It started with a simple enough inquiry about mason jars. A coworker asked me where to get a few so of course, being the Southern belle that I am, I asked what the use of the jars would be for. Her answer was frank. She wanted to make parfaits. Parfaits of all things. Think of the history of the mason jar. Once a proud Southern staple that held everything from flowers to nuts and bolts to necessary canned goods that could sustain a family through the unpredictable winters. Now, they’re the subject of many a Pinterest board about all the fun, crafty things you can do with the versatile glass vessel. So with all that in mind, let’s talk about cultural gentrification, fads and all the tools a Southern lady has in her handbook that are now for some reason very in-style.
Awesome, let’s get started.
So, of course, I had to talk about this matter with fellow Southern black woman and cultural anthropologist, Amber. We had a lengthy talk about how mason jars became suddenly so chic. I remember growing up with mason jars. We received canned goods from family members. We treasured gifts of apple butter, lemon curd, chow chow and bread and butter pickles. My grandfather canned foods. His family canned foods. I learned how to make jams and jellies and curds as I got older and wanted to keep the produce I was getting from the farmer’s market a little longer despite the fickle seasons of South Texas. It was just something good Southern folk did. (Not to say that Yankees didn’t ever can, pickle or preserve.)
Now suddenly, something that was a utility and was therefore kept cheap and easy to access because people used them for everything suddenly became rather expensive. And while I do love all the colors mason jars come in now, they’re far more costly than they ever were and are harder to find as people use them for country weddings, vision boards and to literally hold just parfaits. And I still remember many a Yankee friend question why we kept our flowers in empty pickle jars during my youth despite now these same Yankee friends asking “Where do you get Ball Mason Jars?” like Google doesn’t exist.
This was a conversation had at one of the halcyon symbols of gentrification to us as Southern black people: an overpriced barbecue restaurant. Now the cultural and social conditions that made BBQ a Southern staple could be its own post but I want to talk about a restaurant Amber and I went to: The Granary. It’s a nice place. It’s in the new booming area that is the Pearl Brewery and it has some decent barbecue. But good Lord, it’s expensive. 20 or so dollars for a plate with portions that were small for what a Southern lady expects out of a BBQ place. The sides were decent, too. The pickles were sweet (I like sweet dills, Amber does not). The bread was delicious since it was made with buttermilk. The sausage was good, the brisket was fine but the hitch was the collard greens. Oh the collard greens. Amber ordered them and immediately turned up a frown. She begged me to taste them and I did. They were sweet. Very sweet. Greens aren’t meant to be sweet.
We deduced that there had to be sugar and the sweet dill pickle brine in the vat of greens. Now, sugar is an additive in some recipes for collard greens to cut some of the bitterness (Amber says this is a sin but I know at least one family recipe calls for some sugar to make green palatable). And again, the food history of collard greens and other foods brought out of the terrible burden that was slavery but I digress. We came to the idea that the sugar was added to the greens at The Granary as if someone saw a recipe in an old Southern cook book and didn’t make any changes at all. We all know many Southern recipes may say add ⅛ cup of sugar but that doesn’t always actually mean ⅛ cup of sugar. Feel free to ask my friend Taylor about the pain of Southern recipes. I could never give him a solid measurement of how sugar was in my famous lemon meringue pie recipe because I never had a solid measurement. It always changed based on taste, how I felt and what the pie needed. Another great culinary example of this is “bone broth”. My new-age auntie explained to me that bone broth is just a rich stock made by exploting the gelatin and collagen in the bones of many animals while making stock or broth. To which I then quickly corrected her: “Oh, so the way our ancestors have been making broth for generations.” and she could only simply nod. The “faces” of the bone broth movement have been mostly Paleo Diet white women which is quiet ironic. It was their desire for clearer broths and stocks that lead to bones not being used in the stock-making process. Additionally, there was this fun little add-on to Google Chrome that changed any instance of “bone broth” to “hot ham water” since that’s what it was essentially. There was nothing different about it and as a cultural artifact, despite it’s now apparently health “benefits” it isn’t new and to charge several dollars for a jar just because it’s being rediscovered is disrespectful to the many home cooks who had to keep the bones in broth because that may be the only piece of meat for their family for weeks or even months.
Let’s get back to gentrification. Gentrification is about taking something that was typically accessible to the poor or culturally disenfranchised and making them pop culture and thus driving up the price of them. Suddenly those old tennent homes in the Bronx are oh so chic which is driving out the old rent-controlled tenants who have called those home for decades. Like me with my mason jars, now because they’re en vogue, it’s difficult to find cheap mason jars anymore for the rose jam I make in the summer. My other main concern with cultural gentrification and appropriation is the separation from the roots of these cultural staples.
I’m a proud Southern lady but I am also critically aware that being proud of being Southern is a complex legacy. There are plenty of Southern artifacts that cannot be rehabilitation. A sprawling plantation home was still once a plantation. The food many Southerners hold near and dear came from, started with and were perpetuated by disenfranchised people at minimum and at max were created out of the necessities and horrors of chattel slavery. They are distinct, valid and belong to another culture and the only difference between homage and ripping off is respect. I’m not angry at The Granary for overcharging on small portions of fairly decent barbecue. I know it was from a place of respect. The recipes came from a place of trying to honor the memories of the South.
It’s difficult to take back parts of Southern culture and remove them from the fact that they were often done out of necessity. Black women learned to sew because they had to because clothing was difficult to afford. White women learned canning and pickling to keep crops safe for uncertain times. Poor black folks created barbecue to use up less than ideal parts of animals because that’s what they were given. Taking those cultural artifacts, jacking up the price and making them fancy is literally losing the point. And when an outsider removes the cultural heritage and point of an artifact like using mason jars for just overnight chia seed pudding while not acknowledging the history, trials and struggles that came with those artifacts: again, the point is being lost.
So by now I’m sure you’re asking a few questions. Am I just a bitter Southern princess lamenting over the increased price of a mason jar and the rise of basic bitch Pinterest boards that promote literally gluing cotton balls to pinecones to bring “The South indoors”? Probably. But is there a larger conservation to be had about changing trends, appropriation and being aware of the cultural roots of many common artifacts? Yes, for sure.