From the Editor in Chief

By Puckrein, Gary A. | American Visions, June-July 1993 | Go to article overview

From the Editor in Chief


Puckrein, Gary A., American Visions


We are in the throes of a cultural revolution that is certainly deeper, in terms of the many disciplines that are touched by it, and thus more profound than the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. I was reminded of this by Chef Joseph Randall, who hosted a spectacular dinner--"An Elegant Taste of Heritage," he called it--at one of Washington, D.C.'s finest hotels, the Hay-Adams, in April.

Almost from the moment Africans landed in Colonial America in the early 1600s, we became deeply involved in the evolution of food preparation in this country. In many instances, it was not a matter of choice; as servants, we were required to cook, and cook we did. Though the literature gives far too little credit to our contribution, the history of Southern cuisine, for example, is in large part the history of African-American cuisine.

Even in the North, where slaves were not central to the local economy and the institution of slavery was on the wane by the early 19th century, African Americans played an important role in the history of food preparation. They were drawn to the culinary arts because other professions were closed to them, and whites were prepared to concede cooking as work fit for blacks. As a result, the catering industry was dominated by black families, such as the Augustins of Philadelphia, who won recognition among their contemporaries, black and white, for their innovative and delightful meals (see American Visions, October 1990). Equally important, black chefs supported their families through their art, and in some instances their families lived quite comfortable lives.

But as blacks enter other professions that have opened up to them in the 20th century, they have come to view the food and hospitality industry as too much of a reminder of their servile past, and hence to undervalue any career options it might have for them. What they fail to appreciate is that cooking is a great art, and we who have done so much to advance that art in this country should not turn our backs on our heritage, due to mistaken sensibilities. …

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