I think about food and talk about food a lot. And of course I eat a lot of it too. That seems pretty unremarkable. I’ve struggled in the past over what to do in times of conflict and tragedy – it isn’t respectful to be posting pictures of cake while the world burns. But the world is on fire. And this time, although I am entering the conversation all too belatedly and all too inexpertly, I think food can help. A few weeks ago, while many debated whether black squares on social media helped or distracted from the worthy and deeply needed focus on Black Lives Matter, I thought a lot about culinary historian Michael W. Twitty. His website Afroculinaria, and his subsequent book The Cooking Gene, both emphasize the importance of racial history as part of food history, which is a component that is often ignored (full disclosure: I haven’t read his book yet, though it’s on my list, but I have read a fair bit about it. If you’re going to purchase it, may I suggest doing so from a black-owned bookstore, or at least an independently owned shop, rather than the typical giant chain).
Around the same time, Alton Brown tweeted an image of typed text on lined paper that said “I’m not about to suggest that food is part of the problem, but I guarantee you… it can be part of the answer.” I agree with the second part of this statement. Yes, food can be part of the answer. I suspect Alton was alluding to the ways food can bring awareness and togetherness; food can, if it is allowed to, help bridge differences and gain familiarity and share newness until it becomes beloved. (There are complications with that too, which I’ll get to later, but it is a commonly touted idea.) But I find I don’t agree with the first part of Alton’s statement. Like Michael Twitty asserts over and over again, without recognition of where things come from, problems are both caused and perpetuated, and racism, particularly against Black people, is one of those problems. Here’s the thing: food has origins. I know that. You know that. Those origins are recognized in some food types: Bolognese is Italian and so is ravioli (though pasta is originally Asian, not European); sushi is Japanese and the flavors that make food Mexican or Thai have become familar. Looking a little deeper, there are foods created from fusion of cuisines: banh mi sandwiches, for example, were born from the French influence in Vietnam.
But African food, and Black food in America, does not have the same cultural recognition. There are a few reasons for this. One is that the African diaspora, and slavery, caused cultural loss. Separated from their homelands and plunged together with others from different groups, with different languages, with different traditions, in horrific conditions, cultural practices shifted. Another is that as a country, broadly speaking, the U.S. doesn’t know much about African food, and whether it’s the result of ignorance, disinterest, or plain old racism (or, let’s be honest, a combination of these), it’s only quite recently gaining strides in awareness.*
Thirdly, and here’s where Twitty comes in, the foodways that emerge from the African diaspora are often not recognized as African in origin. While there is Belgian chocolate and French fries and Thai iced tea and dozens of other foods that announce their origins (truly or falsely – looking at you, “Chinese” chicken salad), there is not a lot of food that acknowledges its source as African or Black. Jerk-style food usually labels itself as Jamaican, and there is a tenuous understanding of “soul food” as predominantly Black, but even that is a euphemism. There is just not frequent recognition of the African origins, in food in general, but particularly in the food thought of as American, and that is a problem.
Twitty explains this incisively and unapologetically in an open letter he published in 2013 to Paula Deen, shortly after accusations of racism were made publically against her and led to Food Network severing its ties with her. Twitty speaks for himself, and of course you should go to his site and read the full letter (and other posts, too! He has a lot to teach most of us**), but I do want to offer one excerpt to think on:
Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse not your past epithets are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people—or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo….a relic of our culture that whisps away. That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling. (Twitty 2013)
To ignore the history of food is to ignore the people who create it. It is to refuse them credit, and refuse them consideration. Worse: it is to erase them. In my day job, I explain to my students how important it is to cite sources – to give credit to the creators of ideas, the constructors of sentences, and here too, the originators of food culture. More often than not in this country, there’s a lack of recognition that Southern food as it is commonly understood has its roots in many African food traditions, or in the labor of slaves. Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, Gullah Geechee cuisine or any of the other Black individuals and groups who helped shape American food culture are unfamiliar names (and see what I did there? Just what Twitty rightly calls out: “beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs”). Instead, there is Paula Deen and Southern hospitality and the competitive barbecue circuit. The result is the culinary equivalent of plagiarism: by not acknowledging the “author,” Black contributions to the narrative that is American food are erased, which continues to make them voiceless.
