Our second episode looks at the culture and politics of Black foodways, from the ways in which Black women have used food to create traditions and claim power to the contemporary politics of nutrition, stereotypes, and food shaming. Beyond the platitude that food unites us all, Ebun Ajayi and Mélena Laudig explore the diversity of ways in which food is a site where identities are constructed and contested.
The Culture of __
- Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón, Gillian Clark, Courtney Thorsson, Jessica Kenyatta Walker, Psyche Williams-Forson, “Black Women’s Food Work as Critical Space,” Gastronomica (2015) 15(4): 34–49.
- Charles Camp, American Foodways: What, When, Why and How We Eat In America (Little Rock: August House, 1989), 24.
- Kirby Lauryen Dockery, "The Truth About Aunt Jemima (TikTok)"
- Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 58-60.
The Breakdown - Guest Info
Prof. Psyche Williams-Forson
Psyche Williams-Forson is Associate Professor and Chair of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park and an affiliate faculty member of the Women’s Studies and African American Studies departments and the Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity. She is an Associate Editor of Food and Foodways, co-editor (with Carole Counihan) of Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World (Routledge, 2011) and author of the award-winning Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (UNC Press, 2006). Her current research explores food shaming and food policing in African American communities.
See, Hear, Do
- Scott Alves Barton
- Prof. Anne A. Cheng
- Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese (eds.), Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020)
- Leah Penniman, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018)
- Hawa Hassan, In Bibi's Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2020)
- Bryant Terry, Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2020)
- Chocolate for Basil (blog)
Ebun Ajayi: I'm Ebun Ajayi.
Mélena Laudig: And I'm Mélena Laudig.
Ajayi: And you're listening to the official podcast of Princeton University's Department of African American Studies.
Laudig: Welcome to the second episode of our second season. Just a quick reminder of what we're all about, for those of you tuning in for the first time.
Ajayi: The aim of this podcast is to address questions and themes spanning African American and black diaspora studies. There're engaging interviews with scholars and activists, as well as our own takes on black culture and cultural production.
Laudig: Our first segment: The Culture Of, gets us into our topic through discussions about popular culture today. The main segment: The Breakdown, is a conversation with academics and activists about the episode's issue. And finally: See, Hear, Do, will give you awesome recommendations of where to turn next to keep learning more.
Ajayi: Last time, we talked about covid-19 and the black community. Today, we are here to talk about food.
Laudig: And we're gonna explore food from a variety of different angles: from stereotypes to diasporic culinary traditions to the politics of nutrition and food access. Throughout, we'll center the role of women. We'll even hear from some of the most important women in our own lives. So, let's get to it!
Ajayi: Episode Number 2: Black Foodways and Food Justice.
Ajayi: To quote Professor Psyche Williams-Forson, "Black American women have long sustained a complex relationship to food: its production, consumption, and distribution within families, both their own and others, communities, and the nation. Black women, often represented in American culture as "natural" good cooks on the one hand, and beset by obesity on the other, straddle an uncomfortable divide that is at the heart of the contemporary debate about the nature of our food system."
Laudig: Professor Williams-Forson's words point to the pivotal roles that black women across the diaspora play in creating black foodways, and in building black communities and culture in the process.
Ajayi: Right. What she says really sheds light on the complex relationship that black women have with food and foodways. Now, before we go on, Mé, can you define foodways for our audience, please?
Laudig: Of course. Let's break it down. So I think the scholar named Charles Camp provides maybe the simplest but also most helpful definition. He writes that the term foodways encompasses "all aspects of food which are culture-based, as well as all aspects of culture, which you use or refer to food."
Ajayi: Okay, that makes sense. It sounds like foodways move our focus beyond the meal that's on the plate to also consider the people you're eating the meal with, why you decided to cook the meal that you prepared, the kinds of rituals that you perform before or after the meal, and more.
Laudig: Yes. And Professor Williams-Forson is drawing our attention to the centrality of black women in constructing the culture of food. So for today's segment, Ebun and I decided to get a little more personal and explore some of our own connections with food.
Ajayi: [chuckles] Yes.
Laudig: [phone rings] Hey, Granny.
Laudig's Grandmother: Hey, Mé.
Laudig: Thanks for talking to me...
Laudig's Grandmother: How are you?
Laudig: ...today. I'm good. How are you?
Laudig's Grandmother: I'm well. I grew up in the state of Arkansas in a little-bitty town. Little-bitty, small-town Ben Lomond, Arkansas. My mother was just a cook. She started cooking at the age of nine. Our parents and our older siblings worked in the field. And my mother was responsible for cooking their dinner and taking it to the field, so they wouldn't have to leave the field. They would just eat it out there and go right back to work.
Laudig: And Ma Mary, she also grew up in Arkansas, right?
Laudig's Grandmother: Yes, she did. She loved Arkansas. She missed Arkansas when she moved to Texas cause everything grew so plentiful in Arkansas. And especially in West Texas, things didn't grow there.
Laudig: Do you remember what Mama Mary, who's my great-grandmother, what she cooked for y'all?
Laudig's Grandmother: My mother was a big fan of vegetables. She would make us vegetable soups. She would make us beef roast. Everything was homemade. We didn't buy anything. We couldn't afford it. And so, my mother would can every year tomatoes, okra, peas, greens. My mother canned everything. So, we basically grew our food and raised it. So, we were homegrown feeders.
Laudig: [laughs] And you say you grew your food, so she had a garden?
Laudig's Grandmother: Yes, yes. She loved the garden. She had chickens... My dad, he would always buy pork, beef every year so we would have meat throughout the year. Nobody went hungry that I know of because you could always go to somebody's house and eat. That's the first thing he was gonna do when you walk in. "Are you hungry? You want to eat something? I did this. I baked this." It was just awesome. I wouldn't have wanted to grow up in as far as right now. That was a wonderful time with me growing up.
