A discussion of African American food must include the cultural patterns associated with how, where, when, with whom, and why certain foods are consumed and the patterns of food procurement, preparation, presentation, and dispensation. Studies of food as part of a cultural system should consider dietary behavior, the environmental conditions in which foods are grown, the meanings associated with food, the social structure and material culture affecting food, and the historical factors that contribute to the persistence or change in food behavior. Food meets a host of human needspolitical, economic, communal, cognitive, and affective as well as nutritionaland it has a role in power relations, stereo-types, and assumptions.
Before discussing African American foodways, it is important to first clarify what is meant by the term "African American." Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1996) defines "African American" as "a black American of African descent." This discussion narrows that definition to focus on black persons of African ancestry whose lineal relatives (parents, grandparents, great grandparents) have resided in the United States for several generations. The focus on lineal relatives for establishing African American foodways is based on the assumption that most children grow up in households with adult lineal relatives (parents and grandparents) and/or with adult collateral relatives (aunts, uncles, cousins), who in turn grew up in households with their lineal and/or collateral relatives. Where adults in the household grew up is important because they influence the initial foodways of children. Black parents who grew up in Africa or the Caribbean pass on preferences for foods from those cultural areas that are different from the preferences of black parents who grew up in the United States. Parents and close relatives also pass on many of the cultural patterns that surround dietary content. For the purposes of this discussion "foodways" are products of multigenerational historical process, reproduction, and change.
Soul Food: A Metaphor of Group Identity
Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, in Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity (1984), discussed foodways as a metaphor of group identity and included contributions on Jewish Americans, Italian Americans, Russian Americans, Mexican Americans, Cajun Americans, Hindu Americans, and Florida Seminole Indians. However, no contribution focused on African American foodways even though during the 1960s soul food was adopted by millions of African Americans as a marker of ethnic identity, and soul food restaurants emerged wherever significant numbers of African Americans resided.
The concept of soul food emphasizes both content and preparation styles. Whitehead commented:
Pork is a favorite soul food meat that must be fixed in a certain way. In addition, soul food requires the use of pork fat ("fat back," salt pork, streak-o-lean) as a seasoning in the cooking of vegetables in a slow stewing manner (vegetables such as collard and turnip greens, black-eyed and field peas, green and lima beans), and in the frying of other favorite foods such as chicken, fish, and [white] potatoes. (1992, p. 28)
William Wiggins has written that soul food restaurants include:
down-home breads (cornbread, cracklin' bread, and biscuits), vegetables (collard, turnip, and mustard greens, candied yams, black-eyed peas, red beans andrice, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, green beans, pigeon peas, and squash), meats (fried chicken, shrimp, oysters, white buffalo, and catfish, neckbones, chitterlings, ham, gumbo, burgoo, and barbecue), and desserts (apple, peach, and cherry cobblers, sweet potato, transparent, pecan and apple pies). (1987, p. 81)
Some African Americans include rice on the soul food menu. Delilah Blanks (1984) found older African Americans in the South added wild animals, such as squirrels, rabbits, opossums, and deer. Flour-based gravies are a favorite with meats and rice. According to Wiggins, slaves began New Year's Day festivities as early as 27 or 28 December for ample celebration. They ate hoppin' John and attended watch night services to ward off family separations in the new year (Wiggins, 1987, p. 26). Many African Americans still eat hoppin' John or rice and black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck in the upcoming year.
Among the soul food preparation styles are foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. Meats and other foods are fried, and most vegetables are stewed with pork fat. Whitehead reports that while dining with one of his study families in eastern North Carolina, at a single meal he was served fish, slices of country ham, corn bread, and white potatoes fried in pork fat and green vegetables stewed with salt pork as a seasoning. Country ham, preserved in a heavily salted brine, is a salt-laden favorite in the soul food menu (Whitehead, 1992, p. 98). Soul food is also spiced with red pepper (cayenne), malegueta peppers, hot pepper sauces, mace, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, sesame seed (benne), filé powder from sassafras leaves, thyme, and vinegar.
First-time patrons at soul food restaurants often find the drinks and desserts overly sweet. Heavily sweetened iced tea is the traditional drink, but unsweetened tea is often available. Whitehead observed that iced tea, lemonade, and Kool Aid, made with one cup of sugar to seven cups of water, were the favorite summer drinks of his study households. Fat (butter) and sugar are also used liberally in the preparation of favorite side dishes, such as candied "yams," a sweet potato dish, and desserts, such as apple or peach cobblers or pies; sweet potato pie and pudding; banana pudding; and chocolate, pineapple, coconut, lemon, and pound (plain) cakes.
