Excerpts for African American Foodways : Explorations of History and Culture

African American Foodways


University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03185-4


Introduction: Watching Soul Food  Anne L. Bower.............................................................................................1
1. Food Crops, Medicinal Plants, and the Atlantic Slave Trade  Robert L. Hall...............................................................17
2. Soul Food as Cultural Creation  William C. Whit..........................................................................................45
3. Excavating the South's African American Food History  Anne Yentsch.......................................................................59
4. From Fiction to Foodways: Working at the Intersections of African American Literary and Culinary Studies  Doris Witt.....................101
5. Chickens and Chains: Using African American Foodways to Understand Black Identities  Psyche Williams-Forson..............................126
6. Recipes for Respect: Black Hospitality Entrepreneurs before World War I  Rafia Zafar.....................................................139
7. Recipes for History: The National Council of Negro Women's Five Historical Cookbooks  Anne L. Bower......................................153


Watching Soul Food

Anne L. Bower

A steaming pot of greens flavored with pieces of smoky meat, a pile of fluffy biscuits or a bubbling peach cobbler, chicken fried to irresistible crispness or stewed with dumplings, creamy, spicy sweet potato pie-these are some of the dishes people picture when African American food or its supposed equivalent, soul food, is mentioned. The history and cultural traditions behind and around this food are all too often forgotten, however. My hope is that the seven essays in African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture will help readers see how explorations of food history and its intersections with other historical developments yield important understanding of African American culture. As the essays and the careful documentation that accompanies them demonstrate, soul food is just a part of the huge topic we call African American foodways.

* * *

George Tillman's Soul Food (1997) uses particular food and foodways to take us into the lives of a modern Chicago family. Although entertaining and heartwarming, the movie presents only a partial glance at the ways in which African American food impacts how people know themselves and their world. Analyses, explorations, and histories such as those provided in African American Foodways help put a narrative like Soul Food into a larger, more realistic, and more complex framework.

In Tillman's film Sunday dinner is a ritual that brings a sometimes fractious African American family together. Writer-director Tillman explains that in his own family, such dinners had a unifying force: "All my aunts and uncles, plus ministers and, sometimes, even homeless people would come over for my grandmother's food." He came to understand that his grandmother was providing much more than a delicious meal and a time for the family to gather. "There was always a lot going on!" he states provocatively.

As the film opens the camera presents a collage of family photos while the song "Mama, I Love You" plays. The song is a paean to women's central role in holding African American culture together. Intercut with the photo collection, which gives a sense of the Joseph family's long history, is a bright shot of the laden dinner table and another of the family gathered around that table. This table will play a central role in the film, surrounded by ten or more people when all is well, hosting just a few to represent the family's disintegration when its matriarch is no longer in control, and empty at the nadir of the family's unity. Once the movie's narrative begins, Tillman uses a voice-over by schoolboy Ahmad (Brandon Hammond) to introduce a familiar, reassuring, and somewhat stereotypical concept. Ahmad says that his grandmother, Big Mama Jo (Irma P. Hall) "stops arguments" with her green beans, fried chicken, and other traditional foods. Big Mama is the matriarch who makes sure that Sunday dinner brings her family together each week. As Ahmad explains, "During slavery times we didn't have a lot to celebrate, so cooking became how we expressed our love for each other." He has learned that these weekly meals are about "more than just eating," and it is he who, after his grandmother's death, maneuvers the family back together for another Sunday dinner.

As the essays in African American Foodways demonstrate, there's always "more than just eating," involved in trying to understand the origins and meanings of African American food. Of course, when it comes to food, each essayist, and each reader, too, feels the influence of family and local community and of such factors as where we grew up and where we live now along with particular values about nutrition, ecology, or economics. For this reason, African American Foodways provides more than one essay on the history of African American foods, more than one essay that discusses that ubiquitous "sign" of soul food-fried chicken. Freud told us that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and maybe there are times when a piece of fried chicken is just a piece of fried chicken. For those concerned with the study of African American food, however, it is important to note that social and economic influences, changing women's roles, culinary history, health concerns, race, and class issues are also part of the meal.

