November 15, 2011

The Southern Culinary Bible: A History of Southern Living

Once upon a time I devoted hours to reading and writing about Southern food culture and Southern Living magazine. Exactly four professors read my giant final report and let me have a master’s degree (woohoo) and put it in at a nice j-library in Missouri. I am resurrecting the best parts of said giant report in a more digestible blog version.

Southern women love them some Southern Living recipes. Millions of then read the magazine. They cook from it. They write love letters to it. They trust it, they revere it, it is part of who they are as Southerners, as women, as cooks.
My mom's SL-filled kitchen bookshelf.
In the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Dianne Young calls Southern Living “one of the South’s self-proclaimed culinary bibles,” and Patricia Gantt refers to the magazine as “that great dame of southern cookery.” Food is essential to the Southern Living but is only part of the larger history of the iconic Southern lifestyle magazine.

In 1966 Southern Living was born as vehicle for emphasizing Southern identity for publisher Progressive Farmer’s non-farm circulation. Beginning in the 1930s, the region had become increasingly urban and nonagrarian with a diversification of manufacturing and of agriculture. As the region progressed toward mainstream America and a global economy, Southerners faced an identity crisis and looked for reaffirmations of Southerness. However, after the Jim Crow era, the South no longer could use the North as a strong contrast upon which to draw their identity, so they exaggerated their small differences in distinctiveness.

The magazine was launched to serve a new reader divorced from rural roots and to celebrate the white Southern lifestyle at a time when Southerners faced negative perceptions in the media and the stress of change during the Civil Rights Movement. According to Southern historian James Cobb, Southern Living became “the most convenient fig leaf” to cover Southerners’ “cultural nakedness” after being stripped of their Jim Crow identity.

Cobb goes on to say that the magazine today serves as a “virtual guidebook to the upscale southern good life” message. The magazine has become a staple of life for middle to upper class white Southerners by providing both literal and figurative “comfort food.” He states its message is, “Never miss an opportunity to host a brunch and remember that a meal without cheese grits or a broccoli casserole is like a liquor cabinet without Jack Daniels or Maker’s Mark.”

Historian, writer and journalism professor Nicholas Lemann describes the essentials for affluent white southerners as including a “‘totally planned community’ around a golf course, cheese grits and honey-baked ham at the pre-game brunch,’ and of course, ‘a five year subscription to Southern Living."

Before solidifying their community and editorial niche, early issues of Southern Living attempted to tackle the problems of Southern cities and speak broadly to women’s interests with stories such as “The World of Whigs” and “Selecting the First Bra.” The first November issued displayed a Thanksgiving dinner in outer space. By November 1967, the editors were beginning to discover the style for which they would become known. That month the first classic, two-page spread of food ran. The spread displayed a pecan pie sitting among whole and shelled pecans, uncracked eggs, an iron nutcracker in the shape of a dog and a kerosene lamp. According to early editors Gary McCalla and John Logue, it all “looked like a painting by one of the early Dutch masters.

By the summer of 1968, McCalla and Logue realized that the magazine must stand on its merit after several years of surviving on its presence as the South’s own magazine. In July the editors wrote out “White Paper,” which outlined the focus of the magazine from that time onward. The magazine would only publish “what it understood” in a seriously departmentalized fashion: travel, food, gardening and general stories that were “so uniquely Southern that the most obvious magazine to publish it would be Southern Living.” More generally, the publication would speak to young, affluent, urban families to “illustrate aspects of living which are uniquely Southern” using extensive color photography to show South’s beauty and brighten the magazine.

The beauty of the photography became essential to the Southern Living formula. The first “classic Southern Living food/travel shot” ran in May 1967 and displayed freshly caught shrimp on dark net with a boat and water in softer focus. Seeing the power of this spread, the editors realized that, like LIFE, photography would become key to their success, and McCalla was knowledgeable about photography and visual impact of magazine.

“I think the role of photography boiled down to this,” McCalla wrote, “whatever subject we were publishing, until it looked good in the magazine we were in trouble. Southern Living is a visual experience an and emotional experience, to go along with its practical information and its more lyrical writing.” It was this display of photography that showed off the beautiful side of the South and its scenery, home and people that became its trademark.

Reader recipes also became key to the magazine. In 1974, only 25 percent of recipes were from readers, but after publishing a small editorial box in the food section requesting recipes, readers began to send in a flood of them, up to 4,464 in one month. During her tenure as food editor from 1970 to 1990, Jean Liles collected more than 500,00 recipes, and during the 22 years McCalla was editor the magazine published more than 20,000 of them.

In 1985 media giant Time, Inc. purchased Southern Living’s publisher, Southern Progress Corporation, for $480 million. For many years, the Birmingham office maintained life as it had been in its new woodsy, landscaped headquarters, full of waterfalls and test kitchens almost as beautiful as the pages of the magazine it produced.

Today many Southern Living fans still love it. Others I have talked to say the magazine has changed, that it’s not what it used to be; some say it’s become just another version of Better Homes and Gardens and that they don’t like it. I still enjoy reading it as a 20-30 minute escape into the beauty of the South, to get warm and cozy feelings about what I love about Southern culture and to find a few new recipes to try. From working there, I know many new staff have come on board, and many more have left (which is a story for another article).

Things have changed at the magazine, in the media landscape, with food and in Southern culture, but I think there is much in store for the future Southern Living to celebrate Southern life. What I do hope is that the editors continue the legacy Logue and McCalla and the editorial formula that led to its success.

“We’re a magazine about the South, for Southerners, and by Southerners; that’s what has made us work,” McCalla wrote. “Our readers think of us as a family, as ‘their kind of people.’”

Further Reading
Lauder, Tracy. (2007, July). The Southern Living Solution: How The Progressive Farmer Launched a Magazine and a Legacy. The Alabama Review, 60(3), 186-221. (I have a PDF of this if you ever want to read it.)

Logue, John and McCalla, Gary. (2000, September) Life at Southern Living: A Sort of Memoir. Louisiana State University Press. (I have a copy of the book available for borrowing.)

More from Madoline’s masters project on Southern Living and southern food:


  1. This was so informative Madoline! I've always wanted to know the history of my work next-door-neighbor. How interesting that one of Southern Living's founding strategies was to provide a much-needed distraction from the Jim Crow era. I foresee myself returning to this post for future reference.

  2. Nice job, Madoline! Thanks for reminding us of the early goals of SL--it's good to remember those. I'd like to read the Alabama review article. Possible to email it to me? Donna Florio

  3. Donna, sure I can email you the article. I'll dig it up on my hard drive and send it your way. Thanks for reading my post!


Pretty please share your thoughts!