Laudig: How are recipes passed down in your family?
Laudig's Grandmother: My mother would tell you, but it always was a pinch, and a dash, and a spot.
Laudig: Got it.
Laudig's Grandmother: She would not write it down; my grandmother would. And I probably had some that she wrote down. Mementos that I had of my grandmother, that was burned. The fire destroyed quite part of it and rain destroyed another part. So, I don't have anything of that. I had a lot of paperwork in one of those [inaudible]. So, and mother, she just didn't write them down. She would tell you, "I use a pinch of this, a dash of that, a spot of this, a little bit of that." She just didn't write it down, but I'm gonna write mine down.
Ajayi: [phone rings] Hi, guys! So today, I'm here with my mom. Say hi, Mom.
Ajayi's Mother: Hi! I think I've learned, you know, with us at home, we like to eat well and we like to have the food ready. So one of the things we do at home, is cook it fast. You know, just put on the pan, very little to no oil, and just put the chicken and cook it, stir it, stir it, pour in the vegetables. Sometimes, either we're having chicken and vegetables, or chicken and stew where we have the vegetables blended.
Ajayi: You know, we're a Nigerian family, so stew is a big part of our life.
Ajayi's Mother: And stew is just so comforting.
Ajayi: So before we go on with stew, can you tell our listeners what type of stew we're talking about here?
Ajayi's Mother: And we're talking about what we call Niger- or maybe more like Yoruba stew, which is a blend of tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, fresh onions, fresh peppers, scotch bonnet peppers, blended up nicely, and cooked with your chicken, lightly sautéed, and seasoned - ooh, richly seasoned, you know, [inaudible] and white pepper, bay leaves... It is good!
Ajayi's Mother: So we talked about, you know, rice and stew. We're talking about basic, you know, white rice with some nice stew of good meat in there. We talked about the mashed potatoes. We don't mean actual mashed potatoes. We mean iyan, which is pounded yam as a Nigerian food, right? Pounded yam or fufu. I think that's more like global, or guess more African as a whole, if fufu.
And then, when we talk about potato porridge or pottage, I don't know exactly which word is the best word for it, but that's a [inaudible] you get the potatoes, or it's actually made with yams, but we do potatoes in our house. So, you get the yams and you like cooking it in the stew. You can make it versatile. And that's one thing I like about Nigerian culture and our foods is that you can get the base food, and then do so much with it to make it your own. And which is what I like about plantains, mom, that we've done in our house, right?
Ajayi's Mother: Oh, yeah.
Ajayi: Yes, that's huge. That's huge
Ajayi's Mother: Yeah, that's huge cause we've turned plantains around. Remember when you guys were younger, we actually deep-fried the plantains in oil.
Ajayi: Make dodo, which is the Nigerian dodo.
Ajayi's Mother: Yes, and that was [inaudible]
Ajayi: Right. And it's different from like the Caribbean plantains because we wouldn't cut ours as thick, right? So it would be like the smaller, and then you fry it. Especially the sweet ones, oh my gosh, it's so good!
Ajayi's Mother: You know, a few some time ago, I read something that said eat your food as your medicine. And as we get older, you know, that's one thing that I want to encourage people. I know we talked a lot about making cakes and eating cakes every week.
But then remember that we did find ways to make a dessert healthier. Remember the whole wheat banana breads that we made without sugar, without flour. Using, you know, oatmeal and things like that. So I think, we're coming to a place where food is always going to be a celebration. Food is always going to be a sign of good times, happy times, but we need to make food that is good for us as well.
Ajayi: You know, something that's speaking with relatives has always shown me just how incredibly diverse black foodways are.
Laudig: Right. And while sour food is my all-time favorite food, hands down, I've noticed the black food is often flattened into one standard meal that includes, you know, collard greens, fried chicken, mac and cheese, candied yams, cornbread.
Laudig: It's also really important that we recognize just how expansive and diverse black foodways are. I mean, they span from Latin America to the Caribbean, to North America, to the African continent. They vary based on black folks' religious and spiritual commitments and even the landscapes on which black folks live.
Ajayi: Mé, you're absolutely right! And cultural foodways also speak to one another. The black foodways have evolved and transformed as black people have migrated and interacted with other racial and ethnic groups. In other words, there is not one singular black foodway.
Laudig: And that point brings us back to the line from Professor Williams-Forson that we opened the show with. When she says that black women "straddle in uncomfortable divide that is at the heart of contemporary debate about the nature of our food system." Often when food stereotypes are deployed, I think that black women are the targets or the canvases on which these stereotypes are constructed.
Ajayi: Yeah. And you know, when you say that, what immediately comes to mind for me is the Aunt Jemima pancakes issue that became more visible during the summer of 2020.
Kirby Lauryen Dockery: Did you know the name Aunt Jemima means slave mammy of the plantation South? Did you know the founder, Chris Rutt, a white man, got the name after attending a minstrel show? Think black face. Did you also know he hired former slave, Nancy Green, to be his very own Aunt Jemima, where she went around cooking pancakes and telling people stories of The Good Old South? And afterwards, they could take home a box of Aunt Jemima and that feeling of having their very own mammy.
Laudig: So listeners out there, what you just heard was a viral Instagram video created by singer-songwriter Kirby Lauryen Dockery, who's only one of the voices who has risen up to speak out against the branding of PepsiCo's Aunt Jemima pancakes, which I don't know about you, Ebun, but I grew up eating those pancakes.
Ajayi: Oh, definitely! [laughs]
Laudig: They're always in our cabinet. [laughs] The [inaudible] and others have recently spoken out to shed light on Nancy Green, a formerly enslaved black woman, whose image not only inspired the face of the brand, but who some say created the original pancake formula.
Ajayi: Yes. And so, shortly after this video, PepsiCo announced that they were changing the names and images associated with Aunt Jemima, originally portrayed by Nancy Green. She did a lot of the promotion for the brand while she was alive. And there's been a lot of debate because her family members want her to honor her memory.