With the increased awareness of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, many African Americans have felt the need to reduce their consumption and preparation of these traditional soul foods, though they have not found it easy to change. Studies indicate that canned greens, frozen fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, corn or bread pudding, and sweetened tea are high in cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat. Consequently public health agencies like the National Cancer Institute and cookbooks like The New Soul Food Cook Book (1996) by Wilbert Jones suggest ways to maintain flavors and diminish unhealthy habits.
The Southern Flavor of African American Culture and Foodways
The emergence of soul food was part of a cultural revitalization resulting from the black identity sentiments many blacks expressed in the 1960s. Most revitalization movements initiated by people of African ancestry in the Western Hemisphere, such as the Rastafarians of Jamaica, the Black Muslims in the United States, and Kwanzaa participants, seek to revive African cultural trends.
Evidence also suggests that various components of African American foodways have their origins in Africa. For example, the soul foods black-eyed peas, collard greens, okra, and benne or sesame seeds probably came from Africa. Archaeological discoveries indicate that "the meals the black women prepared for themselves and their families . . . readily could have used techniques and ingredients important in West African cookery" (Yentsch, 1994, p. 196). Anne Elizabeth Yentsch admits, however, that raising the point of African origins opens a Pandora's box because determining origins is "complex and tricky." The predominant cultural source of African American foodways is not Africa but the American South, involving a multiple-generation creolization process with contributions from Europeans and Native Americans as well as from Africans.
Pork and chicken are the dominant soul food meats, derived from animals the Europeans brought to the Americas. The Europeans, as maritime and colonial powers, were responsible for the movement of foods from continent to continent. For example, Europeans brought sugar cane to the Americas and thus contributed to the sweet foods in southern and soul food menus. Europeans brought foods from the Caribbean and Central and South America, "sometimes by circuitous routes through Europe and Africa and Asia," that became part of the southern and soul food diet, including "hot and sweet peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, lima beans, white potatoes, and sweet potatoes," chocolate, pineapples, lemons, and coconuts. (Egerton, 1987, p. 13). Europeans also brought rice to the lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia, from where it spread to Louisiana and Arkansas (Egerton, 1987, p. 307).
These foods Europeans brought to the American South became inextricably linked to the enslavement of Africans. For example, the slaves ate yams, peanuts, corn, and rice during the middle passage. Citrus fruits, like limes and lemons, hot malegueta peppers, herbs, and spices were provisioned during the middle passage for medicinal purposes. West African or Gold Coast slaves, who had centuries of experience, cultivated rice in the lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia (Egerton, 1987). Sugar cane traveled the circuitous route "North Africa to Spain and Portugal with the Moors; from Portugal to Madeira with the Portuguese; from Madeira to the Canary Islands with the Spaniards; and from the Canary Islands to Santo Domingo with Columbus . . . [and finally] to Louisiana in 1751" with the Atlantic slave trade (Mintz,
Native Americans contributed maize or corn; a variety of peas and beans; fish, such as catfish and trout; and seafood, such as herring and shrimp, to southern diets. Indians taught white southern colonists and black slaves to hunt wild animals, such as opossums, deer, rabbits, and squirrels, which were still soul food items in the 1980s. Slaves quickly adopted bird hunting from Native Americans. European travelers' accounts noted that guinea fowl and other birds were a source of meat in West Africa. African Americans in the low country and Virginia were particularly shrewd "chicken merchants" (Yentsch, 1994, p. 203; Morgan, 1998, p. 367).
Archeological evidence suggests that African and Native American cultures were intertwined primarily in methods of consumption and in preparation of foods like rice and corn. During the colonial period, African meals consisted of a starchy main course accompanied by vegetables and a small serving of meat. Customarily the food was prepared in a large container and was eaten with hands or spoons (Ferguson, 1992, p. 97 n). Gourds were used as eating utensils and musical instruments. Leland Ferguson noted that the shards of cooking pots suggest commonalities among the foodways of Africans from several countries and Native Americans. Europeans influenced African and Native American food-related material culture, most notably in the adoption of such items as iron pots and wooden buckets. But Ferguson and others suggest that the manner of their use was adapted to African familiarity.
