Version classiqueVersion mobile

Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

African American Voices

Cooking Up a Past: Two Black Culinary Narratives1

Rafia Zafar

Texte intégral

  • 1 I would like to thank GRAAT and the participants in the Ethnic Voices in Anglophone Countries conf (...)

1When examining women's literature, critics in search of a tradition that runs outside, or alongside, a generally agreed upon artistic mainstream must not overlook those expressions that have been formerly consigned to the realm of the non-literary — private diaries, personal correspondence, unpublished narratives. Although women's studies advocates have long looked to such writings to understand the place of women in literature, it has only been in the last several years that work has begun to appear on one of the most widely read of "female" genres — the cookbook. Susan J. Leornardi's essay "Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster a la Riesenholm, and Key Lime Pie" marked an early inroad into the academic establishment, an incursion made all the more significant by its appearance in a major critical publication. More recently, Southern Quarterly devoted an entire, double issue to "The Texts of Southern Food," with essays discussing food in the work, of Southern writers to "Southern" cookbooks themselves. The success of Laura Esquivel's novel, Like Water for Chocolate (1992) — a New York Times best-seller for months on end — further testifies to the not entirely academic appeal of, if not appetite for, women writing about food (Leonardi, 1989; Prenshaw, 1992; Esquivel, 1989; Goldman, 1992).

2Black Americans are also cooks, an image too well inscribed on the collective American unconscious. We furthermore count among us innumerable autobiographers and chroniclers of our history. So when Quandra Prettyman asks if "Black cooks are familiar figures in our national mythology as well as in our national history... [why have] so few have produced cookbooks" it's worth looking for an answer. (Prettyman, 1992). In this essay I hope to join with her inquiry on several fronts, not least by looking at two particular cookbooks from the 1970s, Verta Mae Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking (1970; rev. ed. 1986) and Carole and Norma Jean Darden's Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (1976). By understanding not only how these particular recipe collections function as articulations of a personal or communal identity, but also how they engage with the twinned issues of black stereotyping and class, we'll see how such works operate simultaneously on gastronomic and historical levels.

  • 2 For bibliographies, see Prettyman and Howard Paige, Aspects of Afro-American Cookery (Southfield, (...)
  • 3 Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking (New York: Knopf, 1976) also comes under the rubric of c (...)

3Collections of recipes combined with personal or historical narrative, such as these, function as recoveries or recastings of a black American world. A number of black men and women have, in the course of setting down recipes, written community histories and/or family and individual autobiographies as well. The National Council of Negro Women have sponsored several such cookbooks, from their Historical Cookbook of the American Negro (Washington, DC: The Corporate Press, 1958), edited by Sue Bailey Thurman, to the most recent The Black Family Cookbook. Recipes and Food Memories from the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (Tradery House: Memphis, TN, 1991) that, along with Ruth L. Gaskins's A Good Hand and a Light Heart (Annadale, VA: Turnpike Press, 1968) and others can be considered significant explorations of food and group identity.2 Following as they do the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements of the 1960s, Vibration Cooking and Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine reflect dual agendas — to offer a "how-to" book for those wishing to [re]create particular dishes as well as to celebrate the advances and achievements of a specific American culture.3 By presenting their cookbooks to a national audience, Verta Mae (as she then signed herself) and the Dardens attempt to codify and reimagine the culinary state of black America; they also aim to engage their readers in a discussion of what is "American", "black", and both.

  • 4 Parallelling this growth of interest in Afro-American cultural expressions, a similar increase in (...)

