- Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama ed. by Jennifer Jensen Wallach, and: The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin
Food, like literature, philosophy, music, dance, fashion, technology, and art, is a cultural product. Scholars have focused significant attention on most of these products, exploring how they reflect evolving ideologies, circumstances of time and place, and changes in taste and aesthetics. Food, however, has been mostly marginalized within academic discourse until the recent past. Lately, scholars have begun applying the theories and methods of cultural criticism to food and foodways. Two of the inherent challenges of food scholarship make it especially important to the study of African American life and culture. First, food production involves [End Page 166] overlapping issues of class, gender, and labor. By studying African American food, we can examine forms of work and experience that have been crucial to African American life that are otherwise rendered invisible. Second, the source materials for foodways studies come from recipes, dishes, cookbooks, advertisements, oral histories, community traditions, government policies, literature, and history. Analyzing these sources together yields a kaleidoscopic rendering of African American life with levels of nuance, detail, and specificity often lost in grand narratives.
A number of works have blazed a trail for the study of African American food and foodways. Maurice Manring’s Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (1998) uses the trope of Aunt Jemima to explain America’s enduring fascination with the mammy figure, and Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (2004) examines the association of black women with food within the structures of social, political, and economic life in America. Several histories published in the past few years have explored African American foodways and documented its development in concert with social history. These include Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (2008) by Frederick Douglass Opie; African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture (2008) edited by Anne Bower; High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2012) by Jessica Harris; Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine (2013) by Adrian Miller; and Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (2013) by Rebecca Sharpless. One of the best examples of the possibilities of cultural studies and African American foodways is Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (2006) by Psyche Williams-Forson. Her book combines traditional historiography, literary criticism, advertising history, art history, and media studies to interrogate the ways that chicken has been used as a signifier for blackness in America. Two new books contribute to this vibrant field of discourse, Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach and The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin.
The essays in Wallach’s collection expend on the growth of African American food scholarship. They use a variety of methodologies, “ranging from library science to literary close readings to spatial analysis to archival research to media studies and beyond,” and the variety of approaches used in the collection (xxii). As a whole, the collection explores the ways of studying African American foodways, offering a survey of the current state of a dynamic field that is coming into maturity. The book contains fifteen essays, and the range of its approaches to food studies is a great strength, but it is also the book’s weakness. Many of the essays in the collection open novel conversations about a topic, but the essays are too short to lead to a thorough conclusion. The first essay in the collection, for example, argues that the association of enslaved West Africans with rice production has obscured the role of cassava root in the diets...