Given the contributions of Europeans and Native Americans, whites and Native Americans with cultural roots in the South could just as well view soul food as their own. Yet African contributions to southern food-ways were considerable, as for centuries Africans and African Americans dominated the food scene through the preparation of these foods and thereby claimed the tradition. During the antebellum period, the slave cook was the primary food preparer for both the white plantation owner and the black slave families. For slaves
the kitchen was one of the few places where their imagination and skill could have free rein and full expression, and there they often excelled . . . one of the few places where either blacks or women could let their guard down and be themselves. Almost everywhere else, they had to conform to binding roles that stifled expression and killed creativity; but in the kitchen, they could be extravagant, artistic, whimsical, assertive, even sensuous . . . . herein may lie the ultimate explanation for the natural superiority of Southern food. (Egerton, 1987, pp. 15, 17)
In its "natural superiority," southern food tends to be more spicy than foods from other regions of the United States. The slave cooks took advantage of the spices that came into North America from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. These spices not only stimulated the taste buds of the planter class but also made the lowly food items given to the slaves, such as the excess fat, snouts, tails, ears, and intestines of the pig and the bland and sometimes bitter greens, more tasty.
Of course the majority of African Americans with cultural roots in the South do not eat the same foods or prepare them the same way their ancestors did. However, the South has historically had the largest presence of African Americans. Even with the mass migration of blacks to the urban centers of the North and West during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the percentage of African Americans who remained in the South never dropped below 50 percent. As economic and political opportunities in the South improved, there came a reverse migration: a large number of African Americans returned, and by 2000 the South recorded a higher increase in African American population than in any other region in the United States. Consequently there has been a continual evolution of an African American culture in the South that includes African American foodways.
Even for the blacks who migrated out, the South retained its important cultural influence as ties continued with family members "back home," through holiday visits, attendance at church revivals and homecomings, and shared network functioning such as child and parental care (Stack, 1974). Migrants returned to get some of that "old down home cooking." Moreover, when African Americans moved to urban areas of the North and West, they took their food traditions with them along with their religions, which tended to perpetuate their foodways (Whitehead, 1992).
The foregoing should not be read as an argument for a synchronic view of southern or African American foodwayshat is, one that ignores historical antecedents. Neither system has endured unchanged. Certain foods are consumed in all regions of the country and by members of most if not all ethnic groups. Consequently some argue that a truly "southern" diet and a truly African American diet do not exist (Fitzgerald, 1979). The notion that American food habits and preferences are national is based on supermarket and fast-food chains, mass media marketing, and the spread of ethnic groups and their traditional food preferences to all regions of the country. For example, Italian pastas, particularly spaghetti, and pizza have long been eaten in all regions, and Mexican and Chinese foods have become American favorites (Gabaccia, 1998).
A Cultural Ecological Approach to Foods and Foodways
The argument against specific southern and African American foodways parallels the argument that a southern culture does not exist because nationwide communication and transportation networks have incorporated southern components into a national, multiethnic American culture. However, these arguments focus narrowly on what people eat rather than on foodways as part of a larger biocultural system or what many foodways scholars refer to as a cultural ecological approach (Jerome et al., 1980). In this approach, the question is not to what extent other American foodways have permeated southern or African American food habits but rather to what extent southern and African American foodways have permeated the food habits of other Americans.
Thomas R. Ford described culture as a "historical production of environmental adaptation" (1977, p. 4). With regard to the study of food and foodways, five theoretical principles might be considered in a cultural ecological approach.
- (1) Culture is a process of historical reproduction, and foodways as part of a cultural system are reproduced from generation to generation.
- (2) Food is necessary for biological survival, thus the nutritional status of an individual or population is related to the availability and accessibility of food.
- (3) The availability and accessibility of food is not only a function of the nutritional capacity of the physical environment but also a function of social and cultural influences.
- (4) Social and cultural adaptations are made to factors related to the availability and accessibility of food.
- (5) The persistence of factors related to the availability and accessibility of food contributes to the continuity of social and cultural adaptations developed in response to such factors.
The Historical Foundation of the African American Traditional Core Diet
The cultural roots of African Americans in the South were firmly established during more than two hundred years of slavery. Because slavery was a "total institution," it influenced the availability and accessibility of food and slaves' responses to these conditions (Stampp, 1956). Most of the foods available to slaves were passed on to them by their owners. African Americans in the South in the twenty-first century use preparation styles similar to those developed by slaves.