4This concern seen in both Vibration Cooking and Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine finds part of its impetus in the activism of black Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. The Civil Rights/Black Power/Black Arts movements increased the book-buying audience for works on Afro-American themes, as well as a corresponding willingness on the part of trade book houses to publish such books. With the self-confidence and increased curiosity about antecedents deriving from political activism, Ruth Gaskin, the Dardens and Smart-Grosvenor's immediate predecessor, expressly discussed social issues among black Americans, along with offering recipes for such Southern or "black" standards as Vinegar Pie; her tone — we talking to we, as the vernacular would have it — assumes a heightened consciousness of the part of her readers. For a brief moment, for African Americans as well as other groups, food, politics and history became hard to separate out.4

5I selected the Dardens and Smart-Grosvenor cookbooks because they reflect the mélange of creative and political consciousness frequent in the decade preceding. The well-worn cliché of the women's movement — the personal is the political — becomes more than obvious when the forthright Smart-Governor unrestrainedly asserts that for too long Caucasians have been dictating who's in charge of the American kitchen (VC, 1). In a related move, the Dardens point out that for black Americans the legacy of slavery and racism informs even the foods we eat (S, xi). Their inspiration comes from family pride, the 1960s, and a love of eating.

  • 5 Think, for example, of the "high class" volumes of Julia Child, with her emphasis on hours spent i (...)
  • 6 This number has been burgeoning in the last decade. An increased interest in things African Americ (...)

6Let me return, then, to that paucity of black women's cookbooks to which Prettyman refers. A couple of issues strike me as pertinent. The first concerns the class issue raised by the very being of a cookbook. Although cookbooks are said largely to appeal to "women" as a group, women themselves are stratified in terms of race and class. Working-class women (and men) are probably not likely to write, compile, or even read recipe books, if only because their work and financial situation militates against leisure time activities like "gourmet" cooking. Furthermore, African-American cooks and their books, because of the long-standing link between racial (e.g. black) and economic (e.g. lower) status in the United States may come across as less "high culture" than the popular American guides to French or Italian cuisine which crowd the "Cookery" shelves of bookstores and libraries; thus there may heretofore have been a smaller market, in terms of sales, for "ordinary" cooking.5 (This is not, most emphatically, to say that the recipes contained within Spoonbread and Vibration Cooking are "unrefined" or basic). When you add to that equation the fact that much of culinary tradition and method is handed down orally, this might well explain, to some extent, the relatively sparse number of African American culinary writers.6

  • 7 The black cook, as a comic figure in American literature, stretches back at least to James Fenimor (...)

7But a second, perhaps even stronger, issue stems from the desire to separate oneself from the stereotype of the black mammy or cook. As folklorist Patricia Turner recognizes in her analysis of the production and reproduction of "mammy" kitchen artifacts: "The idea that a selfless, sexless, black woman might want to come into your kitchen and organize your household... is not now, and never was, true" (Turner, 1995, 61, 41-61). This popularly held misconception of the black cook — illiterate but inspired, self-deprecating and accepting of the status quo — haunts, consciously or not, the African American woman chef. Therefore a cookbook can attack the belief in black women as "natural cooks," overweight geniuses who presided over generations of Southern kitchens with nary a written-down recipe.7 Both this portrait, of the illiterate, mammy-chef, and that of the real-life black female worker who all too frequently had no other employment option but "in service," figure in Vibration Cooking. At the very beginning of her book Smart-Grosvenor engages pointedly with these formulaic images, when she dedicates her work "to my mama and my grandmothers and my sisters in appreciation of the years that they worked in miss Ann's kitchen and then came home to TCB in spite of slavery and oppression and the Moynihan report" (VC, v). Whom the United States mainstream would categorize and pigeonhole, Verta Mae will liberate through scathing commentary, family history, humor, and personal letters. Not to mention choice of recipes.

8Complementary approaches to similar issues around food and racial identity drew me to Smart-Grosvenor and the Dardens. Spoonbread can be called a keepsake and an archive, Vibration Cooking's unabashed first person narrative creates an autobiography through meals. Subtitles illuminate the shared yet distinctive purposes: Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family invites us into the Dardens home for fruit wines and hot baked goods. Vibration Cooking Or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl indicates the author's Key approach to life and cuisines — like the Aquarian Age black woman she is, Verta Mae cooks with tradition and intuition together; her recipes enhance her picaresque adventures in America, Cuba, and France. Although the Dardens' compendium can be described as a gastronomic social history, even the idiosyncratic narrative of Smart-Grosvenor survey the changes wrought in black America. Each set of reminiscences captures a moment in Afro-American history: if Spoonbread at times seems an idealized version of black life — the now-familiar lament, that segregation had its positive side in the enforced closeness of black community life — the author of Vibration Cooking comes across like a Zora Neale Hurston of the culinary set — a veritable agent provocateur of the dining room.

