Current Research

My current project stems from my dissertation, Consuming the South: Representations of Taste, Place, and Agriculture, which emerged out of research on the ways that representations of agriculture have promoted produce and place in and beyond the American South since the late-nineteenth century. 

Examining advertisements, art, events, and objects surrounding North Carolina tobacco, Virginia peanuts, Florida oranges, and South Carolina rice, I explore how various stakeholders and communities constructed ideas of the region through its agricultural products. Within the project, I conceptualize "multisensory terroir" to examine the ways that representations encourage purchasers to both physically and culturally consume southern products. In so doing, I expand on the ways that terroir (a French term for taste of place, often used in relation to food and wine) offers a framework for understanding the experienced and imagined sensory qualities of representations of food as imagined proxies for place. By reconstructing how companies packaged their products for national buyers, my project strengthens the existing scholarship on foodways that focuses on visual and material culture. I also consider the localized lives of these products, examining how southerners creatively contributed to and contested the meanings associated with agricultural representations. Ultimately, I argue that southern agriculturally based promotional and commemorative processes revolved and, importantly, continue to revolve around the consumption of place itself. 
A gray billboard sits upon a beige and white Italianate building. The sign has a black and white graphic of a bull on the right, and has red neon lighting that reads "OLD BULL"
A figure walks down a street wearing a top top, a peanut-shaped costume covering their face and torso, and holding a cane - they are dressed like "Mr. Peanut." To their right is a truck featuring a McDonald's advertisement with Ronald McDonald.
A sign in front of a snack stand window reads "Sunshine Tree Terrace" in orange text and shows the "Orange Bird" - a character with a citrus orange for a head and green leaves for wings.
Fabric bags of rice are stacked on a display shelf. The bags on the right and left are white with green font, and the bags in the center are yellow with green font. The middle bags are of "Charleston Gold Rice."
The Bull Durham logo (trademarked in 1870) was utilized to simultaneously distinguish the city of Durham, North Carolina and the tobacco sold by W.T. Blackwell and Co. Not only were marketers for the tobacco in the business of trademarking tobacco, they were involved with the process of trademarking ideas of taste. As such, they created a malleable symbol that is still used as a marker of place, even though the tobacco it once branded is no longer in production in the area.

Through an examination of the original sketches of Planters's Mr. Peanut logo, I assert that the well-known figure is a hybrid construction of agricultural pride, aristocratic aspiration, and minstrel imagery through which the company presented a romanticized vision of Virginia peanuts. Mr. Peanut was used to present peanuts as an acceptable snack for white middle-class consumers beyond the southern region that advertisements often evoked.

Oranges have long served as symbols of Florida that promoted touristic leisure alongside and instead of agricultural labor. Depictions of oranges circulated to encourage white Americans to imagine the ease of visiting and relocating to the Sunshine State. This overlap between citrus and tourist industries is evidenced in the creation of the Orange Bird, who was created through a partnership between the Florida Citrus Commission and Walt Disney World, which opened in 1971.

The recent "revival" of Carolina Gold rice is the latest in a long series of efforts to commodify remembrances of South Carolina through representations of its rice landscape. Contemporary artist Jonathan Green painted his Unenslaved series in 2012 and 2013, in which he depicts an alternative history in which Africans and African-descended people live and cultivate rice upon the Lowcountry landscape by choice. In situating his paintings within a longer history of rice, memory, and tourism, they function as forms of subversive memory-work that reclaim rice as a part of African American culture that is intertwined with but not defined by histories of enslavement.
From top to bottom: American Tobacco Campus apartments in Durham, NC, January 2020; A costumed Mr. Peanut at the Virginia Annual Peanut Festival in Emporia, VA, September 2015; The Sunshine Tree Terrace at Walt Disney World, 2019; "Charleston Gold Rice" at the City Market in Charleston, SC, February 2019. All photos by Rachel C. Kirby.