The History of African-American Food

 Check out these books on the role that food has played in African-American history!

 

What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives by Herbert C. Covey. Greenwood Press, 2009.

Carefully documenting African American slave foods, this book reveals that slaves actively developed their own foodways-their customs involving family and food. The authors connect African foods and food preparation to the development during slavery of Southern cuisines having African influences, including Cajun, Creole, and what later became known as “soul” food, drawing on the recollections of ex-slaves recorded by Works Progress Administration interviewers. Valuable for its fascinating look into the very core of slave life, this book makes a unique contribution to our knowledge of slave culture and of the complex power relations encoded in both owners’ manipulation of food as a method of slave control and slaves’ efforts to evade and undermine that control.

African American Food Culture by William Frank Mitchell. Greenwood Press, 2009.

Like other Americans, African Americans partake of the general food offerings available in mainstream supermarket chains across the country. Food culture, however, may depend on where they live and their degree of connection to traditions passed down through generations since the time of slavery. Many African Americans celebrate a hybrid identity that incorporates African and New World foodways. The state of African American food culture today is illuminated in depth here for the first time, in the all-important context of understanding the West African origins of most African Americans of today

Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power by Psyche A. Williams Forson. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Chicken–both the bird and the food–has played multiple roles in the lives of African American women from the slavery era to the present. It has provided food and a source of income for their families, shaped a distinctive culture, and helped women define and exert themselves in racist and hostile environments. Psyche A. Williams-Forson examines the complexity of black women’s legacies using food as a form of cultural work. While acknowledging the negative interpretations of black culture associated with chicken imagery, Williams-Forson focuses her analysis on the ways black women have forged their own self-definitions and relationships to the “gospel bird.”

Exploring material ranging from personal interviews to the comedy of Chris Rock, from commercial advertisements to the art of Kara Walker, and from cookbooks to literature, Williams-Forson considers how black women arrive at degrees of self-definition and self-reliance using certain foods. She demonstrates how they defy conventional representations of blackness in relationship to these foods and exercise influence through food preparation and distribution. Understanding these phenomena clarifies how present interpretations of blacks and chicken are rooted in a past that is fraught with both racism and agency. The traditions and practices of feminism, Williams-Forson argues, are inherent in the foods women prepare and serve.

African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture edited by Anne L. Bower. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Ranging over the progression from seventeenth-century West African fare to contemporary fusion dishes using “soul food” ingredients, this book provides an introduction to many aspects of African American foodways. Examining the combination of African, Caribbean, and South American traditions, the volume’s contributors offer insights from history, literary studies, sociology, anthropology, and African American studies to demonstrate how food’s material and symbolic values have contributed to African Americans’ identity for centuries. Individual chapters examine how African foodways survived the passage into slavery, cultural meanings associated with African American foodways, and the contents of African American cookbooks, both early and recent.

Hog & Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America by Frederick Douglass Opie. Columbia University Press, 2008.

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.

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