9Vibration Cooking impresses the reader from the start with the writer's desire to eradicate culinary racism; her original introduction is in fact entitled "The Demystification of Food." She begins by remarking,

In reading lots and lots of cookbooks written by white folks it occurred to me that people very casually say Spanish rice, French fries, Italian spaghetti, Chinese cabbage... with the exception of black bottom pie and niggertoes [Brazil nuts], there is no reference to black people's contributions to the culinary arts. White folks act like they invented food and like there is some weird mystique surrounding it — something that only Julia [Child] and Jim [James Beard] can get to. There is no mystique. Food is food. Everybody eats! (VC, 1)

10In the introduction to the second edition, Verta Mae tells us that "The white folks were on my case [about the original book]." She repeats with scorn their inquiry, "Was I trying to be a black Alice B. Toklas?" adding "the only thing I have in common with Alice B. Toklas is that we lived on the same street in Paris [the rue de Fleurus]. I lived at #17 and she at #27" (VC, xv).

  • 8 Those of us who actually cook from the books we read will note at least one divergence in philosop (...)

11Yet that backhanded reference to Toklas makes the comparison between two American cooks living on the Rue de Fleurus unavoidable: an audience at all familiar with the American scene abroad can easily see parallels between the two writers (Toklas, 1960). Parisian dwellers both, expatriates Toklas and Smart-Grosvenor moved in a vigorous and exhilarating community of expressive artists. Recipes and commentary in each work invite their readers to be impressed by the writer's aesthetic connections: meals celebrate novelists, "Chicken Carlene Polite" (V, 149); painters, "Oeufs Francis Picabia" (T, 31); or musicians — Virgil Thompson contributes a recipe for "shad-roe mousse" (Τ, 244) while Donald Hubbard worries about a "soul food party... in Rome" (V, 67).8 But even though Smart-Grosvenor acknowledges some European "ancestry", like many other African-American she keeps a distance from it. When she recalls eating crepes in Paris, she follows that reminiscence with a recipe for "Grandma Sula's Hoe Cake" (VC, 20-21).

  • 9 I use "significant ancestors" much in the way Werner Sollors does; as he would note, individual Am (...)
  • 10 Howard Paige, a Michigan-based culinary historian of Afro-America, might point out that cookbooks (...)

12Smart-Grosvenor does acknowledge her "significant ancestors"9 African American culinary colleagues like Edna Lewis and Ruth Gaskins receive high praise; so too does Ebony magazine's cookbook. A scandalized Smart-Grosvenor notes that fewer than ten published cookbooks by Afro-Americans appeared before the first edition of Vibration — this despite the fact that "Afro-American cooking is like jazz — a genuine art form that deserves serious scholarship" (VC, xviii)10. Her reluctance to admit kinship with Toklas stems not from an inability to admit a connection with a white predecessor, but from a desire to form a chain of black women ancestors — an ambition noted in a variety of critical venues, as in the work of Alice Walker (Walker, 1983). Perhaps she would point out that the connections her mainstream readers would likely be with the more "famous" white authors; she would thus have us know that it is from black women cooks and writers that she draws her courage and inspiration.