Laudig: And to put this into a little perspective, local historians and activists in Chicago just recently in the year 2020 - we're talking, you know, a hundred years plus past the time of Nancy Green, they just raised enough money to purchase a marked headstone for her.
Laudig: And her family has never even received any royalties from PepsiCo, even though she was pivotal to the start of the franchise. So, we see this question arising about you know, how she lives on in historical memory if PepsiCo removes her name from the branding?
Ajayi: Right, which is a really important question. On the other hand, other people have supported this rebranding because of the symbolism of the name Aunt Jemima. Which as Kirby talked about, comes from these minstrel shows, as well as all of the racist tropes that the brand has used to sell the pancakes over the years.
Laudig: Hm-mm. And the company has decided to phase out the brand because of the backlash about slavery. But a lot of people are still having this conversation because they don't think that it was the best way to handle the situation because, you know, of all the Aunt Jemima represents.
Ajayi: Exactly, exactly. And so, we're kind of stuck in this interesting and complex conundrum that really sheds light on some of the disagreements that we, as a society, have about legacy. And at its core, this Aunt Jemima situation just shows us that when discussions about black food and culture arise, black women are often at the center of them.
Laudig: Hmm. Yeah. So in our next segment, we'll not only talk more about the connections between race, gender, power, and foodways, but we'll also do a deep dive into how scholars of African American studies have approached the study of food. And then, we'll also think more about how food relates to mental health. I mean, we think about physical health a lot, but where do food and mental health intersect? And then finally, we'll touch on the ways that black people's food choices are often stigmatized in society.
Ajayi: Yes. And so, we're super excited to be speaking with Professor Psyche Williams-Forson, who actually inspired the segment. Psyche Williams-Forson is the author of the award-winning book Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power and the book Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World. She's also an associate professor and the chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland.
Laudig: Professor Williams-Forson has been awarded numerous fellowships including a Smithsonian Institution Senior Fellowship and a Lord Baltimore Research Fellowship. She's the curator of Still Cookin' By the Fireside, an online text and photography exhibition on the history of African American cookery commissioned for the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum. We are so honored to get to speak with her today.
Ajayi: Well, Professor Williams-Forson, thank you so much for joining us today. We're so excited to speak with you here today. So just a preliminary question, you know, we know that you're really involved with the study of food in diasporic culture. Can you tell us how did you get involved with this stuff, and why you're interested in the things like that?
Williams-Forson: Okay. So, I became interested in the study of food and the African diaspora when I was in graduate school. And I actually come into this conversation through material culture. So when I began graduate school as an MA student at the University of Maryland, it was in the early 90s, which was really a watershed moment in black feminist studies, right? It was a resurgence of black feminism. This was around the time period of the Anita Hill Clarence Thomas trial. And so, I was very much interested in the work of African American women, in particularly, literature. Oxford University Press, along with Henry Louis Gates, republished a series of early African American women's work of 19th century black women's literature. And so, I, along with Mary Helen Washington, who had written Black-eyed Susans, and some of her other work: Alice Walker, couple of years earlier, had researched in the work of Zora Neale Hurston. So it was a real critical moment, right? Barbara Christian's work was very well-highlighted, Hazel Carby...
I started familiarizing and learning more about these black women. And in particular, I was doing research for a colleague or a scholar at the University of Maryland. She was a professor at the time, Shirley Logan. She was working on Anna Julia Cooper and her work of Voice From the South. So I was taking courses with you know, Dr. Logan, Dr. Carla Peterson, and really became intrigued by a book by Pauline Hopkins called Contending Forces.
And so as I was reading Contending Forces, I was struck by the level of detritus and detail that Hopkins includes in her novel. And included in the everyday life in the domestic interiors was also food. And so, that really began my interest in material culture. And so, I started doing that work right when I was transitioning to the Ph.D. program. I had an opportunity to research for a professor named Hasia Diner, a historian at now who's at New York. She was in NYU. I'm not sure if she's still there. But she wrote the book Hungering for America.
I was fairly intrigued by her notion of foodways. And I wondered if black people also had foodways. I had never heard the term. The internet was just getting started. We didn't have Google. [laughs] But when I did the research, most of what appeared was information about this is what black people eat. And I said, okay, yeah that makes sense. Cookbooks and so forth. A lot of the wonderful work of Jessica Harris, [inaudible], but I was more interested in why these particular foods, right? And so that really began my interest in black food cultures from a scholarly point of view that involves material culture in the study of everyday life.
Ajayi: Wow! Wow, that's awesome! That's really an amazing story. And that makes a lot of sense why you're really interested in that right now. [laughs]
Laudig: Can you talk to us a little bit more about your first book project Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, kind of where the title comes from, and how you came to that?
Williams-Forson: Sure. So Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power was my dissertation for my doctoral thesis. And essentially, as I said, from '95 to '99, I was in PhD course work, right? Or '98. And I was really building the literature from the scholarly point of view on black people and food.
A lot of work had been done at archaeology that looked at enslavement, workout at anthropology, but nothing much had been done around African American people and food beyond those disciplines. So sociology, psychology literature, you know, black food studies really had not taken off. So, I was really building, I guess, an archive, right? Because I was just pulling things from different places, and creating arguments, and so forth.
So, around '99, and I say this in the introduction of the book, three things happen for me because I had a colleague, Dr. Lynn Bowles, who was an anthropologist and also in women's studies at the University of Maryland, said, "We know you're gonna write about food, but what food are you gonna write about?" And I had not thought about that. I'm like, "Am I gonna narrow down," you know.
So, I hadn't thought about it. And you know, as we do, if you're in a doctoral program, you write a proposal. And my advisor was like, yeah, needs a little bit of work, you know. So I said, okay, and some other like changes happening. So I said, well it's gonna have to wait until after these other things happen. So, I got married in '99, and then later in the year - as I said, three things had happened in the course of that year.
