Tag Archives: books

Big Mama’s House?

auntjem

So, I was doing a search for websites on African American food, using that search term specifically, and essentially came up with nothing.  Most of  the entries ended up being redirected to sites about soul food, which while encompassed under the umbrella of African American food is really, it seems, more of a concept than anything else that conjures images of black folks dancing, singing, and eating chicken, at least for me.  I think the reason I have a problem with that term is that  it tends to force the food that African Americans eat into a box that has no room for the sheer diversity of  ingredients, techniques, or regions that exist, ultimately leading people (most notably African Americans themselves) to accept/believe that all African Americans eat is fried chicken or catfish (and we only eat catfish and occasionally fried shrimp), greens, biscuits, chitlins, candied yams, and, of course, peach cobbler for dessert.  In the summer, we can throw in some barbecue, but otherwise, forget it.  Of course all of this ish is delicious but that’s beside the point.*

I’ve already discussed in an earlier post, how this myth is debunked by the late, great Edna Lewis in her seminal The Taste of Country Cooking. The creation of soul food as a concept in and of itself came to be in Amiri Baraka’s 1962 essay “Soul Food.”  I am simplifying (mostly because I’m feeling lazy right now), but like most things culturally African American the concept made it to the mainstream and the script was flipped until we ourselves began believing that the dishes mentioned above were all with which we could fill our tables and our bellies.  Sigh.

But I have digressed far further than I meant to…

So let me get back on track.  Alright.  I took a peek at a few of these websites and found that every one of them had one or more recipes linked to Mama, Big Mama, etc.  There is “Mama’s Fried Catfish” and the enticing “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf” both at http://www.soulfoodcookbook.com and a recipe for “Mama’s Pecan Pie” at http://www.washingtonpost.com, just to name a few, but this is just on the web.  I have an entire book called Soul Food by Sheila Ferguson that has recipes with titles like: Roast Pheasant with Wild Rice Stuffin’ (emphasis on the stuffin’) and lines like:  “It’s that shur-‘nuf everlovin’ downhome, stick-to-your-ribs kinda food that keeps you glued to your seat long after the meal is over…Yes suh!” [sic]  The book even has a whole section on how black people speak.  It was written with a British audience in mind primarily but this annoys me even more.  And I’m sure that somewhere there is an entire book of “Big Mama’s” recipes floating around somewhere.  I have to say that I do not have a Big Mama.  I have a feeling that if I had ever called my Grandmother that, she would have looked at me like I was crazy and let me know the bid’ness, like the time I asked her why she never baked any cookies.  Needless to say, I never questioned her domesticity again.  

Doris Witt wrote a great book exploring all of this called: Black Hunger: Soul Food In America.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

Maybe I am all fired up over nothing, because yes, this is a pattern of speech among some black folks, and yes, as with any culture mothers and grandmothers are usually held in the highest esteem when it comes to cooking but…Why? Why “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf?” Why?  I will never understand this.  And why do they always have to be big?  We’re not all big…damn.

 

*I can speak with authority on everything except chitlins.  I haven’t ever tasted them.  When my great Grandmother was still alive she once tried to bribe me, offering me $20 to take just one bite and I still wouldn’t do it.

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The Roots Cuisine Bookshelf

Research for a new project I am working on has yielded some interesting results in terms of books.  There are few books dedicated to the topic of the food of the African Diaspora that aren’t cookbooks and even those are few and far between.    

I’m planning to write short reviews for this site and I’ll also have at least one book review article/essay on The Root at some point in the coming weeks.  This first go ’round, instead of full reviews I’m just going to share a few interesting titles I’ve found while researching.  All seem fascinating and are helping me to develop a new (and of course more well-informed) perspective on diasporal cuisine:

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I was extremely excited to find a social history of the food of the African Diaspora in the Americas called: Hog and Hominy: Soul Food From Africa to America by Frederick Douglass Opie.  So far it is a fascinating, well-researched account of the topic that covers the pre-slave trade period through the 1970s when the movement to create an African-American cuisine developed.  The result of course, was the birth of Soul Food, a term that is rather limiting in scope.  I go back and forth regarding the term, there’s an essay and/or a blog post in there somewhere.  

The next book is The Peppers, Cracklings, and Knots of Wool Cookbook: The Global Migration of African Cuisine by Diane M. Spivey.  This book is almost a bible of the spread of African influence on cuisines around the world.  Ms. Spivey covers not only The Americas and the Caribbean, but also Asia.  It really seems to be grounded in images

nutritional anthropology and social history.  This one is really interesting because it includes the authors own interpretation of diasporal cooking.  And, while some of the recipes call to mind a traumatizing bowl of hkatenkwan* containing goat and mackerel (!) that I recently ate at a Ghanaian restaurant, what she’s doing is interesting and inspirational for a girl like me.

African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture edited by Anne L. Bower.  This scholarly collection of essays contains no recipes but offers much food for thought about the history and representations of African American food in two sections titled as such.  Endnotes abound here.  I’m looking forward to two images-21 

essays entitled “Soul Food as Cultural Creation” by William Whit and “Chickens and Chains: Using Soul Food to Understand Black Identities” by Psyche Williams-Forson**

 

images-1 The next book is Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking by Jessica Harris.

I interview her for another essay that I wrote for The Root called “Soul Food: A New Place At the Table” of course, I was pretty angry when the editor changed the title and inserted the term Soul Food, but that’s in the past now.  Anyway, I have another of Dr. Harris’ books called The Africa Cookbook, that I’m on the fence about, but I absolutely love Iron Pots...I cannot wait to try the recipes.  As she seems to do with all of her books she starts out with a chapter or two of background information including brief history and geography lessons where necessary.  In this volume she includes a glossary of terms.  It’s a great reference because in many cases she provides names for ingredients and cooking techniques across regions and countries, which is really helpful since Africa and the Diaspora are large and diverse but tend to share these things cross-culturally.  

Last but certainly not least there is Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture by E.N. Anderson.  This book is a nutritional anthropology bible and Anderson’s prose makes an already fascinating subject even more images-3

engaging Discussing topics like why every single culture has figured out the importance of pairing grains and legumes largely without information about the nutritional value of this pairing, Anderson’s book is an important and just plain interesting addition to any bookshelf.

 

*Ghanaian groundnut soup that I had a local restaurant.  I think that the woman was being nice by giving me both meat and fish in the soup, but the combination of the gamey goat and the oily, strongly-flavored mackerel accompanied by my first bowl of fufu, which was incidently made from boxed plantain flour was not so nice.  

** Psyche Williams-Forson has written a book that I just can’t wait to get my hands on called Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs:  Black Women, Food, and Power.