13Smart-Grosvenor quite definitely writes her own, unique, culinary history, even though she, like Toklas, records a smart set of renowned visitors and their amusing anecdotes, yet she also includes a running commentary on life in the United States — whether complaining about "the segregation of ethnic foods in supermarkets... [w]hy can't the mango juice be with the tomato juice [and not in] "some 'exotic' section" (VC, 187) or her inability to hail a taxicab in Manhattan. As opposed to Toklas, Smart-Grosvenor never alludes directly to her husband or any other long-term partner; in lieu of a great spouse's words she records her own and that of her two daughters, Chandra and Kali (" my mamma cook like Aretha Franklin sing!" (VC, XIV)). Her sense of self, most decidedly, does not devolve on being a handmaiden to the greats and near-greats of American cultural history; on the contrary, her own bon mots and wise-cracks are included for the reader's approbation. Along with a recipe for corn muffins, Verta Mae's readers hear her father called "a bad nigger" by southern white (VC, 37, 40) — to the amusement of the father, the author, and, it is assumed, the readers. So sure is she of her own value as autobiographer, rather than cookbook author, she includes an entire chapter of her letters, "Some Letters to and from Stella and one to Bob Thompson."

  • 11 Susan Kalcik has explored the transmission of ethnic identity through food, as I will turn to shor (...)

14In Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, the Darden sisters take their cooking somewhat more seriously — or, I should say, more historiographically. When a friend inquires: "Didn't their black American family, deeply rooted in the experiences of slavery and rural life, have rich material on genuine American cookery?" the sisters answer yes (S, ix). Further realizing that many of the wonderful dishes they "had taken for granted" were more real to them than the relatives dispersed across generations and regions, they decided to put together a cookbook, for these women, a compendium of loved foods would be inextricable from recapturing past African American life; to do properly would result in a "thick description" of a past age. Thus, Spoonbread is literally "a testimonial to those who lovingly fed us and at the same time gave us a better sense of ourselves by sharing themselves" (S, xi). Unsurprisingly, along with those earliest remembered bites came their identity as African-Americans.11 For these northern-raised, northern-educated sisters, recapturing their culinary past involved travel to distant relatives (they call it "our pilgrimage 'home'", (S, xi)), visiting neighbors in small southern towns, picking through boxes of photographs, as well as collecting, trying out, and standardizing old recipe cards.

15As one might expect from a cookbook-cum-testimonial, statements from various dignitaries abound — except the statements here come from surviving relatives, old friends of the family, or anecdotes they themselves remember. Within its covers the sisters divide one side of the family from another, mapping out their genealogy and giving credit for each recipe where due (each branch of the Sampsons and the Dardens is carefully delineated). Carefully planned, every chapter refers specifically to a family member; accompanying photographs and reminiscences heighten the succulence and significance of the recipes that follow. Rather than Smart-Grosvenor's savory stew of old and new recipes, letters from friends, and bohemian-black arts hobnobbing, the Dardens recreate course by course a texture they see vanishing with increased social mobility, desegregation, and distance from slavery. Following a brief biography of the only grandparent they ever knew, adaptations of granddad Sampson's honey-based receipts follow — "Fruited Honey Chicken", "Honey Duck," "Honey Custard," even "Cough Syrup" (S, 148-151). Memories of their travels in the segregated South as young girls precede a picnic menu; dishes by various friends, old and new, who provided them with food and shelter are provided as well — "Hot Crab-Meat Salad" and "Edna Neal's Pan-fried Blowfish" (S, 248-249). Although far from a eulogy for African America, theirs has an elegiac, wistful tone absent from Vibration Cooking: "Thoughts of [our uncle] J.B. conjure up images of big shiny cars, polished two-toned shoes, straw hats tipped to the side, and the continual party that always seemed to be going on around him... he was a cook [who]... preferred to eat his "dinner" first thing in the morning... " (S, 53). One could believe that Spoonbread was aimed at those deracinated products of integrated schools, peaceful suburbs, and an ever-widening gap between the black working class and the bourgeoisie. The closeness gained through years of patronizing "colored" funeral homes, ice cream parlors, and movie theaters, and then lost through desegregation, is strongly felt. The black world of segregated America simply does not exist anymore.

  • 12 Informal talk, "African-American Emancipation Day Celebrations," Greenfield Village Museum, Dearbo (...)

