As southern states began enacting Jim Crow laws as early as the 1870s, white fear of “social integration,” or sexual relationships between white women and black men, was used as a rationale for legally sanctioned oppression of African Americans. Although the supposed threat of interracial sex often signified wider concerns about the loss of white supremacy in the wake of Reconstruction, intimacy across racial lines, at least outside of the acceptable power-dynamic of white male superior and black female subordinate, indicated a blurring of racial hierarchies that infiltrated individual bodies. Fear of this form of integration, then, was used as justification for white atrocities against blacks because of its deeply sensual and emotional nature.
But sex was not the only intimate activity susceptible to white racial anxieties. In To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South, historian Angela Jill Cooley argues that eating, that other primal activity that “involve[s] a foreign substance entering the human body and potentially contributing to [End Page 101] the development of flesh,” was also organized according to shifting racial politics (p. 11). New class and regional identities that flourished throughout the first half of the twentieth century shaped southern concepts of food and dining according to white supremacist ideals, Cooley argues, both in the private realm of the home kitchen and in the public restaurant spaces that growing urban populations increasingly frequented. In doing so, she provides readers with a complex account of how dining practices reinforced Jim Crow divisions, while challenging romanticized notions of “traditional” southern foodways.
Cooley’s book begins in the private realm of the southern home kitchen, once considered the domain of enslaved black cooks. Since slave ownership was a mark of both economic status and white superiority, white owners did not hesitate to sing the praises of meals prepared by black cooks, who were said to be predisposed to this sort of labor and whose recipes were deemed “authentic” to the South. By the early twentieth century, however, segregation shaped by Jim Crow laws and a growing urban middle class meant that white women became increasingly responsible for home food preparation. Cooley deftly uses cookbooks, magazines, and newsletters from ladies’ clubs to show how recipes and food preparation were “whitened” by substituting more expensive, often imported ingredients for regional southern fare, and utilizing modern kitchen equipment that was beyond the means of most African Americans and lower-income whites. Conversely, those women were able to enter burgeoning marketplaces by cooking new “southern” fare, like biscuits, and selling them to people working in cities. In this way, she shows how both Jim Crow laws and budding industrial capitalism shaped methods of cooking and eating that signified racial and class concerns.
Cooley also devotes chapters to different methods of dining in public, including the elegant “ladies cafes” that opened in southern urban centers to protect middle-class white female shoppers from sharing public dining spaces with men and African Americans, transitory “quick lunch” spots operating out of the homes of African American proprietors, popular white barbeque restaurants that turned away [End Page 102] black customers even after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Greek-owned diners that operated as uncertain spaces, since new immigrants were often unaware of how racial law operated in daily life. Throughout, Cooley uses approaches from urban studies and social geography to show how “segregation marks African Americans as ‘inferior’ because they occupy inferior spaces,” but adds to this literature by focusing on the supposedly mundane activity of eating (p. 5). Although her book would have been strengthened by further examination of how these new foodways were advertised to the rest of the country (and, ultimately, around the world), Cooley provides an invaluable look at how a fundamental human activity was twisted and reshaped by racial power dynamics throughout most of the twentieth century.
BETH FOWLER is a senior lecturer in the...