Plantation records, slave narratives, and archaeological examinations of slave quarters provide information on the diets of both blacks and whites. The planter class in the South consumed the "better" parts of hogs, chickens, and cattle; fresh milk; butter; and cheese. They passed to slaves the feet, necks, ears, and tails of hogs; hog chitterlings, kidneys, livers, and brains; chicken feet, livers, and gizzards; and buttermilk. Slaves were frequently allotted cornmeal, salt, pork, molasses, and herring, as these foods could be stored in bulk by the planters (Gibbs et al., 1980).
Many planters encouraged slaves to cultivate gardens for their own subsistence (Singleton, 1999, pp. 201). However, the foods slaves were allowed to produce for themselves varied. On some plantations slaves raised chickens and ducks and grew cabbage, collard and turnip greens, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a variety of beans and peas. Other planters prohibited slaves from producing such foods in fear that the slaves would sell them to earn money to buy their freedom or trade them for whiskey (Gibbs et al., 1980). According to Todd Lee Savitt (1975), planters often used slave produce to pay certain debts, and the slaves were allowed to keep the remaining produce for themselves.
Frequently slaves had to supplement their diets by gathering plants and wild berries; hunting small game, such as squirrels, rabbits, opossums, and raccoons; fishing; and stealing. Some scholars have placed these methods of food procurement within the context of plantation power dynamics and resistance, arguing that slaves in some instances exercised a modicum of autonomy by resisting planter attempts to control their diets. Fishing, hunting, and gathering gave slaves some sense of autonomy, but true acts of resistance involved theft of livestock and other foodstuffs, such as smoked meats, eggs, chickens, and vegetables (Yentsch, 1994).
Many of these food items are included in the African American traditional core diet that was characterized by Whitehead (1992) and Delilah Blanks (1984). In separate studies in North Carolina in the 1970s and 1980s, Whitehead and Blanks found that most were still regularly eaten in African American households. Presumably this traditional core diet has persisted over a number of generations.
Whitehead and Blanks found that other foods in the core diets of their study families were not a regular part of slave diets according to historical accounts. Among these foods are pork products, such as hams, ribs, chops, loins, and shoulders; whole chickens and chicken breasts, thighs, legs, and wings; beef products, such as ground beef, roasts, and steaks; fresh fruit; desserts, such as fruit pies, cobblers, cakes, and cookies; and beverages, such as sweet milk, coffee, tea, and lemonade. This does not mean that some slaves and some black free persons did not eat such foods, but according to historical accounts most African Americans did not eat them frequently during the slave period. It is likely that after emancipation more African Americans raised their own food and traded for or bought a wider variety of foods.
African Americans consumed other foods added to their diets by the twentieth-century mass food delivery and marketing systems. Whereas many African American traditional core foods were fresh produce, most of the foods were processed, canned, prepackaged, or frozen. Whitehead's research was motivated by the high fat and low fiber content of traditional core foods, which public health professionals blamed for the higher incidence of heart disease, hypertension, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, and rectal and colon cancers among blacks and whites in the southeastern United States. However, in a study published in 1996, Barry M. Popkin and Anna Maria Siega-Riz found that between 1965 and 1991 many traditional foods like sweet potatoes, greens, and black-eyed peas had decreased significantly in the diets of poorer blacks. The study noted that, among all socioeconomic classes, consumption of fast-food items, including "pizza, tacos and pasta dishes loaded with hidden fats" increased (Popkin and Siega-Riz, 1996, p. 718). These foods contribute to the fact that proportionately more African Americans, especially women, are overweight than white Americans (Kumanyika, 1997). The African American participants in a study by Psyche Williams-Forson (2001) complained that the grocery stores in their communities did not provide enough variety in fish, fruits, vegetables (all items in the African American traditional core diet), and soy products. Rather, the perception of all African Americans preferring primarily pork and beef products and low dietary fiber foods still exists.
Ecological Factors in the Post-emancipation Continuity of African American Traditional Core Foodways
The content of the African American traditional core diet became more entrenched after emancipation because the Civil War left the economy of the South devastated. Blacks and many whites resorted to the means of acquiring food that slaves and poor whites had learned during the slavery period, including gardening, hunting, fishing, gathering edibles, and for those who could afford it, raising chickens and pigs. However, lifestyle differences by race and class, including foodways, continued into the postslavery period.