16The way these three authors treat a traditional African American fete, New Year's Day, and its signature dish illustrate their divergent strategies. New Year's celebrations in the black community date back to 1863, if not before (it was in that year the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.) Hopping John, as African American culinary arts historian Howard Paige has noted, has been variously said to be named after a limping New Orleans slave who sold the dish or the children who hopped around the table begging for a taste.12 The making of this plain fare sends the Dardens and Smart-Grosvenor down parallel memory lanes. The two sisters tell us that "On New Year's Day we always have Open House at our fathers' home. It is a leisurely day, designed to give us an opportunity to unwind from the frenzy of New Year's Eve... Black folklore has it that hoppin' john brings good luck in the coming year, so we always serve this... essential... (S, 223).

17As is typical, the Dardens link food, history, and folklore; their Hoppin' John, which they take pains to subtitle "Black-Eyed Peas and Rice" contains rice, peas, red and black pepper, ham hocks, bay leaf, onions, celery stalk, and salt. By placing the dish in the context of black American culture, as well as providing exact instructions, the Dardens hope to ensure that their readers' attempts at gastronomic and ethnic revival will turn out successfully.

18Smart-Grosvenor does not fail to connect black-eyed peas and rice with New Year's Day. She too recalls open houses:

Like those New Year's open houses I used to have and everyone I loved would come. Even Millie came from Germany one year. She arrived just in time for the black-eyes and rice. And that year I cooked the peas with beef neck bones instead of swine cause so many brothers and sisters have given up swine. I had ham hocks on the side for the others... If you eat... [Hopping John] on New Year's Day, you supposed to have good luck for the coming year. Black people been eating that traditional New Year's Day dinner for years. That's why I'm not having no more open house on New Year's Day. I'm going to try something new. (VC, 3-4)

19For Smart-Grosvenor, strict adherence to tradition should not overrule the spirit of the occasion. Accordingly, her ingredients and recipe can be included in four short lines:

Cook black-eyed peas.
When they are almost done add rice.
Mix rice and peas together.
Season and — voilà! — you got it. (VC, 4)

  • 13 Interestingly, the Dardens, although intent on recapturing the exact tastes and smells of the past (...)

20So although she gives you a recipe for Hopping John, she prefaces it with her explanation of why she omits the pork, leaves the seasoning up to her audience, and intimates, more or less, that she plans to skip it entirely on subsequent Firsts. Smart-Grosvenor wants to ensure innovation, the cook's own sense of integrity, and tradition simultaneously. Still, Smart-Grosvenor will not break with some traditions — nothing so new-fangled as Teflon "can't fry no fried chicken." For this cook, only the cast iron pots of her girlhood will do (VC, 2).13

21Smart-Grosvenor nevertheless sees soul food not as a historical entity but as an evolving, flexible continuum: the food may change but the identity persists. Put another way, and the way anthropologist Fredrik Barth would see it, the "boundaries" of culinary black America may alter (in this case, foods or styles of preparation), but the group itself remains identifiable, both by itself and others (Barth, 1969, Introduction). Scholarly discussions of food do indeed usually come under the purview of anthropologists, sociologists, and folklorists. Those observers of ethnicity and identity are most likely to have contemplated the axes of food and cultural "stuff"; while they may not write on literature, per se, their analyses depend on a reading of what we eat and how we subsequently construct a self. The words "soul food", long used by African Americans to refer to black cuisine, underscore the link between eating and psychic, if not cultural, identity. And food habits, or taste, may be one of the strongest determinants of group identity. Susan Kalcik has observed the importance of food in creating a bedrock, ethnic self: "foodways seem particularly resistant to change... It has been suggested that this is because the earliest-formed layers of culture, such as foodways, are the last to erode" (Kalcik, 1984, 39). If eating "black" can be understood as one of the primal, formative indicators of an individual's life, then it stands to follow that certain cookbooks might explicitly set themselves the task of re-creating that group identity, if cooking "black" is the order of the day.

  • 14 Jessica B. Harris has noted two "major African-American culinary traditions... that of the dirt-po (...)

