise, this is the perfect baking history book for both of us. As always, I try to find a reason to not rate with stars as I simply adore emojis (outside of their incessant/never-ending/constant use by "🙏-ed Social Influencer Millennials/#BachelorNation survivors/Tik-Tok and YouTube Millionaires/snowflakes / literally-like-overusers etc. ") on Instagram and Twitter... Get a real job, people!) so let's give it 🥧🧁🍞🍪🎂

  4. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    *This book was received as an Advanced Reader's Copy from NetGalley. Ok, first off, I'm going to start with the fact that this book is rated based on its merit as a historical food book that delves heavily into academic and sociological topics. It is not light reading or even what I would call approachable food history (unless you really, really like the topic). For those of us that are obsessed with the topic, it's great! Grain and Fire explores how baking in the Southern American states morphed *This book was received as an Advanced Reader's Copy from NetGalley. Ok, first off, I'm going to start with the fact that this book is rated based on its merit as a historical food book that delves heavily into academic and sociological topics. It is not light reading or even what I would call approachable food history (unless you really, really like the topic). For those of us that are obsessed with the topic, it's great! Grain and Fire explores how baking in the Southern American states morphed through history, shaped by the people doing the baking (part of the reason I equate this with women's studies as well; while there are male bakers, a good part of history has women doing the baking in multiple fields). As we travel through history, it starts while the South as we even came to know it was forming, its journeys through antebellum and the Civil Rights movements laters, and its current movements in food. This means involving all the people who shaped it, from the indigenous peoples that were there, to the settlers that moved in, the slaves that toiled on the farms, and the families that had to make their way against hardships after the Civil War. Through it, what people were baking and eating is the thread the brings it together. Corn of course. Wheat as well. But anything that was classified as baking was detailed in this book. While it could be somewhat repetitive at times, and as such a bit drier, I still learned quite a bit. It definitely picked up in the second half of the book, and I really enjoyed the section on current baking trends and wish that section had even been a bit larger since it went all too quick while reading. It was more approachable as well, and had the whole book been written in that concise method (which may have been difficult due to the nature of history) I think it would have opened up a wider audience for this book. While this is a book about food, given the timeframe and topics, it is also a book about race, social movements, and other human topics. Which makes it a valuable read. Definitely for the lover of all things food history. Review by M. Reynard 2021

  5. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    Originally posted on my blog: Nonstop Reader. Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South is a well written, layman accessible, historical survey of the culture and baking heritage in the southern USA by Dr. Rebecca Sharpless. Due out 28th June 2022 from the University of North Carolina Press, it's 344 pages and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats. Dr. Sharpless has taken what could've been the tweediest, driest, most academic treatise and made it both accessible an Originally posted on my blog: Nonstop Reader. Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South is a well written, layman accessible, historical survey of the culture and baking heritage in the southern USA by Dr. Rebecca Sharpless. Due out 28th June 2022 from the University of North Carolina Press, it's 344 pages and will be available in hardcover and ebook formats. Dr. Sharpless has taken what could've been the tweediest, driest, most academic treatise and made it both accessible and human. The subject matter is admittedly academic, there are enough annotations and chapter notes and bibliography entries to satisfy the staunchest pedant but at the same time, there's a clear and compelling cultural narrative. The chapters are arranged thematically around different types of baking, the societal and economic ties to the different baking traditions from prehistoric indigenous people through to the modern day in a shrouded but mostly unbroken line from one woman's hand down through her daughters' hands to us. This would be a good choice for public or school library acquisition. It would also make a good choice for more formal classroom instruction as a support resource for women's studies, cultural studies, sociology, etc. I found the entire book quite interesting. It is, admittedly, a niche book. The language and format are rigorous and formal. It's definitely not inaccessible for the average reader, but it will take some effort (and I think that's a good thing). Five stars. This is well and deeply researched and engaging. Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Lingonberry

    Grain and Fire explains the history of baking in the American South through the interwoven food cultures of Indigenous peoples, slaves from Africa, and European colonizers. This book does not shy away from addressing the complicated history of the American South. It discusses the ugly side of historic southern food culture, including the slave labor used to harvest crops as well as the forced laborers who baked much of the food in the colonial and antebellum eras. The overarching theme of the wo Grain and Fire explains the history of baking in the American South through the interwoven food cultures of Indigenous peoples, slaves from Africa, and European colonizers. This book does not shy away from addressing the complicated history of the American South. It discusses the ugly side of historic southern food culture, including the slave labor used to harvest crops as well as the forced laborers who baked much of the food in the colonial and antebellum eras. The overarching theme of the work is about how baking in the American South was intricately tied to both race and class. This is quite a tome. It seems to be intended for people doing research on the subject, rather than a light read. I found it interesting that in the introduction the author mentions she is not sentimental about food and “unsympathetic” to those who are, which seems to be a strange statement in a book about the history of baking in the South. The chapters are a little choppy and read like a collection of essays, rather than a flowing history. I was also disappointed to find that in a book about baking, not a single recipe is included, not even an historic one. I feel like this was a big oversight, especially as each chapter is named after a southern baked good. It is a meticulously cited, scholarly source for information on the history of baking in the South, but not a book for a casual reader interested in southern baking. Thank you to Net Galley and the University of North Carolina Press for the ARC.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Abby

