Grain and Fire

A History of Baking in the American South

By Rebecca Sharpless

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 29 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6836-9
    Published: June 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6837-6
    Published: March 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5573-2
    Published: March 2022

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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 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 had 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.

About the Author

Rebecca Sharpless is 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.

For more information about Rebecca Sharpless, visit the Author Page.


“Through the analysis of multiple documents–from cookbooks, travel journals, oral testimonies, and government records to food advertainment–Sharpless offers a history of southern baking . . . that does not sugarcoat the hard realities of colonization, slavery, racism, classism, and the commercial monopoly of the food industry.”–Journal of Southern History

"Grain and Fire is a masterpiece, putting the author in the same company with influential, award- winning food scholars such as Marcie Cohen Ferris, Donna R. Gabaccia, John T. Edge, Michael W. Twitty, John Egerton, and Robert Ji-Song Ku. The book belongs in the pantheon of scholarly works on food history and critical food studies."—Southwestern Historical Quarterly

"A diverse and entertaining analysis of the history of food and baking in the American South.”–Journal of American History

“Sharpless’s attention to the materiality of baking, including the ingredients, the technologies, and the labor involved, further emphasizes the importance of the tradition throughout the South. . . . Sharpless demonstrates the power generated when grain meets fire and southerners bake.”–North Carolina Historical Review

"As Sharpless traces the influences of Indigenous, American, and African techniques, she reveals the hidden meaning behind everything from the proportion of ingredients to the ingredients themselves."—Food Tank

"Within these eight chapters, Sharpless makes a persuasive case for why baking matters and how it both unites and divides people. . . . Recommended."—CHOICE