22In an earlier version of this essay I had remarked that the Dardens seek to disabuse limited notions of black cuisine: one of my readers protested: "Who ever thought 'African American food' was 'just grits and greens anyway'?" While there indeed may be some who believe African Americans subsist on corn meal and leafy vegetables, that remark speaks as much to intragroup notions about the food of rural black Southerners (not to mention urban black Northerners) as that of the Dardens's implied readership. To deny that these items were indeed common, because of the poverty-stricken condition of much of African America, is also to deny the past; it is also to deny a link with the continent. Nor does the invocation of "greens" indicate that there is a sole African-American culinary tradition.14 Black cuisine is indeed not "just grits and greens", but the lowly dish of greens does signify mightily. The eating of collards has meaning in ways analogous to the eating of bitter greens from a seder plate: the ingestion serves as a near-literal taste of slavery and group identity. And as Pierre Bourdieu has said "Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects... distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar..." (Bourdieu, 1984, 6).

  • 15 Although the practice may be fading (as was suggested to me by the few student hands raised in res (...)

23For most African Americans, greens have a content beyond Β vitamins and iron. Jessica B. Harris, historian of the cuisine of the African diaspora, says "greens are undeniably one of the United States' best-known African-inspired foods"; they "go into the pot boiling on the back of the stove in a traditional Black American household" (Harris, 1989, 15, 11). Unsurprisingly, then, the Dardens present their readers with three headings under greens: Mixed Greens, Collard Greens, and "Pot Likker". Noting that their father "eats greens every day, so he always makes them in quantity and reheats them during the week," the Dardens offer recipes that yield between twelve and sixteen servings. By not dividing the recipe for their readers, the sisters implicitly affirm the value and foundational place of cooked greens in black American cuisine. Going on to speak of the value of pot likker, the liquid left over from cooking greens, the sisters remark that "it is renowned for its nutritional value and can be used as an excellent vegetable stock for soups, as a soup in its own right, or traditionally to dunk corn bread" (S, 136).15 Giver of vitamins and folk customs, greens serve as side dish and symbol.

24Verta Mae Grosvenor, who could be called a precursor of Afrocentricity, at least in terms of cuisine, celebrates greens in a mixed message of nutrition and nationalism. In a chapter titled "Collards and other Greens" Grosvenor discusses the various aspects of this food. They are, "according to the National Geographic... prehistoric. The Romans took them to France and England. The Romans are said to have considered them a delicacy. I know I consider them a delicacy. They are very rich in minerals and vitamins" (VC, 131). Two exchanges occurring during greens-buying expeditions further illustrate her conflation of provender and politics. When shopping in her Lower East Side Manhattan neighborhood, Smart-Grosvenor has an unpleasant déjà vu when the person of color (in this case a Puerto Rican man; in her childhood it was a black man) wrapping the greens does not take the money; that a white store owner deems an employee good only to wrap vegetables is an insult. She vows to shop in Harlem for her greens henceforth, even if it means taking a long subway ride (VC, 133). In a second incident, a white shopper asks, "how do you people fix these [greens]?" The patronizing epithet, "you people", provokes a mischievous fit: our intreprid chef flatly announces that African Americans make salad with them, using "Italian" dressing. Nearby, "a black woman... looked at me as if I had discredited the race" (VC, xvi). Vibration Cooking gives eleven recipes for these "common" vegetables, an affidavit of the author's belief in their tastiness, curative powers, and unshakable place in black American life.

  • 16 The writings of Jessica B. Hams, John Pinderhughes, Family of the Spirit Cookbook. Recipes and Rem (...)