In Soul Food, the dishes that show up on Big Mama's table for her family (and movie viewers) to savor include fried chicken and/or chicken and dumplings, deep-fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, string beans, collard greens, black-eyed peas with ham hocks, peach cobbler, and sweet corn bread. Chitterlings are mentioned, shown in passing, but never discussed. Those doing the cooking are the women-Big Mama and her three daughters. Of the daughters only one is given consistent praise as a cook: Ahmad's mother, Maxine. Terri, an ambitious lawyer and the family's financial anchor, is teased for being a bad cook; Bird, the youngest, who has started her own beauty shop, has mixed success in the kitchen. Occasionally a man helps out, but he is usually sent off to watch football if enough women's hands are available.

The production of a family's emotional stability, as well as the making of food such as greens, corn bread, and fried catfish, have traditionally been associated with women. The matriarchal role exemplified by Big Mama includes the production of meals that hold families and communities together, the oral communication of food traditions and history that can nourish the body and the soul, and the emotional labor of helping family members with disagreements and problems. Mama Jo's powers are intuitive and experiential, based on long years of solving family conflicts and performing domestic work, whether for pay or at home. Her knowledge has been gathered not from books but from life and from the stories others have told her. One daughter wonders how she knows how much of an ingredient to add without measuring; Big Mama's recipes are all in her head. It is a question Mama Jo doesn't answer; she knows, as a casual gesture demonstrates, through experience. She's asked, too, why ham hocks are added to vegetables and briefly explains that hocks were often the only meat people had during slavery days. The implied although never discussed assumption is that knowing one's history and passing it along-with words and with food-is a way of maintaining personal and community identity. At another point Mama Jo defines soul food as "cooking from the heart."

The presumption that cooking is a way for a woman to express her heart-her love for family-feeds into gender stereotypes that for the most part the film enforces. In his directorial commentary, available on the DVD version of the film, Tillman explains that he grew up with six aunts and a strong grandmother and wanted to focus on the matriarch and her central role and then on how a family deals with the loss of that central maternal figure. The one woman in the film who doesn't cook-Big Mama's daughter, Terri, the successful lawyer-has been divorced once, becomes estranged from her husband during the course of the story, has no children, and is often portrayed as heartless and cold. The idea that women who don't participate in cooking and other domestic duties lack heart, perhaps a true evocation of an opinion that Tillman's matriarch and her family share, needs undoing.

A number of the essays within African American Foodways look at the many ways African American women have expressed heart. For some, holding onto cookery traditions and sharing them with families and communities do play a central role. For others, however, heart is just as well expressed through nondomestic activities such as businesses (including catering), the professions (including the arts, teaching, scholarship), and leadership roles in the community.

Tillman's bigger-than-life maternal figure can be read as a mere stereotype, a Mammy or Aunt Jemima. This stereotype, as Alice A. Deck defines her, is "a very large, dark earth mother who represents fecundity, self-sufficiency, and endless succor [;] exists to do nothing but prepare and serve food, along with a hearty helping of her homespun wisdom about life [; and] works best not from printed recipes but from a memory that links her to previous generations of slave women and black earth mothers." Further, this figure, with "large breasts, muscular arms, and wide hips," is an "idealized representation of an autonomous black woman" who needs "no other to complete her, yet many others in her orbit can be completed by her." Although this definition seems to fit Mama Jo it quickly becomes apparent that she cannot entirely "complete" the lives of others; most have problems (romantic, financial, and personal) beyond her ken or capacity. She also has her own difficulties and weaknesses, the effects of diabetes among them. Because she has not taken her medication nor followed a regulated diet, circulation to one leg has become blocked, and the leg must eventually be amputated. During the course of the film she is hospitalized and eventually dies.

As the stereotype of the mythical mother figure breaks apart some useful although difficult questions emerge for thoughtful viewers: How can the strength embodied by a woman like Big Mama and her grand food traditions continue today in ways that are healthy but still hold to tradition and foster family closeness? How can women like Big Mama's three daughters sustain their heritage in the face of so many temptations, demands, and difficulties? Must the challenge of holding a black family together continue to be pictured as mostly a woman's job?

Big Mama's sickness and death raise these issues and more-some of which are central to the essays in African American Foodways. How could Mama Jo have found a way to change her diet enough to improve her health and yet receive the same satisfaction from her own cooking and eating, the same joy in providing tradition for her large family? Statistics demonstrate that the incidence of diabetes is higher in African Americans than in whites and worse for African American women than men. Women's family and community roles may adversely affect their health in the case of this disease. Sandra A. Black believes that "certain sociocultural factors, such as the role that women play in the family, may affect women's vulnerability to diabetes. Women are often the keepers of culture, the family members who pass on cultural practices, such as what foods are served for holiday celebrations or what activities family members are encouraged to engage in. This responsibility to maintain cultural practices and pass them on to younger generations can make it difficult for a mother or grandmother to successfully make lifestyle changes."