One, a fraternity held a party on Martin Luther King's birthday, and they advertised it using a forty-ounce of beer in a bucket of chicken. Around that same time, Tiger Woods won the Masters for the first time. And Fuzzy Zoeller, a fellow competitor, told him not to order fried chicken, collard greens, or whatever the hell those people eat. [laughs] And then the third thing that happened was the NCAA that year. The conglomerate that involves KFC won the advertising for the NCAA that year.
And why that was significant is because I heard a commercial that sounded like an African American man advertising chicken. And so, I was in another room, and I ran in the room, and I looked at the commercial, and it actually was an animated Colonel. And he was doing the cabbage patch if you all remember that dance, the cabbage patch. [laughs]
And basketballs were, you know, bouncing up and around the screen. So I said, are we still at the point in our lives where we are adhering to the stereotype of black people and chickens? Because [inaudible] seeing the commercial, I thought it was a black man, right? When I saw it, I still thought it was a black man, come to find out it was one of the Quaid Brothers. But you had the black man imagery, the basketballs, and the chicken right?
So I started pursuing black people and chicken. And again, I went to what was the version of the internet at that time. And most of what I got when I Google black people and chicken were images from eBay that showed African American men, primarily, in a lot of different positions. Chickens chasing them, in some cases, there was sheet music.
So just a whole plethora of ephemera or material culture that referenced and showed illustrations of black men in particular, again, and chicken. So that's the path I started down: looking at the stereotype. That was my proposal. I wanted to look at the black stereotypes of black people and chickens. But you know, by now, I'm like two maybe a year into the project, and it wasn't enough, you know. It was a very reductionist way of looking at black life through the eyes of stereotypes and through the eyes of how other people saw black people. And that's not what I was interested in doing.
So, I was spinning around in my office chair one day and picked up a folder that I had stuffed some things into. One of which was an article that had been given to me by a scholar named Marcie Cohen Ferris, who does Jewish foodways in the Delta, right?
So, Dr. Ferris had sent me a little article about black women and a fried chicken festival. And I had stored it away because I said, you know, I'm not really interested in fried chicken. I'm interested in the phenomenon but not necessarily fried chicken. And so, I looked at the picture again and I said, oh wait a minute. These women are not reenactors. I could tell from their clothing because I study material culture. I could tell that their clothing was period clothing. It was not a reenactment.
This was an original photograph. So, you know, you find something like that, and you pull the thread, right? And so I pulled the thread, and it led me to Orange Virginia or at Gorton's Row, Virginia and I talked to the folks in the tourism division there, and they told me about the Fried Chicken Festival. But then I said, why won't I come down and talk to some of the people. Went down to their historical society, which was literally about a room, about the size of a bathroom, or maybe a larger bedroom.
And as I was walking around in that room looking at the black history of the county, there was an article on the wall, an interview that had been given by a woman during their centennial observation, and her name was Miss Bella Winston.
And Miss Winston was saying that her mother was a third-generation [inaudible] carrier. It was a fascinating story. And there was my picture, right, that had been given. And she said, my mother, built this place out of chicken legs. And she said the first one burned down, and then she rebuilt it. And that was my aha moment. And I said that's really the story right there. Right? That was really what I was interested in. And so, that's where I borrow my title: Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs. And so yeah, that was the defining moment in the narrative, right? And that changed the entire trajectory of the book or the dissertation, which became the book.
And so, you know, this is a testament to how you can have that aha moment, and when it clicks, you know, then it, then it clicks. And so then, you know, you scurry around and you're like, okay, I really am more interested in the ways in which black women did things with food and do things with food. And in this instance, chicken. So that's the long and short version of how I came to the topic.
Laudig: So I wanted to jump back to something that you mentioned earlier, which is kind of the community of black women who helped form you intellectually, and you mentioned several prominent scholars in the field of African American studies, and I really enjoyed learning about that. And I was wondering about the community of black women that you see your book, kind of bringing together.
Because in other interviews I've heard, you talk about how older black women, especially, have responded to the book, because they've seen their stories represented in it. And I think that's so beautiful. So could you talk more about how the book has enabled you to move beyond spaces that we traditionally associate with the university and the academy?
Williams-Forson: So, you know, when I was writing Building Houses and I came across the story of Miss Bella Winston, I immediately thought of my mother, of course, who I believe I talked about in the book, is having taught me and my sisters really how to cook, right? And how as we were getting ready to travel, I would get up really early and go sit in the kitchen. We had a little- I guess what you would call now a bar bench or a barstool beside our stove, and I will go sit there while she cooks.
And one of the things I really vividly remember is the smell of garlic that she fried chicken. And it was only as I got older that I realized why we had to pack our food, right? My parents had three children plus themselves, and you know, it was a matter of cost-efficiency. So I thought a lot about my mom, but then both my parents, because I grew up in a social action household. My dad's a social action minister.
My mother's a social worker and then a teacher. We grew up in Buffalo. At a time in the 70s when integration- we were just five years into really formal integration if you will. So busing was an issue, housing as it is, now, it was then, voting rights. And so, we were very much made aware of those issues. So for me, the book was less really about the academy and more about recognizing black liberation through food.
And so, it was important to me that I capture as many stories because- Genesis, I mean I grew up on stories. My dad's an avid storyteller, right? I mean, he's a minister. So it was really important for me to be able to communicate with a number of different audiences. One thing Barbara Christian told me in my first year of graduate school. S
he came to the University of Maryland through what is now the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, but was then Women Studies. And she said to me, I was only a graduate in an undergraduate course, and she said you will have to learn to speak multiple languages, right? She was very pointed and she said to me, she said you need to speak the language of the Academy, of Graduate School, of your mother, of your grandmother of every, you know, at the same time sometimes, right? Code-switching, right?