25Food can not be separated from personal, literary, and social matrices. When the Dardens describe the box lunches with which they and other black Americans travelled, their memories demand an acknowledgement of the Jim Crow transportation system, which barred African Americans from public eating places (S, 253). Smart-Grosvenor writes another kind of culinary history when, fired up over the controversy surrounding William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, she finds "Nat's last meal [was] roast pork and apple brandy" — and so creates a new recipe, "Nat Turner Apple Pork Thing" (VC, 174). Thus the Dardens' book works like an archive of recipes with history, while Smart-Grosvenor's volume captures a black cuisine and life in process. One can not say that the Dardens enshrine their heritage never to partake of it. Yet because Smart-Grosvenor writes of her own life and the place cookery holds within it, while the Dardens record the manner in which their mother, father, and older relatives ate, these two "black cookbooks" differ remarkably. Seeing their roles dissimilarly, approaching differently the stuff of African American culture, they present us with complementary volumes that combine black female identity, historical and personal narrative, and food. The authors' multifold, entwined desires shape both books: they must present a cuisine in a social context, record a history that must not be forgotten, and relate the lived experience of the writer or her family. For these three women writers, creating an African American cuisine really does mean to cook up the past.16



Barth, Fredrik. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Esquivel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. A Novel in Monthly Installments, with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies. 1989; English translation, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1992.

Goldman, Anne. "I Yam What I Yam': Cooking, Culture, and Colonialism" De / Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Eds. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, 169-195.

Harris, Jessica B. Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons. Africa's Gifts to New World Cooking. New York: Atheneum, 1989.

— "Heirloom Recipes from a Southern Family. A Big-Flavored Meal in the African-American Tradition", Food & Wine (February 1991)

Kalcik, Susan. "Ethnic Foodways in America: Symbol and the Performance of Identity", Ethnic and Regional Fooways in the United States. The Performance of Group Identity. Eds. Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

Leonardi, Susan J. "Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster a la Riesenholm, and Key Lime Pie", PMLA 104 (1989) 340-347.

Prenshaw, Peppy Whitman ed. "The Texts of Southern Food", The Southern Quarterly 30, 2-3 (Winter Spring 1992).

Prettyman, Quandra. "Come Eat at My Table: Lives with Recipes", Southern Quarterly 30, 2-3 (Winter-Spring 1992): 131-140. Prettyman's article appeared after I gave the first version of this paper in September 1991; in addition to Norma Jean and Carole Darden and Verta Mae Grosvenor, whom I discuss herein, her essay reviews Edna Lewis and Cleora Butler. We come to some of the same conclusions about the Dardens and Smart-Grosvenor.

Rozin, Elizabeth and Paul Rozin. "Some Surprisingly Unique Characteristics of Human Food Preferences," Food in Perspective. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Ethnological Food Research, Cardiff, Wales. Ed. Alexander Fenton and Trefor M. Owen.

Smart-Grosvenor, Verta Mae. Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. 1970; revised edition, New York: Ballantine Books, 1986; and Carole and Norma Jean Darden, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. New York: Doubleday, 1976. Further references to the revised edition of Vibration Cooking (VC) and the first edition of Spoonbread (S) are located in the text.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Turner, Patricia A. Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies. New York: Anchor Books, 1995: 61 and 41-61 passim.

Toklas, Alice B. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. 1954; reprint, New York: Anchor Books, 1960. Further references are given in the text as (T).

Walker, Alice. "Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and Partisan View", In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983: 83-92.


1 I would like to thank GRAAT and the participants in the Ethnic Voices in Anglophone Countries conference (University of Tours, September 1991) for their support and enthusiasm for the first incarnation of this essay. I especially appreciate the encouragement of my French colleague and friend Claudine Raynaud. Thanks, too, to the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, Michigan for providing a forum for my thoughts on this topic, and two early, anonymous readers.

2 For bibliographies, see Prettyman and Howard Paige, Aspects of Afro-American Cookery (Southfield, MI: Aspects Publishing Co., 1987).

3 Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking (New York: Knopf, 1976) also comes under the rubric of cookbook-autobiography.

4 Parallelling this growth of interest in Afro-American cultural expressions, a similar increase in celebrating one's origins arose in other groups; the trend is usually referred to as the ethnic revival of the 1970s. Along with this rise in various Americans' perceptions of themselves as "Italian", Greek," or "Polish" came a corresponding interest in ethnic cookbooks and restaurants.