Perhaps if Big Mama had been raised knowing more about the varieties of foods prepared by her African ancestors as well as her African American ones (including their herbal medicines), she would have practiced a healthier lifestyle. Then one factor in diabetes, diet, could have improved even if her circumstances didn't. This kind of exploration is not part of Tillman's film. But even if a woman like Mama Joe made the kinds of dietary changes reported to affect diabetes and hypertension, would those changes alone make enough of a difference? What about the stress factors affecting minorities? What about attitudes a person of color might hold toward health care providers and systems that practice subtle or overt discrimination? And what about economic pressures? These, too, are topics never raised in the movie but ones important to exploring African American foodways today, whether the explorers are restaurateurs, cookbook authors, foodways scholars, or people involved with health care. Consequently, discussions of social, economic, and political inequities and their effects on African American history, culture, and foodways enter strongly into a number of the essays in African American Foodways.

African American food involves a fusion of African, Caribbean, South American, and other influences, few of which enter Tillman's movie. The women in Soul Food may occasionally battle over who makes a particular dish the best, but in general they celebrate the resourcefulness of their southern ancestors in using what came to hand to prepare nourishing and delicious dishes. As was common among many black Americans until recently, the characters in the movie do not dwell on their African ancestry but take their food history back only to the nineteenth century.

More recent students of culinary history, while taking into account the assumptions at the heart of this movie's depiction of the relationship between African Americans and their best-known foods, take a wider view of food heritage and related cultural history, a view the essays in African American Foodways reflect. Discussing the complicated origins of African and African American dishes, looking into the material and symbolic power of these foods, and exploring rituals and stereotypes associated with the food are all part of this book. Like the movie, however, the essays collected here place women's roles as preservers of food traditions at the heart of African American community survival.

In Soul Food the person who returns the family to its Sunday dinner tradition after Big Mama's death and relates the family's history is not a woman. It's the young boy, Ahmad. Young as he is, Ahmad manages to manipulate his conflicted relatives and family friends into gathering again around the Sunday dinner table. His voice-over confides to the audience that this meal is "a way we share our joys and sorrows-something the old folks say is missing from today's families." He doesn't cook the food although he lends a hand. Does Ahmad's role-attempting to hold the family together-portend social change in gender roles? Is Tillman among those working to help (African American) men accept more domestic responsibilities? Or is Tillman doing something much more conventional, something that sustains a gender assumption from the past-portraying men as those best able to take public responsibility for creating and telling history? Based on the character portrayals in the movie and the director's commentary, Tillman seems to be doing all these things. As he reiterates, he is nostalgic for the Sunday dinners he knew as a child and believes that cultural traditions such as those Sunday dinners will help sustain strong families and communities.

All who have contributed to African American Foodways share some aspect of this belief in the power of food to signify much more than calories. Our perspectives are shaped by varied disciplines, but our expansive ways of understanding foodways allow us to see women of the past as historians as well as cooks and food as a major component of culture and not just what's for supper.

We are, of course, indebted to others who have studied and written about African American history, culture, and food traditions. In that last category, we've benefited from publications, ranging from Verta Mae Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking; or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (1970) to the equally valuable The African Heritage Cookbook (1971) in which Helen Mendes explored the West African roots of heritage cookery. In more recent years a number of African American cookbooks, such as those by Heidi Cusick, Jessica Harris, and Diane Spivey, have continued to provide useful combinations of recipes and culinary scholarship, and Karen Hess's The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (1992) brought a deeper understanding of the economics and social history surrounding African American lives and cooking in the past.

What has also inspired us are developments in food studies that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s with an ever-increasing production of journals, books, and academic courses, even degree programs in food studies. Books like Laura Shapiro's Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, Linda Keller Brown's and Kay Mussell's essay collection Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, and Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke's Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosphies of Food are three academic markers of this change. There are, of course, others; I only list these as examples. As the variety of essays in African American Foodways makes clear, studying food often provides new insight into our disciplines. We've gone beyond the old saw "we are what we eat" to realize that we are also what we don't eat and that our present lives are influenced deeply by what our ancestors did or didn't eat.


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