Celebrating Black History Month through Food

Celebrating Black History Month through Food

Written by Sage Wylie ’19, GW Food Institute Student Fellow, and Kayla Williams ’17, GW Sustainability Collaborative Executive Coordinator

As Black History Month winds to a close, we are reminded of the importance of celebrating black chefs, bakers, policy makers, activists, farmworkers and foodies every day of the year. As people who are deeply interested in all things food, it is critical to recognize that we can not call the current model a successful food system until it is equitable, accessible and can be enjoyed by everyone. Black communities are disproportionately affected by our food system; an estimated 1 in 4 (26%) black children live in food-insecure households as compared to 1 in 8 (13%) white, non-hispanic children. Now more than ever, our nation must stand firmly to ensure that our policies do not undo progress made in the fight against food injustice. Be on the lookout for upcoming progress on the next Farm Bill. The bipartisan bill will determine funds for various programs that can affect diverse populations, from funding for small farmers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Below are sources that explore the history of cooking in the south, the intersection of food systems and racial justice, struggles that black farmers face, and some of the best ways to make vegan soul food.

Books (summaries taken from Politics & Prose website)

Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene

“A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry–both black and white–through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.”

John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South

“A people’s history of Southern food that reveals how the region came to be at the forefront of American culinary culture and how issues of race have shaped Southern cuisine over the last six decades”
Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks

“Women of African descent have contributed to America’s food culture for centuries, but their rich and varied involvement is still overshadowed by the demeaning stereotype of an illiterate “Aunt Jemima” who cooked mostly by natural instinct. To discover the true role of black women in the creation of American, and especially southern, cuisine, Toni Tipton-Martin has spent years amassing one of the world’s largest private collections of cookbooks published by African American authors, looking for evidence of their impact on American food, families, and communities and for ways we might use that knowledge to inspire community wellness of every kind.”

A Breeze Harper’s Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society“Sistah Vegan is a series of narratives, critical essays, poems, and reflections from a diverse community of North American black-identified vegans. Collectively, these activists are de-colonizing their bodies and minds via whole-foods veganism. By kicking junk-food habits, the more than thirty contributors all show the way toward longer, stronger, and healthier lives. Suffering from type-2 diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, and overweight need not be the way women of color are doomed to be victimized and live out their mature lives. There are healthy alternatives.”

Rebecca Sharpless’ Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South,1865-1960

“As African American women left the plantation economy behind, many entered domestic service in southern cities and towns. Cooking was one of the primary jobs they performed, feeding generations of white families and, in the process, profoundly shaping southern foodways and culture. Rebecca Sharpless argues that, in the face of discrimination, long workdays, and low wages, African American cooks worked to assert measures of control over their own lives. As employment opportunities expanded in the twentieth century, most African American women chose to leave cooking for more lucrative and less oppressive manufacturing, clerical, or professional positions. Through letters, autobiography, and oral history, Sharpless evokes African American women’s voices from slavery to the open economy, examining their lives at work and at home.”

Adrian Miller’s Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time

“In this insightful and eclectic history, Adrian Miller delves into the influences, ingredients, and innovations that make up the soul food tradition. Focusing each chapter on the culinary and social history of one dish–such as fried chicken, chitlins, yams, greens, and “red drinks”–Miller uncovers how it got on the soul food plate and what it means for African American culture and identity.”

Jennifer J. Wallach’s Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama (Food and Foodways)

“The fifteen essays collected in Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop utilize a wide variety of methodological perspectives to explore African American food expressions from slavery up through the present. The volume offers fresh insights into a growing field beginning to reach maturity. The contributors demonstrate that throughout time black people have used food practices as a means of overtly resisting white oppression–through techniques like poison, theft, deception, and magic–or more subtly as a way of asserting humanity and ingenuity, revealing both cultural continuity and improvisational finesse.”

Bryan Terry’s Afro-Vegan

“In Afro-Vegan, renowned chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry reworks and remixes the favorite staples, ingredients, and classic dishes of the African Diaspora to present more than 100 wholly new, creative culinary combinations that will amaze vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike.”

Natasha Bowens’ The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming

“The Color of Food teaches us that the food and farm movement is about more than buying local and protecting our soil. It is about preserving culture and community, digging deeply into the places we’ve overlooked, and honoring those who have come before us. Blending storytelling, photography, oral history, and unique insight, these pages remind us that true food sovereignty means a place at the table for everyone.”

Pete Daniel’s Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Right

“Between 1940 and 1974, the number of African American farmers fell from 681,790 to just 45,594–a drop of 93 percent. In his hard-hitting book, historian Pete Daniel analyzes this decline and chronicles black farmers’ fierce struggles to remain on the land in the face of discrimination by bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He exposes the shameful fact that at the very moment civil rights laws promised to end discrimination, hundreds of thousands of black farmers lost their hold on the land as they were denied loans, information, and access to the programs essential to survival in a capital-intensive farm structure.”

Articles, Podcasts, and Videos

Why We Can’t Talk About Race in Food

Five food writers discuss what happens when they bring race into their food commentary causing backlash and criticism from the internet.

“When Life Gives You Lemons” by Kohshin Finley

A More Abundant Share – The Future Of Food Is Black

Food professional and activist Shakirah Simley writes: “In a very real sense, the future of food is people. And that future looks a lot like me: a young, black woman, hungry for change.” Read her article about the work that must be done to achieve a fair food system and the conversations that must be had at the table.

Food Justice Requires Land Justice

It is difficult to imagine food justice without justice on the farm level. Savi Horne is the Executive Director of the Land Loss Prevention Project, a program that helps African American farmers in North Carolina from losing their land to indebtedness, legal challenges, and gentrification, in addition to offering agricultural support so farmers can make their careers more environmentally and economically sustainable.

In a photo in Jack Daniel’s old office, Daniel, with mustache and white hat, is shown at his distillery in Tennessee in the late 1800s. The man to his right could be a son of Nearis Green, a slave who helped teach Daniel how to make whiskey – New York Times.

Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave

Clay Risen, a writer for the New York Times, shares the important story of Nearest Green, a slave that helped teach Jack Daniels how to make whiskey. After learning about Nearest Green, Fawn Weaver bought the property in Lynchburg, Tennessee that Nearest Green and Jack Daniels made whiskey and began the journey to telling Green’s story through his relatives as well as Jack Daniels’ family.

Racist Sandwich podcast , Episode One: I Make Wine Because I’m A Hustler (with Bertony Faustin)

Lucille Burton with Sidney Poitier when he filmed a movie in Albany, Georgia. Southern Foodways Alliance.

The Racist Sandwich, hosted by Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed, explores how all aspects of the way we consume food is political. What better way to start a new podcast than with episode one? Especially when the interviewee is Oregon’s first Black winemaker, Bertony Faustin! He talks about transforming a traditionally alienating industry.

Hostesses of the Movement

Journalist Rosalind Bentley reports for the Southern Foodways Alliance on the often forgotten story of the women who hosted civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. on their fight for equality, focusing on one in particular. Lucille Burton, Rosalind’s great aunt, opened up her home, known as the Freedom House, in Albany, GA to give these activists and lawyers a hot (and delicious) meal during the sixties.

Tedx Talk: Food + Justice = Democracy (TEDx Manhattan 2013)

LaDonna Redmond is the founder and executive director of The Campaign for Food Justice Now. This talk details the history of our food system and the fundamental problems that plague it which can only be solved through collective action and smart policy.

Come to Rooting DC this weekend to learn more about DC’s food justice community.