And so for me, I needed to- it was in the back of my mind though it may not have been intentional. Once the book was published, I had the good fortune of the book being reviewed in the New York Times. And because of that, because it was reviewed in the New York Times, several people got in touch with me after a while.
And I had the most phenomenal experience. A woman wrote me, think it was an email, and said, you know, we think that's our Aunt on the cover of the book. And she said, we knew that she would do advertisements, but we have never seen any, but when we saw that picture, we thought it was our aunt. And I said, oh my gosh, because I thought it was a composite. There was no mention of who the person was.
So I said, you know, I sent her a copy of the book and some other things. And then about three weeks later, someone else contacted me and said, I think that's my aunt. [laughs] I think I just talked to your cousin. And so, you know, and so that unto itself was very validating. My mom read portions of it and said the parts I didn't get I just skipped over, but the rest of it, I got. And then, I was able through the Maryland Historic- Maryland Humanities Council trap to travel throughout the state of Maryland.
And it was while I was traveling throughout the state in particular, that a number of elders came out to hear my conversation, largely because of the title. And so I spoke in Hamlet's in small areas, rural areas, and cities, and so forth, in libraries, in community centers, in aging people's homes, right? And just really had an appreciation for that to be able to share my work in a way that moves beyond the Academy because that's not really necessarily where your validation comes from. I mean, you cannot be validated. There's nothing wrong with that. But for me, it was important that real people were behind those stories. And it was important that I captured real people's lives.
Williams-Forson: And that they reaffirmed for, you know, the work that I was doing, so...
Ajayi: Wow, Professor, that's-that's really amazing! Especially all those ties that are coming together from this book, and how it's-it's really bringing people together. That's really, really awesome.
Ajayi: And, you know, you talked a lot about your involvement with food outside of the university, and speaking these "different languages," especially as you "recognize black liberation through food." And so, I'm wondering if you could tell us more about the Southern Foodways Alliance, which you've been involved with for a minute. And what's the importance of this, and what would you like people to know about this- this program and this group?
Williams-Forson: Well, I got involved in the Southern Foodways Alliance through the Southern Foodways Symposium back in 1999. It was the first year that they held the Symposium, and several of us went down. Tony Tipton Martin, Verna May Grosvenor, Jessica Harris, Donna Pierce. So all of us were there is a very interesting synergy happened, right, alongside others who were there.
You know, John T- that Saturday morning John T. Edge, who's the founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance or Symposium, he was the sort of figurehead there, asked us about forming an alliance. And we all readily agreed that it was a great idea and some bylaws would be drawn up and whatnot. And so that's really how the Alliance came about.
And they've done some incredible work, right, of bringing voices of the food of The Culinary South to the forefront. Voices that we would ordinarily not have heard. And so I think that that's really the importance of the organization.
The danger, however, is that some twenty years later, Mr. Edge is still very much the sort of at the forefront of that movement, in a way that sometimes does not allow for a cacophony of perspectives and voices to spearhead the direction of the alliance. And so there are things, I believe, are in the process of changing around that, but it's important because you can end up capitalizing off of the very people- capitalizing and exploiting the very people who you proclaim to be preserving and elevating, if you know what I mean, right?
And so, so it's an important organization. Their podcasts are extremely valuable in terms of building an archive of southern food. Their magazine Gravy has highlighted some, some really unknown folks who are doing interesting and everyday things with food that we should know about from catfish, to barbecue, to boudin, to collard greens, you know, to various agricultural practices throughout the South.
And so, it has just really been an incredible, again, an incredible archive that I think anyone who is studying foodways in the Americ- in the United States would do well too. And, and really actually beyond the US would do well to tap into, because there's such a beautiful range of people who have been featured and highlighted.
Ajayi: That's awesome. That's really awesome.
Williams-Forson: You know, it's building an archive, right?
Williams-Forson: Where one heretofore necessarily did not exist, because not every archive is in the library or repository. People are walking archives. And so, I think to the extent that we can tap into the voices of people who have life experiences, it's absolutely important. I'm working on an article right now. We're about to- on Farmville Virginia where I'm from, that is in conversation with a study done by WB Dubois on Farmville, Virginia.
It's a precursor to the Philadelphia negro, right? He first did this study in Farmville. But one of the things that I found when I read the- reread this piece on Farmville many years ago, was that Dubois did not necessarily seem to capture a great deal about women, black women. Particularly black women who worked the underground economy, right? Bootlegging, selling food, running boarding houses, rooming houses, and things in that nature.
So I kind of wonder whether or not his- some of his conclusions would have been different had he focused on the activities of those women, who perhaps because of their work in the domestic realm, were not given a second thought.
Laudig: Right, right.
Williams-Forson: So I want to be in conversation with Dubois to the point of the archive. I just recently learned of a woman who's in her 90s, who ran a food truck, if you will, right, back in the 40s and 50s, out by the lake. And she's a member of my dad's church. And she got on him because he did a piece and didn't include her- her life story.
So I'm going to- I have to quickly follow up because, of course, she's aged. And in this moment of the pandemic, that becomes even more- that that urgency becomes even more acute. So I'm just saying, the finding- when you find people who have stories, tap into them, you know? And talk to them because they are living, walking archives that once they're gone, their stories are gone with them.
Laudig: I think continuing along this line of your work in the community, I know that you are really an advocate for mental health awareness, especially among black folks. So I love to hear you talk more about the intersection of food and mental health potentially, and how you see food maybe being a healing force for black peoples and people of the diaspora.
Williams-Forson: Right. That's a really good question. So my- the book that I just completed is eating while black, food shaming and food policing in black community. And I started writing this book about seven years ago. So before this current wave of references to eat- to living while black, right? It comes from my- the invitations I've received as I traveled across the U.S. I'm speaking about Building Houses.