That’s a problem. Eradicating origins, with so many of the cultures dispersed and displaced during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, not to mention many other colonizing forces and instances, means erasing contributions, erasing knowledge, erasing the responsibility of recognition.
But I also think it’s an opportunity for an answer, and here I’ll come back to my earlier parenthetical about the answer I presume Alton is talking about: the trying-new-foods-and-coming-together-over-them answer. This is nice, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the “citing your sources” problem. As I mulled over what I wanted to say in this post, I thought of an old Simpsons episode (full disclosure: for some reason in my memory, this was from King of the Hill. Not so, it turns out!). The Investorettes, a group of women from Springfield, go to a franchise expo and look into opening a falafel business. They are initially unsure about the product, given its foreign origins:
The Investorettes visit the Fleet-A-Pita franchise. Helen: Hmm, Pita. Well, I don't know about food from the Middle East. Isn't that whole area a little iffy? Hostess: [laughs] Hey, I'm no geographer. You and I -- why don't we call it pocket bread, huh? Maude: [reading the ingredients list] Umm, what's tahini? Hostess: Flavor sauce. Edna: And falafel? Hostess: Crunch patties. Helen: So, we'd be selling foreign... Hostess: Specialty foods. Here, try a Ben Franklin. Helen: [takes a bite] Mmm, that is good. What's in it?
Here, rebranding by providing a familiar, less intimidating or “exotic” name makes the food less foreign, and thus it will sell well. By extension, the people of Springfield will gain exposure by becoming acquainted with a new cuisine! Boom: exposure to the food of a new culture = food brings us together, right?
I think wrong. The problem here, as I noted above, remains the lack of citation. It’s great to learn about and enjoy falafel. But to hide its origins – to call it “crunch patties” or whatever, still denies authorship; it still results in willful ignorant. I realize The Simpsons is intended to be satirical – we are supposed to notice the women’s ignorance and xenophobia.*** Indeed, the episode even goes the next step by giving the chef, noticeably brown-skinned, a brief appearance: after Helen asks what’s in the “Ben Franklin,” he looks out through a window and responds “Tabbouleh and rezmi-kabob.” His words, the correct names for the food he is cooking, are quickly and nervously explained away as the Hostess character introduces him as “our chef… Christopher” and he, muttering in dissatisfaction, disappears from view.
Perhaps this practice of renaming seems like a good “baby step” for making the product itself friendlier, less intimidating, such that eventually its audience, if you will, can accept not just the food but where and who it comes from. But if that’s the plan, what’s the next step, and when and how does that happen? When does the euphemism “crunch patty” or “chick pea fritter” become “falafel,” and how does that welcome Middle Eastern populations to the table? When do the Haitian and West African influences in Cajun and Creole cuisine come to the forefront? When are the Black and indigenous contributions to barbecue – that most “American” of food traditions – recognized, and, on the lead-in to July 4th, acknowledged as tied up in BIPOC struggles for independence?
So I do think food is part of the answer, but not in that let’s-gather-together-around-the-table way. Not in that I-don’t-see-color-we-are-all-one-family way. Because that results in erasure: erasure of history; erasure of struggle; erasure of injustice. It’s not just about eating together. It’s about citing sources. It’s about knowing where the food comes from, and crucially, recognizing what that origin means.
* Of course there are exceptions to this: Ethiopian food has gained popularity over the last decade or so, as have Moroccan flavors. But I would wager much West African food, especially, remains relatively unknown to many (White) Americans.
** I have tried to be very conscious, here and throughout, of pronouns. The first draft of this post frequently used “we,” because it was important to me to acknowledge myself as complicit in this lack of understanding. In reading that draft, though, N. pointed out to me that “we” presumes a non-Black audience, thus denying Black Americans the knowledge and awareness they have as well as a “place at the table,” if you will. Of course he was right, and I have tried to rectify this as I edited.
*** And of course satire has its shortcomings too, as evidenced by about thirty years of The Simpsons’ most egregious racial and cultural caricature, which comedian Hari Kondabolu discusses in his 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu.