African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture

Article excerpt

Jennifer Sieck The George Washington University Anne L. Bower (ed.), African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 200 pp.

Editor Anne L. Bower invites six scholars to bring a dish in the form of a chapter to African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture. Together they host a multi-course meal for readers hungry to learn about African American history and culture through the lens of food. The diversity of the dinner guests reflects the divergent disciplines to which African American culinary studies lends itself; experts around the table range from archaeologists to sociologists. The result is a recipe for a flavorful feast (and, notably, one attentive to presentation) that provides a solid foundation for exploring African American foodways.

Bower, a retired English professor and author of Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories, introduces the collection of essays by examining the role of food in the motion picture Soul Food, observing that the Sunday dinner table acts as a barometer for the status of the African American family in the film. Bowers extends the metaphor to show how African American food offers a mirror to history and culture. By studying the history (part one of the book) and representations (part two) of African American food, she contends that scholars gain new insights not only into history and culture, but also into issues of race, gender, economics and politics. Though not a cookbook, Bowers includes a recipe for "Chicken and Collard Green Crêpes with Béchamel Sauce" at the conclusion of her introduction, enjoining readers, too, to participate in African American foodways (11).

The value of studying food to yield greater meaning than, as the ad slogan puts it, " it's what's for dinner," echoes throughout the book. The author of chapter four, Doris Witt, likens food to music as a site for cultural expression, but critiques the limited recognition food receives related to its role in shaping history. Recapitulated in almost every chapter is the way that food is yet another example of African Americans' use of material culture to retain individual and group identities in the face of oppression. Though the book testifies to a distinctiveness in African American food, it also emphasizes the fusion of cultures blended by African Americans-African, Native American, and European-and the resulting influence that permeates American cuisine today. Finally, women and men play important roles in African American foodways past and present; however, a number of essays pay special attention to women's access to power in relation to food.

In chapter one, Robert L. Hall notes that African foodways predate Alfred Crosby's notion of the Columbian Exchange by "hundreds, if not thousands of years" (17). He provides extensive documentation of crop exchanges to inform his inquiry into the relationship between food and the transatlantic slave trade. By asking what Africans ate and brought with them to the Americas, he attempts to determine how "African all Americans are" (18). Hall, a professor of African American studies and history, argues that enslaved Africans integrated their cultures into white southern culture because of their knowledge of growing crops such as rice and their role in preparing food on the plantation. They also maintained what Charles W. Joyner describes as "African culinary grammars" in their own food preparations which were separate from whites (31). Food and identity remained symbolically linked during slavery, a connection that continues today. Hall's concluding contention is reminiscent of Albert Raboteau's groundbreaking work in Slave Religion: foodways provide another instance in which African Americans creatively preserve African culture within the context of the slavery.

William C. Whit riffs on similar themes in chapter two from his perspective as a sociologist, touching on how enslaved cooks influenced the evolution of white southern food culture and, more broadly, how " subordinated people used their own knowledge systems of the environment they settled to reshape the terms of their domination" (49). …