And I found that as the current food movement gathered steam, more and more African American people were being shamed around their food lives often unintentionally, by not just people outside the black community or beyond the diaspora, but those from within. And so this book chronicles some of the ways that I saw that happening, and sort of tries to talk through what we might want to consider as alternative ways of grappling with people's lives.
And I start with the premise that people's lives are very complicated. And so, we don't know why people make the food choices that they did. And so when we set out to judge or offer our own wisdom around what other people should be doing with their, with their food lives, we run a fowl, quite frankly, because what could be good for one person may not be good for another.
Ajayi: Very true.
Williams-Forson: For example, there's a vignette in the book that I talked about, which came out of the Washington Post, and it surrounded young people. It was called Young People At Risk, and it talked about obesity among young people in the DMV. And I hone in on one vignette in particular where they look at this twelve-year-old girl, who was tall and very full-figured, and they basically say she needs to go through this program, and she needs to exercise more willpower so she can lose weight.
And so I turned to my teen daughter, who actually is the reason why you see so much of my advocacy, and she helped me quite a bit to unpack what might be happening with that twelve-year-old girl, because she had some similar experiences in predom- in predominantly black Prince George's County, Maryland in terms of in the school system around health teachers and professionals, allegedly, who are supposed to protect young people, instead often shamed young people by particularly having girls step on the scale in the presence of other people. And so, I do a couple of things with that analysis.
One, I point out the fact that while we are focused on this young lady's- this young girl. Let me be clear. She's twelve. She's a girl. It's not even a young lady yet. We don't even know if she has entered menarche. We don't know, right? She's twelve years old, but she's full-figured, dark skin, and tall. And so what the article does is focuses wholly on her corporeal self, right, on her body.
But what it seems to overlook is this young girl, somehow, is living with a woman who she calls her godmother. Of course, no mention is made as to why that's the case. The focus is on her body, and how much food she eats, and what food she eats. There are literally pictures of it. And I said, here's the problem right here. While you're focusing on she lives here, she lives in this food desert. She passes by Popeye's and the liquor store, what's happening with this child? Why is she living with a person who she calls her godmother? Where are her parents? Where are her grandparents on both sides? Is she in a new environment?
And so, eating becomes her comfort. Is she- she's being bullied at school. Has anyone checked into her mental health? How is this little girl doing? And then of course, there's the issue of not recognizing her as a child, because black girls, in particular, do not have the benefit of- and black boys, of being referred to as children. But our [inaudible] always already seen as you know, life-sized adults in child bodies, right?
And so we are often seen as threats, and- and so forth. And so part of me does a full unpacking in the book about how in their attempt to shine a spotlight on something that should help, they, in fact, put this young girl on full-blast shame because they didn't do enough to grapple with the vicissitudes of her life, right? Starting with, again, where are her parents?
Ajayi: That's an amazing point you bring up. And I think it's something that we often overlook. But that, that's really important.
Williams-Forson: Absolutely. Where are people's parents? Where did these folks move from one place to another? Was she caught up in Katrina or Maria or some other devastating scenario? And does she turn to food now as a savior? Is anybody checking for her mentals, you know, at all to see how this young lady's doing? Is she on medication that may have had her to gain, you know, a great deal of weight because someone misdiagnosed her because she's a child?
And it's difficult to diagnose mental health in young people at you know, at early ages. So there are so many questions that we don't embrace when we come at people about what they should and should not be eating. Does the picture we see show her with a playful of a lot of food? Yes, it does. Good food. I mean, mac and cheese, and collard greens, and she's got chicken, and she's got ham. But the article also says that she and her, this woman she calls her godmother, eat this food once a week on Sundays as a means of a continuing tradition. So how do we get from eating food like this once a week, presumably there are leftovers, to you know... She's obese because she eats this food and she lives in a food desert.
That's an extremely reductionist, you know, again, point of view. And it's one that's designed always to see her from a deficit model, versus one that looks at food as a means of liberation. Or a way of saying to her, let's talk about how you can eat those foods, but maybe in less portion sizes, right?
And then they had her participating in this workout group where she had to do these sit-ups. Calisthenics, right? Who's doing calisthenics these days? [laughs] At twelve, right? But nothing about, oh, you could get some hip-hop or some trap music, and you can dance, or when you walk home from school, that's a form of exercise. I said, did anybody tap into black girls run, which is right here in DC? And maybe she can be mentored while she's exercis-, you know, just so many different things...
Laudig: Trap. Yoga.
Williams-Forson: ...can tap. Yeah, trap, yoga. Absolutely. Trap yoga, trap cardio. All of which is available on YouTube. Ask me how I know, right? [laughs] So, you know, so, it's all of- it's all of that, right? And so just is what- that's part of where my advocacy comes from, right? Again, I believe in liberation theology. I believe in the liberation of people. And that food then for me, as a scholar, becomes a vehicle to liberation and freedom for people.
As I try to allow people room, allow them room to evolve to become a vegetarian, to become a vegan, to be a pescatet, to become a carnivore, to be whatever they want to be in the same week, in the same month, in the same year, in the same ten years, you know.
Perhaps without the shame and the spotlight of labels that box us into spaces and corners that we are not meant to be in because we are fluid beings, right? And in the words of Avery Gordon, right? We are filled with complex personhood, right? So yeah, so that that would be I think the way that I would encourage us to think about these issues.
Ajayi: Right. And I just want to shed light on two things you said. You mentioned reduction and deficit model. And those are really important words that surpassed the conversation of food. They're issues that are going on in the black community at large, that I think I'm just going to be cognizant of, and just be aware of how we're portraying issues, and how we are actually trying to provide solutions in ways that aren't just reductionist, and I'm coming from deficit mentality. So that was really important that you mentioned that.