    Over the last few years, I’ve been looking for a history of southern (United States) baking, but have come up empty handed. That’s why I was excited to receive an advanced reader’s copy from the University of North Carolina Press and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I first read Rebecca Sharpless in college. Her book “Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens” was assigned reading for a history course. I enjoyed the book and was looking forward to reading her new one. It didn’t disappoint. Th Over the last few years, I’ve been looking for a history of southern (United States) baking, but have come up empty handed. That’s why I was excited to receive an advanced reader’s copy from the University of North Carolina Press and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I first read Rebecca Sharpless in college. Her book “Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens” was assigned reading for a history course. I enjoyed the book and was looking forward to reading her new one. It didn’t disappoint. The book begins centuries ago and moves readers into the current age by the last page. It was thorough and informative. As a fan of both baking and history, I found the book very enjoyable, but those looking for a quick read will be disappointed. I wouldn’t recommend it to a friend looking for a new book for a vacation unless they were a baking fan, but I would recommend it for anyone wanting to better understand the social implications food carries and how the baking methods in the South have evolved over the years. Overall, it’s an informative book that fills a void with a much needed account of how a region changed from the pre-colonial era to the 21st century through the baking methods and trends of the period.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Karen Hancock

    Have you ever wondered how baking came about? If you are a foodie, or a baker, you’ll definitely want to read Rebecca Sharpless’ Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South . Most of us love the wonderful baked goods in the south, and this is a history of how those items came about. Although this doesn’t include recipes, it has loads of information that will be helpful to everyone who bakes and also everyone who loves history. The book is composed of several essays covering subject Have you ever wondered how baking came about? If you are a foodie, or a baker, you’ll definitely want to read Rebecca Sharpless’ Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South . Most of us love the wonderful baked goods in the south, and this is a history of how those items came about. Although this doesn’t include recipes, it has loads of information that will be helpful to everyone who bakes and also everyone who loves history. The book is composed of several essays covering subjects such as millstones and grinding grains, early ovens, hoecakes and other southern baking specialties like chiffon pie, jellyrolls, and cakes. It also includes regions in the south where special baking has evolved. This is a great book to curl up in the corner and read. It is well-written and the subjects are fascinating; readers will love learning. Although there are no colored photographs, there are illustrations and black and white historical photographs. They add to the book and complement the historical aspects of the book. Sharpless has definitely done her research. Anyone who loves to read historical accounts about food should definitely pick this book up and read it cover to cover. Special thanks to NetGalley for supplying a review copy of this book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Violet Laflamme

    I thought this book was a great read. I saw another review that said the writing was not very approachable due to being quite academic, but I didn't really feel that way at all. Perhaps that's because I spend a lot of time reading academic texts, or because I enjoy food history a lot, but either way, I'd say this book is not unapproachable for the average person. One thing that this book did very well was to ensure that marginalized voices got a huge amount of "screen time" in the telling of how I thought this book was a great read. I saw another review that said the writing was not very approachable due to being quite academic, but I didn't really feel that way at all. Perhaps that's because I spend a lot of time reading academic texts, or because I enjoy food history a lot, but either way, I'd say this book is not unapproachable for the average person. One thing that this book did very well was to ensure that marginalized voices got a huge amount of "screen time" in the telling of how Southern baking came to be. Indigenous, African, and European techniques came together to create something unique, and Sharpless tells us how it all happened, and how it happened differently for different groups. What I really would have liked was more information on contemporary Southern baking, as it seemed to appear in a rushed way towards the end. There was a missed opportunity here to highlight more voices that are relevant today, though credit where it is due, it is not as though there is none of that in this book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mariama Thorlu-Bangura

    "Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South" is an interesting food history book. However, it doesn't just provide the evolution of baking; it also incorporates the history of how the South itself was settled, from the earliest days when the people living there were Native Americans to present-day Southern society. I found the book to be engaging, particularly all the descriptions of various recipes used and the unique ingredients that went into them. It shows true human ingenuity "Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South" is an interesting food history book. However, it doesn't just provide the evolution of baking; it also incorporates the history of how the South itself was settled, from the earliest days when the people living there were Native Americans to present-day Southern society. I found the book to be engaging, particularly all the descriptions of various recipes used and the unique ingredients that went into them. It shows true human ingenuity and, in some cases, perseverance and self-preservation during difficult times in Southern history. If you want a book that creates a unique spin on food and American history, then this is the book for you Thank you to NetGalley and University of North Carolina Press for this advanced copy, which I voluntarily read and reviewed. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    I read this as an ARC from Netgalley.com. Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South by Rebecca Sharpless is a well written account of the history of food and baking in, as the title says, the American South. I enjoy reading about this kind of history, and this book goes into a wonderful amount of detail, not only about the food, but why and how those foods developed. Sharpless was also careful to point out all the contributions Native Americans, enslaved peoples, and women (or a c I read this as an ARC from Netgalley.com. Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South by Rebecca Sharpless is a well written account of the history of food and baking in, as the title says, the American South. I enjoy reading about this kind of history, and this book goes into a wonderful amount of detail, not only about the food, but why and how those foods developed. Sharpless was also careful to point out all the contributions Native Americans, enslaved peoples, and women (or a combination thereof) made to the physical work and creativity of food cultivation and cooking. If you're interested in this topic I highly recommend this book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lingonberry

  13. 4 out of 5

    Myra

  14. 5 out of 5

    Abby

  15. 4 out of 5

    Emily Rose

  16. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kris - My Novelesque Life

  18. 4 out of 5

    A. Marie

  19. 5 out of 5

    Alicia

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  21. 5 out of 5

    emmy

  22. 5 out of 5

    Tyler

  23. 5 out of 5

    Serena B

  24. 4 out of 5

    Eric

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rivkah

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mercy

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jodi

  28. 5 out of 5

    celtic bookgirl

  29. 5 out of 5

    Hermione

  30. 5 out of 5

    Allison Bernard

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