Happy Thanksgiving: Soul Food Books
Well, I don’t get to enjoy the usual Thanksgiving fare here in China, but at least I can talk about a few books that deal with good food from the African American community. These are a few of the titles that were referenced in my current read, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens. These aren’t cookbooks, but rather, books on why African Americans eat the food we eat and the cultural impacts of such cuisines. So, hold on to that turkey leg and read a few summaries:
Acclaimed cookbook author Jessica B. Harris has spent much of her life researching the food and foodways of the African Diaspora. High on the Hog is the culmination of years of her work, and the result is a most engaging history of African American cuisine. Harris takes the reader on a harrowing journey from Africa across the Atlantic to America, tracking the trials that the people and the food have undergone along the way. From chitlins and ham hocks to fried chicken and vegan soul, Harris celebrates the delicious and restorative foods of the African American experience and details how each came to form such an important part of African American culture, history, and identity. Although the story of African cuisine in America begins with slavery, High on the Hog ultimately chronicles a thrilling history of triumph and survival. The work of a masterful storyteller and an acclaimed scholar, Jessica B. Harris’s High on the Hog fills an important gap in our culinary history.
In 1889, the owners of a pancake mix witnessed the vaudeville performance of a white man in blackface and drag playing a character called Aunt Jemima. This character went on to become one of the most pervasive stereotypes of black women in the United States, embodying not only the pancakes she was appropriated to market but also post-Civil War race and gender hierarchies–including the subordination of African American women as servants and white fantasies of the nurturing mammy. Using the history of Aunt Jemima as a springboard for exploring the relationship between food and African Americans, “Black Hunger focuses on debates over soul food since the 1960s to illuminate a complex web of political, economic, religious, sexual, and racial tensions between whites and blacks and within the black community itself. Celebrated by many African Americans as a sacramental emblem of slavery and protest, soul food was simultaneously rejected by others as a manifestation of middle-class black “slumming.”
Frederick Douglass Opie deconstructs and compares the foodways of people of African descent throughout the Americas, interprets the health legacies of black culinary traditions, and explains the concept of soul itself, revealing soul food to be an amalgamation of West and Central African social and cultural influences as well as the adaptations blacks made to the conditions of slavery and freedom in the Americas. Sampling from travel accounts, periodicals, government reports on food and diet, and interviews with more than thirty people born before 1945, Opie reconstructs an interrelated history of Moorish influence on the Iberian Peninsula, the African slave trade, slavery in the Americas, the emergence of Jim Crow, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. His grassroots approach reveals the global origins of soul food, the forces that shaped its development, and the distinctive cultural collaborations that occurred among Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Americans throughout history. Opie shows how food can be an indicator of social position, a site of community building and cultural identity, and a juncture at which different cultural traditions can develop and impact the collective health of a community.
Happy Thanksgiving reading, y’all!