Williams-Forson: Yeah. And I say that because food is one of those invisible variables that you don't think, you know, could- could inhabit those kinds of approaches, but they do very often, right? We tend to see people who live in areas that are less affluent and unaffected by gentrification as you know, being in the desert, right? And without credence to the fact that cactuses grow in the desert. They may be prickly but they grow. [laughs] And that, you know, you don't have to live in a less affluent area or in even an area considered full of blight to be in a food desert. I lived in one.
And I was in a very much a middle-class neighborhood, but you couldn't get to the grocery store unless you had a car, or you got an Uber, or you were taking part in elderly services, or something of that nature. So this notion that we all live like in the, you know, rural countryside where there's a farmers market on every corner is absurd. And you know, we need to move away from that, and especially move away from this notion of telling people what's best for their lives, unless you're a medical professional, and somehow have a longer history of what's happening in the person in their life and with their bodies.
Laudig: Amen, yes. [laughs] Dr. Williams-Forson, we could keep talking to you all night. [laughs] This has been so incredible. We're so appreciative of your expertise, and just the work that you're doing, and so many spaces to...
Williams-Forson: Thank you.
Laudig: ...push people towards liberation. And yeah, speak- speak- on behalf of the black community, thank you so much.
Williams-Forson: Thank you all for the invitation.
Laudig: Now on to our closing segment See, Hear, Do where we point you to some additional resources to continue exploring topics from today's conversation. Ebun, I heard you talking about a website that we need to check out.
Ajayi: Oh, yes! So I found out about this awesome app. It's called EatOkra. And people can use it to search and connect with black-owned restaurants. So here are the founders, Janique and Anthony Edwards, talking about it on a news broadcast this month.
Janique Edwards: Yeah, it really started as just the way for Anthony and I to kind of discover Brooklyn. How we moved here in 2016, we didn't really know much about the borough. And we wanted to get to know the businesses in the area and support them.
Anthony Edwards: Yes. Our requirement is 50% ownership that identifies black-owned. And right now, we have about 7,000 listings. We're about 700 here in New York City, and another 6300 across the country.
Laudig: Okay. So I've logged into the website, and I even see some places that are close by in New Jersey. So Ebun, when covid is over, we got to make a trip and you know, get some good food.
Ajayi: Oh, yes. That's the first thing on my list. And you know, I just love that it was founded by a couple. And my parents work together, so I just love that. And you know, we love black love. We love to see it. So yeah, [laughs] anyways, search EatOkra on your phone's app store or visit www.eatokra.com to find out more.
Laudig: And while restaurants are one of the most important things we're missing out due to covid-19, we also can't forget about Museums and the Arts. The next thing we want to highlight is the work of Dr. Scott Barton, educator, chef, food studies scholar, and artistic collaborator based out of New York City. I read up about his collaborative project Common Ground with sculptor and ceramic artist Adam Silverman.
Ajayi: Right! So Silverman is doing this super cool thing, and he's harvesting clay, water, and wood ash from all 50 US states, DC, and five occupied territories to be mixed together in this really nice set of tableware and ceremonial pots. And so, these are going to be used for sort of meals throughout the country that are curated by Dr. Barton in collaboration with local chefs that's focused on regional foodways.
Laudig: And Dr. Barton actually joined us to talk about this project. The relationship between his culinary training, and scholarship, and other things he's cooking up, so to speak.
Dr. Scott Barton: I was at a place all through my culinary professional [inaudible] where I always- and maybe because of the way my mom had brought us into it, where I wanted context and history and [inaudible] reference. And so Brazil seemed like a good start because it was the biggest receiver of enslaved of any single area rivaling the Caribbean Basin. And so when I was in Brazil a couple of weeks in, I applied to graduate school for doctoral programs.
I realized how much I was I was really late to the party. I'll be real honest. [laughs] But how much it was giving me an internal high. My work has evolved to be the application of theory, practice in relation to theory. The culinary background allows me... I'm not saying I always make it, but I can understand how it is made or should be made as a question I know to ask. So the idea was to try to talk across difference, tried to learn maybe you can't erase boundary or blur boundary, and he did- he's done it so far by collecting earth, water, and wood from all 50 states and the six territories.
And the wood was burned, so it would create ash [inaudible]. And the Ash will be the glaze. He has an- there isn't based obviously in part on geography, there isn't everything from every place. And there's water from every place, and there's wood. But some of the soils wouldn't lend themselves. And he had to find 56 people who are willing to send him these care packages. And so he's now got a prototype of- and he went through design iteration of what should they look like. There are 56 of those vessels. From the other clay bodies, he's made a dinner set: a bowl, cup and plate. So there's 56 of that as well, those as well.
And so now, the next phase where I come in, we are working to develop a system of dinners or meals. They could be breakfast, could be brunch. But the idea is to pick geographies that have a resonance, bring people together. My thought has been to create an outliner template menu so that it can be flexible. Have a meal that also involves some- besides eating, some interactivity, and once a game- maybe exercises that will help to foster a level of discourse, and as well as documentation. And then- the- the table settings move to the next venue.
Ajayi: Wow, that is so cool! It sounds like Dr. Barton definitely wears many hats.
Laudig: Right. He definitely does. And you can find out more about these projects in the show notes.
Ajayi: As you may have noticed, people are really using food in all kinds of ways to explore these critical issues related to ethnic identity, and really what it means to live in this multicultural United States. In fact, one class that's taught here at Princeton called Literature, Food, and the American Racial Diet is taught by Anne Cheng, and it does just that. Here she is to talk about it.
Anne Cheng: [inaudible] I have 15 people and they come to my house. We will cook together, and that will sort of give me the opportunity to get to know students outside of the classroom. You would combine theory and practice, and you would also think that food is such a natural topic, but thinking about interdisciplinarity, has food involves economics, agriculture, desire, fantasy, bodies. I mean, you just- in Aesthetics, involves so many aspects, right?