Although slavery formally ended in 1864, the political economy of the plantation system did not. Sharecropping and tenant farming were the only forms of employment available to most blacks, and the economy maintained the marginal status of African Americans well into the twentieth century. African American foodways continued, particularly the modes of food acquisition. Gardening, hunting, and fishing remained significant forms of food procurement (Cussler and de Give, 1952). Blacks still got some food from "the white man," but now they had to pay cash or receive it on credit. For share-croppers and small farmers, this frequently meant turning over a good portion of their pay from a good crop. The landlords who owned the farms allowed their tenants to garden and keep animals on these properties, similar to the pattern during slavery. Some foods and other goods could be purchased from stores in the nearest town or on the plantation, but usually with a credit line made out to the landlord. Thus workers saw little cash return for their labor as the landlords paid the accounts out of their wages.
Along with persistent poverty, the ecology of the region supported the continuity of the African American traditional core diet. The same foods grew wild or were cultivated, and African American families continued the food producing behaviors practiced during slavery with the exception of receiving rations from the planter (Gibbs et al., 1980). They raised many of the vegetables, legumes, and tubers they had consumed during slavery, and they continued to hunt and fish. Hogs and chickens were rather inexpensive to raise, partially because these animals ate pretty much anything the fertile area offered them.
These patterns of food acquisition continued in the twentieth century. Scholars of southern and African American foodways have noted that, although most foods were acquired from grocery and fast-food chains in the twentieth century, many African Americans in predominantly rural southern counties fished, hunted, and gardened; were involved in networks that killed hogs and shared pork products; and bought fresh produce from roadside stands and truck farmers who sold their produce in neighborhoods.
Taste Preferences and the Continuity of Foodways
One of the primary contributors to the persistence of foodways, in particular food content and preparation styles, is human taste preferences and how they evolve over time. Preferences for fat, salt, and sugar are widespread in human societies, but in the United States, especially in the South, the preferences for these ingredients are arguably the highest in the world. Methods of preserving and preparing foods have contributed greatly to taste preferences. For example, the preservation of pork in salt brine and the use of this salted pork and pork fat in the preparation of other meats and vegetables created a preference for salty, fatty foods.
Sweetened foods figure in the southern culinary tradition. Sugar was first brought to the West from the Orient, but it was only available to the well-to-do. Eventually sugar became the primary crop of West Indian plantations, production began in the American South, and sugar was available to the masses in colonial America. By that time the South had discovered other, less-expensive sweeteners, such as molasses; maple syrup, a technology borrowed from Native Americans; honey from bees brought by the Europeans; and sorghum syrup, also brought by the Europeans. Molasses was especially popular and was used in desserts, in drinks, and to flavor vegetable and meat dishes (Mintz, 1991, p. 125). Slaves worked in the sugar cane fields, where they sucked the cane and stole some for their own use. Sugar, a source of quick energy, may have contributed to the productivity of plantation labor, and fat and salt also may have been adapted for long hours of work in the hot fields.
Slave cooks influenced southern foodways and contributed to the southern preference for foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese commented:
The talents deployed in the kitchens owed much to the slave women's special way with herbs and spices and to recipes developed and handed down among themselves. They brought similar skills and even greater ingenuity to the preparation of foods for their own families and friends. Regularly resisting the masters' preference for communal kitchens, slaves pressed for raw rations that they could prepare for themselves. On some plantations, one woman would cook for all the slaves in a kitchen built specifically for the purpose, but even then, the last meal of the day usually was prepared individually in the family cabins. (1988, pp. 16061)
Most of the foods passed on to the slaves, such as pig and chicken feet, necks, and livers; pig fat, ears, chitterlings, and brains; and chicken hearts and gizzards, may not be considered "food" by many Americans. However, the tastes the slave cooks created made them delicacies to many.
Slave cooks prepared food for their families and other slave families, and they also prepared much of the food for the families of their white owners. Most plantation owners had at least one female slave who prepared the family meals, and on large plantations even the over-seer had a female slave who prepared his meals. Consequently slave cooks shared their taste preferences with the whites (Gibbs et al., 1980). However, the whites on the plantation ate ham, biscuits, relishes, and pies, while the slaves ate fatback, greens, and corn bread (Walter, 1971). The availability of slave cooks allowed white masters to entertain frequently, giving rise to the concept of "southern hospitality." Poor whites outside the plantation most likely adopted the preparation styles of slave cooks because they consumed the same less-desirable foods (Hilliard, 1972). These tastes for salt, fat, and sugar contributed to the notion of the "natural superiority of southern food" mentioned earlier.
