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  • Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning by Rafia Zafar
  • Ashley Rose Young
Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning. By Rafia Zafar. Southern Foodways Alliance: Studies in Culture, People, and Place. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019. Pp. x, 137. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-5367-8; cloth, $99.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-5366-1.)

In the late nineteenth century, Black community members in Austin, Texas, enjoyed tables laden with barbecue, fried catfish and chicken, cornbread, cakes, and ripe watermelon to celebrate Juneteenth. These foods—their ingredients and preparation—embody generations of culinary traditions and the ingenuity created and enacted by Black cooks. They have importance far beyond sustaining the body. In Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning, Rafia Zafar demonstrates the power of food to feed both the body and soul of Black community members as they fought, and continue to fight, oppressive and violent conditions within the United States.

In this book, Zafar presents seven case studies of Black authors using food as a mechanism of empowerment. She aims to provide an alternative understanding of Black culinary history and culture that emphasizes the long tradition of using food to uplift and celebrate Black communities while at the same time defying and breaking down harmful racial stereotypes. The chapters highlight many kinds of literary sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including slave narratives, hospitality manuals, cookbooks, memoirs, and novels, among others.

This monograph builds on foundational scholarship in Black culinary history by authors such as Judith Ann Carney, Jessica B. Harris, and Rebecca Sharpless and can be placed in conversation with recent works by Marcia Chatelain, Kelley Fanto Deetz, and Kelly Kean Sharp that examine the agency embedded in food labor and entrepreneurship. Zafar’s work is [End Page 158] not a history of African Americans in the kitchen but rather a meditation on the meanings of food. Zafar’s opening chapter on Black men’s hospitality books articulates a close reading of three published works that go beyond the literal to reveal the Black entrepreneurs’ advice on how to navigate interracial relationships. Particularly compelling is her analysis of Tunis Campbell’s Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and HousekeepersGuide (1848); she argues that hospitality work established Black men’s credibility, enabling them to occupy public roles as cultural tastemakers. Zafar’s fifth chapter is equally persuasive, contending that Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Carole and Norma Jean Darden participated in a “culinary Black Reconstruction” in the post–civil rights era through the publication of their cookbooks (p. 57). Zafar notes that in Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family (New York, 1978), the Darden sisters transcribe, catalog, and share historic recipes to reclaim their Black heritage and build a new Black identity around it.

In the subsequent chapter, Zafar makes a similar observation of Edna Lewis’s cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking (New York, 1976). This chapter, however, strays somewhat from the rest of the book as Zafar draws comparison between Lewis’s work and that of Alice B. Toklas, who wrote a self-titled cookbook delineating her experiences as a white American living abroad with her partner, famed writer Gertrude Stein. The juxtaposition of Lewis’s and Toklas’s work is somewhat jarring in a book that otherwise privileges and foregrounds the writings of Black authors. That being said, Zafar’s exploration of cookbooks as elegy, or a literary form that memorializes or mourns the loss of a person or place, is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Zafar questions the genre’s historical dominance by white men and encourages a more creative, inclusive study of elegy that incorporates cookbooks authored by women.

Through these case studies, Zafar accomplishes her goal of sharing an alternative perspective on the culinary history of Black communities in the United States, one that has emerged at a pivotal moment in modern U.S. history. Today, both scholars and the broader public are looking to the past to understand the diverse ways Black intellectuals and professionals have fought for equality. Zafar’s work is a testament to the pivotal role of food in this effort.

Ashley Rose Young
Smithsonian’s National...