5 Think, for example, of the "high class" volumes of Julia Child, with her emphasis on hours spent in the kitchen and the purchase of hard to obtain and expensive ingredients.

6 This number has been burgeoning in the last decade. An increased interest in things African American has been evident, both on the part of "mainstream" America as well as in the unprecedented numbers of black middle-class, often the product of integrated schools and communities, in fact increases the need for compendiums such as Spoonbread and Vibration Cooking: without a close-knit extended family and wider black community, today's African American may have to turn to a book to whip up dishes with a specifically "black" identity. Similarly, and as alluded to earlier, other "hyphenated" Americans must turn to how-to manuals to re-create their "soul food."

7 The black cook, as a comic figure in American literature, stretches back at least to James Fenimore Cooper; in his novel The Spy (1821), it is a black man who is the cook, although his wife is depicted as the fat and jolly one. In a telling moment of gastronomic essentialism, Chloe of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) exclaims, "look at my great black stumpin hands. Now, don't ye think dat de Lord must have meant me to make de pie-crust, and you [Mrs. Shelby, Chloe's owner] to stay in de parlor?" See Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (New York: Harper Classics, 27). Stowe has not one but two of these slave-born, untutored chefs in her novel —the aforementioned Chloe, and Dinah, the truculent genius of a New Orleans household.

8 Those of us who actually cook from the books we read will note at least one divergence in philosophy, if not method. While Toklas and Grosvenor share a respect for their audience-cooks' expertise and common sense, Grosvenor insists that measurements only go so far: "I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration... The amount of salt and pepper you want to use is your business" (xiii, 1-2).

9 I use "significant ancestors" much in the way Werner Sollors does; as he would note, individual Americans, and certainly American writers, decide which forebears they find important to their own sense of ethnic or existential being. (Sollors, 1986, 208-236).

10 Howard Paige, a Michigan-based culinary historian of Afro-America, might point out that cookbooks by African Americans appeared as early as the antebellum period (Robert Roberts' "directory" came out in 1827 and Tunis Campbell's compendium appeared in 1847); although he does not provide a bibliography, he notes at least five such cookbooks by 1936 (Paige, 55, 58, and passim).

11 Susan Kalcik has explored the transmission of ethnic identity through food, as I will turn to shortly. Two anthropologists have noted that flavor may function symbolically, much in the way that traditional costumes do. Thus, having ethnic tastes would place one as belonging to a specific group; similarly, foods with a particular taste, scent, or even texture would identify themselves as belonging to a particular ethnic or racial community (Rozin, 1981, 243-253).

12 Informal talk, "African-American Emancipation Day Celebrations," Greenfield Village Museum, Dearborn, Michigan, August 1991.

13 Interestingly, the Dardens, although intent on recapturing the exact tastes and smells of the past, show less resistance to modernization.

14 Jessica B. Harris has noted two "major African-American culinary traditions... that of the dirt-poor, hardscrabble Deep South... [and the one that] harked back to the kitchens put up preserves, and served elegant meals" (Harris, 1991, 50).

15 Although the practice may be fading (as was suggested to me by the few student hands raised in response to my query whether they knew what "pot liquor" was), I know of pot likker's healthful qualities from my grandmother, who drank it herself and would insist that my sister and I imbibe some as well.

16 The writings of Jessica B. Hams, John Pinderhughes, Family of the Spirit Cookbook. Recipes and Remembrances from African-American Kitchens (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), and Cleora Butler, Cleora's Kitchens & Eight Decades of Great American Food. The Memoir of a Cook (Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books, 1985) all display similar literary-culinary instincts. Although notably different in their approaches, these cooks have also chosen to collect, compile and record recipes taken from family, travels, friends, or an individual career as chef and caterer. All take pains to explain why one might want to conflate the cookbook with a historical or personal narrative.


Assistant Professor of English at the University of Michigan, is currently in residence at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. The recipient of a 1995 Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, she most recently coedited Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; New Essays (Cambridge, 1996), and is now completing a study, We Wear the Mask, on early African American writers, for Columbia University Press

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search