Thursday, August 8, 2013

Southern vocabulary

An attack of curiosity had me googling the use of the word “mess” to see if definitions of the southern food term matched my experience.

Most definitions I found online referred to a serving, usually of foods not easily measured, such as a “mess of greens.” My parents and friends and relatives who farmed or had a garden created my memories of that phrase. In season, they would share.

We were blessed by their bounty. They would bring by a “mess of greens,” specifically a mess of collards, turnips, or mustard greens. In the summer they would share a mess of field peas, butter beans, corn, tomatoes, okra or squash or invite us to come pick our own. And they would help us pick. The amount was always more than enough for our family of four.

When they shared with a larger family, the amount was still referred to as a “mess” and was more than enough for that larger-sized family, too.

My google search also turned up reviews of a scholarly article on food and women in the south from about the 1870s through the early decades of the1900s. In A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food, the article’s author Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche Engelhard reports on what her research revealed about how food’s journey from garden to plate shaped gender ideals and women’s experiences.

The time frame preceded the early experiences of my mother and her sisters in Mississippi, but a number of phrases and concepts are still part of my vocabulary. The little I read prompted me to try accessing the Google Book, a first for me. Reading on the computer usually tires me and my aging eyes out.

I find that being a 20th century woman faced with 21st century technology is challenging, but I’m so happy to be here with an opportunity to explore another medium for the written word.

So far I have relished this scholar's writing style. 

Here is a sample: "The phrase 'a mess of,' meaning a serving of food, a portion of a dish, especially of vegetables, is surprisingly ancient. The Oxford English Dictionary dates its origins as a phrase to the 1300s, even while acknowledging that its use today is increasingly 'US regional'--OED-speak for southern. In the South in which women of this project used the term, calling a serving 'a mess' worked particularly well for foods that reveled in their disorderliness--leaves of greens going in every direction with their potlikker in the bottom of a big black pot . . ."

The disorderly vegetables alone will keep me reading!


  1. I had never heard of this till I got married and moved to the south. Up north, a mess of anything was an insult!

  2. I agree with Ginny. Thanks for the information.

  3. I had no idea that "mess" had ancient origins. I have southern roots and will use it when talking about veggie dishes.
    Interesting post.

  4. daddy loved a mess of fish or a mess of collards.. mess of was and still is in my vocabulary... and i forgot about potliker... yum....

  5. I'm always learning something new from your posts! Very interesting.

    I'd never given much thought to where the term 'mess' came from, even though I've heard it all my life, especially from older folks.

    Glad to see you're back blogging. I missed you :)