- “Eating with Negroes”:Food and Racial Taboo in the Twentieth-Century South
Twenty miles outside of Birmingham sits the fictional town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. Whistle Stop represents a typical early-twentieth-century Southern community. The town’s social and economic activity depends on the congenial cooperation of its residents—white and black. In turn, this cooperation relies upon stringent obedience to a strict racial hierarchy placing white citizens at the top and the black population on the bottom.1 In the prosperous white Threadgoode household, Sipsey Peavey—the daughter of a former slave—nurses the children, tends the garden, and cooks the food. When the youngest Threadgoode daughter, Idgie, opens the Whistle Stop Cafe, it seems natural for Sipsey to go to work in the kitchen. She prepares local favorites, such as dumplings “so light they would float in the air” and home-grown fried green tomatoes (Flagg 48). In the backyard of the cafe, Sipsey’s son Big George tends to the barbecue. The white residents of Whistle Stop think so highly of Big George’s barbecue that the local sheriff has been heard bragging, “That nigger makes the best goddamned barbecue in the state” (Flagg 208). Ninny Threadgoode will recall years later that “people drove all the way from Birmingham to get it” (Flagg 302).
Although Sipsey and Big George cook the food served at the Whistle Stop Cafe, neither they nor any other black resident can eat in its dining room. As the café’s proprietors, Idgie and her partner Ruth Jamison do not necessarily believe in this custom, but they follow it. Ocie Smith, an African American rail yard worker, comes to the café one day requesting an order of Big George’s barbecue. “You know that if it was up to me, I’d have you come on in the front door and sit at a table, but you know I cain’t do that,” Idgie responds. “There’s a bunch in town that would burn me down in a minute, [End Page 69] and I’ve got to make a living.” She instructs Ocie that he and his friends should come to the kitchen door for service. Yet, even selling barbecue to African Americans through the back door gives Idgie problems. The local sheriff warns, “Nobody wants to eat in the same place that niggers come, it’s not right and you just ought not be doin’ it.” Ruth counters, “What harm can it be to sell a few sandwiches out the back door? It’s not like they’re coming in and sitting down” (Flagg 53).
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Although the Whistle Stop Cafe is an invention of Alabama native Fannie Flagg, the segregated eating customs practiced there are not fictional. Such practices existed throughout the South and regulated how whites and blacks interacted in eating situations. Although racial discrimination affected all aspects of Southern life, the segregation of eating places was a particularly harmful form of intolerance because it shaped many of the perceptions that white Americans in the Jim Crow era shared of African Americans—depicting them as too diseased and dirty to share a meal but paradoxically suitable for serving it. White Southerners dutifully regulated the color line in eating situations by indoctrinating their children in race-based food taboos and reproaching individuals who crossed racial boundaries at the table. For their [End Page 70] part, African Americans experienced inconvenience and humiliation because they often had to submit to inferior dining accommodations. Yet, many black Southerners found comfort in culinary traditions that emphasized family and community as well as success in the business opportunities that segregated eating afforded.
Segregation infiltrated all aspects of Southern lifestyles. Yet, because of their intimate connection to racial identity and to the self, racialized eating rituals provide a particularly good vehicle for understanding segregation. Our memories of food are powerful and communicate a lot...