Like It Or Not, Soul Food Is Part Of Black History Too
I hate the belief among some of our people that in order to progress in society, we must disavow all things related to our past.
Now in some respects, I can see why people would want to do this. Racism, sexism, homophobia and classism are all societal ills we should definitely leave behind. But sometimes our people take this disassociation thing a bit too far.
Like when we try to disown fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread.
I have no idea where and how this movement to disassociate ourselves from the bird and all of its delicious friends on the side started, but I want no part of it.
As reported by USA Today:
The president of Wright State University and its dining services vendor have apologized for a Black History Month menu that featured fried chicken and collard greens.
The menu screens at the Ohio school also offered mashed potatoes and cornbread under photos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders. The Dayton Daily News reported that people circulated images of it on social media, calling it offensive and disrespectful. Fried chicken has long been associated with racial stereotyping in the United States.
This isn’t the first time some fried chicken and collard greens created a culinary controversy. A few years back, Questlove of The Roots put the entire NBC cafeteria and its staff on blast because they served fried chicken, collard greens and jalapeno cornbread in honor of Black History Month. Seriously? Is he crazy? Who complains about jalapeno cornbread? Anyway, it came out later that the menu was actually the creation of a Black cafeteria worker who wanted to honor BHM with dishes that they felt best represented our heritage.
Granted, I can certainly understand creating an uproar if the chicken is dry or if the wrong persuasion is behind-the-scenes frying the chicken in afro wigs and Blackface during Black History Month. Both of those scenarios are just flags on the play. But as some have pointed out, many soul food staples were brought over to the New World from Africa, along with our people. So what’s wrong with serving and honoring soul food as traditional African-American cuisine?
More specifically, what is wrong with honoring soul food as traditional African-American cuisine at a time when people are trying their damnedest to whitewash over it?
A couple of years ago, Charleston chef and Southern food “visionary” Sean Brock detailed his culinary expedition to Dakar, Senegal, where he hunted for the origins of Hoppin’ John, gumbo, collard greens and other traditional soul food dishes. All of these dishes have roots in West Africa. As noted in the Food and Wine article about his trip, “this isn’t a mere academic exercise; he’s rooting around for culinary inspiration.”
I would say both “rooting” and “inspiration” are understatements. It’s more like pilfering. As the article notes:
Throughout his visit, Brock was scribbling down notes in a red book and communicating with the cooks in his kitchens back home, sending them changes to menus in real time. At one point, as he watched Ly steam rice over a pot of aromatic broth to infuse it with flavor, he cried out, “Genius! Why don’t we do this?” He then promptly emailed his sous chef to tell him about it. “I would love to see what I’ve learned here not just on my menus, but on low-country menus everywhere,” he says. “Western African traditions have shaped one of the oldest cuisines in America, but as we modernized these dishes, they lost their soul. We owe it to both Southerners and Western Africans to find it back again.”
Who owes what to whom? The only thing the creators of soul food owe the South is a bill for all the culinary misappropriation. The only thing worse than the actual thievery of techniques and recipes from the kitchens of Senegal (neatly hidden behind some sappy message about helping soul food reconnect with its native tongues) is the blatant attempt to erase American blacks’ influence out of the entire menu.
Not once is “soul food” mentioned in the article, nor is there any mention of how this traditional style of West African cooking, as well as its recipes, evolved into what it is today. Instead, soul food is being replaced with the more geographically (and dare I say racially) inclusive “southern” term and more contemporary meals to bring us dishes that have “lost their soul.”
The irony is that fried chicken, watermelon (also with origins in Africa) and other soulful favorites were once used to ridicule and mock Black people. This is why so many of us cringe when we see our dietary indulgences mentioned anywhere in public and in mixed-raced discourse. I get that. But as traditional soul food dishes begin to grow in popularity and expand out of the kitchens of Black America, so will the need to disassociate it from its roots. White people might have eaten it too, but very few like to be reminded that what they are eating is, in fact, ‘Black people food.’
Therefore, I am all for Black History Month menus as reminders of both our creativity, as well as our keen ability to maintain the taste and culinary techniques that have been passed down to us from generations.