Rebecca Sharpless is Professor of History at Texas Christian University. This interview is based on her new book, Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2022).
JF: What led you to write Grain and Fire?
RS: I decided to write Grain and Fire after I discovered that no one had written a history of southern baking. I thought it would be interesting to look at one particular kind of cooking, especially one that people sentimentalize so much.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Grain and Fire?
RS: Grain and Fire argues that people in the southern United States have used baked goods to structure their social relationships as well as for nutrition and celebration. Who ate what kind of baked goods, and who decided that, has mattered a great deal in maintaining southern social boundaries, including race and class.
JF: Why do we need to read Grain and Fire?
RS: You need to read Grain and Fire to understand how southerners have used baked goods to order their society. You also need to read it to appreciate the lengths people have gone to get baked goods over the millenia. From growing and milling the grain to mixing and baking the finished product, a lot of work went into each piece of bread or cake or pie.
JF: Why and when did you become an American historian?
RS: There are a couple of ways to answer that question. One is that my father and his older sisters were great storytellers, and I was the kid who listened. Another answer is that I, as an English major, started working as a student transcriber in the Baylor University Institute for Oral History in 1977. I loved the Institute’s work of recording stories from the past, and I took the position of office coordinator there when I finished my bachelor’s degree. My passion for social history grew throughout my master’s program, which I did while I worked full time at the Institute. When I decided to do my PhD, I knew I would be a social historian. And I have been extraordinarily fortunate that that has been the case. I directed the Institute from 1993 to 2006, and I have taught US history at TCU since 2006. I could have happily been a historian of other parts of the world, but the professors who most influenced me were Americanists, and I followed their tutelage.
JF: What is your next project?
RS: I have returned to the project that I set aside to write Grain and Fire. It’s an economic history of North Texas entitled “People of the Wheat: Commodity and Culture in the North Texas Borderland.” It looks at the role of wheat growing and processing in the development of the area between Fort Worth-Dallas and the Oklahoma border. When people think of Texas, they think first of cattle and then cotton, but wheat played a significant part in the creation of North Texas, which resembles the Midwest in a lot of ways rather than the South or the West.
JF: Thanks, Rebecca!