And so that in order to talk about food, you have to drop them all these different disciplines. And so I thought it was a natural, you know, topic. So, you know, I put out this ad, and the next thing you know, 250 people signed up. And I thought uh-oh, I can't have 200 people in my kitchen. The 15 was already a little tight, you know. So I thought, at the end of the semester, we will have a cook-off.
And each team will be responsible for putting together a recipe, and making it, and bringing you to the cook-off, and I was going to- and I did invite faculty and some chefs from the University Dining Services to service judges. Well, it is not just about cooking, but each team has to also write about the dish that they prepared, and explain why that dish helps us think about the American racial landscape because the title of the course is Literature, Food, and the American Racial Diet.
And so, they have to write a piece about that. And the challenge here is not to write a piece that say, for example, you know, this is Thai rice. It represents Asian culture. I mean, that's actually exactly the [inaudible] the big challenge of the course. And I tell them the very first day is I would not hear to create- to draw equation between food and racial identities. We're here to actually use food as a critical side to rethink issues of consumption, both literal, and cultural, and psychological.
So we put together a cookbook. So every year, I've taught this class at least three times, I think. Maybe even four times. And each time, we put together a cookbook, and they are quite impressive. So the last one was called Edible Thoughts, and they- the students come up with the title. And the last one is called Edible Thoughts. And so yeah, and I definitely intend to teach this class again. I don't teach it every single year, partially because I have a lot of different teaching applications, and partially because it's actually a very, very large endeavor. Every time I teach it, my husband threatened to divorce me.
Man: Oh, man!
Cheng: Oh, yeah. [laughs] [inaudible] super exciting. And my ability to get to know the students has been such a good reward, you know. And the students get to know not just me, but because we work at the [inaudible] which is they get to know the staff [inaudible] they get to know the chefs. So it's also like a very intergenerational, like environment, which I think is really enriching and for the students. And I hope for the staff as well.
Ajayi: Wow! I just have to take this class the next time Professor Cheng offers it. I do not want to miss it. So you can check out the link to Edible Thoughts in the show notes to see what Princeton undergraduates cooked up as they explore the intersection of food and identity.
Laudig: And you know, hearing from Professor Cheng, a renowned scholar of race and gender, feels especially timely this month. Her 2018 book, Ornamentalism, published by Oxford University Press, interrogates the objectification of Asian women. It's an important text to think more about as we grieve with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and the wake of the mass shooting on March 16th, and consider how we might become better allies to help end ongoing racist violence.
If you'd like to donate or find organizations supporting the victims' families, and broader issues of discrimination against AAPI communities, you can check out the link in our show notes.
Ajayi: Right. And I think it's just really important that we are all aware of these issues in our society. But more than that, we look for ways to get involved in remediating them. So turning back to our initial idea of foodways and food justice, we have a few book recommendations for you all that will help us to do just that.
Laudig: And Ebun, this was really hard because there are so many great books to choose from. It was so hard to narrow it down. But to start, there's a recently edited volume by scholars working in the field of black food studies including Professor Williams-Forson from our interview today. It's called Black Food Matters, and was published in the fall of 2020 by the University of Minnesota Press.
The essays that are gathered explore many of the things we've discussed today, including how ideas about blackness are contested through food, as well as how discourse about divergent notions of health gets constructed.
Ajayi: That sounds really insightful. And you know, Mé, one thing that I think we've both learned today is that questions about food are almost always questions about justice. But one thing that we haven't focused on as much is black farming and agricultural justice. One great place to start this is the book Farming While Black by Leah Penniman, who's the founder of Soul Fire Farm in New York state. Patrice Kurnath Connors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, has this to say about the book, and I quote, "Farming While Black helps us remember why land cultivation is such a significant part of the fight for freedom for black people.
Reading this book provides practical tools along with a beautiful visionary template for practicing land development that is rooted in healing and transformation."
Laudig: Yeah. I still remember hearing Leah Penniman speak when I was a senior in college. And I was so inspired by the ways that she's thinking about the relationship between recovering black people's ancestral connections to the land, and food apartheid, and insecurity. You can find out more about these books on our show notes.
Ajayi: I definitely will be checking out those books very soon. But before I do that, this episode has made me very hungry, Mé. [laughs] So where do you think we can go to find out more about cooking the food of the African diaspora ourselves?
Laudig: Well, Ebun, I was just waiting for you to ask [laughs] since we talked to our own family members on the show, we have to rep In Bibi's Kitchen, a cookbook by Hawa Hassan, that explores East African cuisine from the perspective of grandmothers.
Ajayi: You know, maybe we're gonna have to cook this together at some point.
Laudig: Definitely should. [laughs]
Ajayi: I also see that Hawa Hassan is an entrepreneur with her own line of Somali hot sauces, called Basbaas sauce. It looks like they're sold out right now cause they're very popular, but you can keep updated by following the link in our show notes.
Laudig: And then finally, if you're interested in vegan and vegetarian cooking, you should check out Chef Bryant Terry's Vegetable Kingdom. And follow the blog chocolate for Basil by Jerrelle Guy and Eric Harrison. Check out the links to both in our show notes.
Laudig: Thanks for listening. My name is Mélena Laudig, a PhD student in Religion and African American Studies at Princeton.
Ajayi: And I'm Ebun Ajayi. I'm a Princeton University undergraduate student in the School of Public and International Affairs.
Laudig: And behind the scenes, we have Mikey McGovern, a PhD candidate in History of Science and African American Studies, helping out as an associate producer. Our executive producer is Elio Lleo, the Department of African American Studies Computing Support Specialist. Artistic and creative support was provided by Anthony K. Gibbons Jr., our communications and media specialist.
Ajayi: Also, we want to extend a special thanks to the chair of our department, Eddie Glaude. Our department manager, April Peters. Our events coordinator, Dionne Worthy. And our office assistant, Jana Johnson.
Laudig: Thanks for tuning in.
Ajayi: We'll catch you guys next time.