The superiority of southern or African American foods over those of the North may not be an exaggerated romantic notion, however. In fact southern food-ways have permeated the foodways of Americans in other regions of the country. The diffusion of southern preferences may be attributable to the human preference for foods made more tasty with fat, salt, and sugar and their availability to early American colonists in the North as well as in the South.
John Egerton pointed out that many mass food delivery systems, including the supermarket chains Winn-Dixie and Piggly Wiggly and the fast-food outlet Krystal, originated in the South (1987, p. 39). These food delivery systems were successful in part because they responded to their clientele's taste preferences, including many items in the traditional African American core diet. Food outlets in other parts of the country emulated these pioneers in their high salt, high fat, and sweetened wares. Making foods more "tasty" makes them more attractive to consumers.While supermarket chains in other parts of the country did not initially stock popular southern items, such as pork fat, salt pork, ham hocks, and pig feet, eventually they discovered a market for those foods. Restaurants outside of the South added Creole and Cajun dishes and deep-fried catfish when they realized that southern tastes existed in their regions. Egerton stated, "Anyone who grew up on the [southern] food can attest, life without a little South in your mouth at least once in a while is a bland and dreary prospect" (1987, p. 49).
Social Networks, Festive Occasions, and the Persistence of African American Foodways
Even as the foodways of African Americans changed with upward mobility, broader ethnic diversity in all regions of the country, and greater concerns about health issues, the traditional core foods and foodways were preserved through festive occasions that bring members of a group together in celebration or recognition of some event of social significance. These occasions also reaffirm social ties crucial to the biological and psychological survival of the group and its members. This reaffirmation has been particularly crucial for African Americans. It was impossible for slaves to continue the social structures related to kinship, marriage, and family that they had known in Africa. However, slaves developed new social ties based on family and kinship systems, churches, and voluntary organizations that survived into the twenty-first century.
Whitehead (1988) divided festive occasions into two types, impromptu and institutionalized. Impromptu occasions, such as a party or barbecue, are not related to any significant event. Institutionalized occasions are of three types, life cycle, calendrical, and communal, and correspond to three significant levels of social organization, the individual, the community, and the social network.
Life cycle occasions, such as births, initiations, weddings, and funerals, are celebrations of transitions or stages in the lives of individuals. Calendrical occasions are periodic celebrations recognized by the wider community, such as national holidays, like Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Presidents' Day, or annual religious events, like Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving Day. African Americans have created others, such as Kwanzaa and Juneteenth, which celebrates the termination of slavery. Communal occasions are celebrations of the social network, such as family reunions, church homecomings, and club or office celebrations.
Although life cycle occasions are celebrations of individual transitions, they are just as important for the network because they mark a change in status for both. For example, the network must adjust to the addition of a new member as a consequence of marriage or birth or to the loss of a member as a result of death. Similarly calendrical events are celebrated by the wider community, but networks take the opportunity to come together and reconfirm their ties. Food is central to festive occasions. In his North Carolina work (1992), Whitehead identified four types of African American food events: the meal, the petite feast, the small feast, and the grand feast.
Whitehead's study participants in a predominantly rural area defined a "meal" as a sit-down affair with others present. In other words, a meal is a communal occasion, not something one does alone. While meals are a day-to-day routine, the other three types of food events bring together household or network members into a festive occasion, and thus are referred to as "feasts." Feasts vary according to the number of network members present. A petite feast is best exemplified in the Sunday prechurch breakfast, which includes members of the household, and the Sunday postchurch dinner, which might include household and extended family members, the itinerant minister, and other guests. A small feast, such as a church or club dinner or an office picnic, includes network members from several local households. A grand feast, such as a family reunion or a church homecoming, includes extended network members, some from beyond the local setting.
In rural southern counties African Americans eat traditional core foods at evening meals. For morning breakfast and midday lunch some, particularly the young, take advantage of prepared and fast foods. These households usually have traditional core foods on certain days of the week, such as for Friday or Saturday night dinner or for Sunday breakfasts, dinners, and suppers.
For African American families involved in church, Sunday breakfast and dinner are frequently petite feasts. The Sunday morning petit feast or big breakfast might be eggs; grits; sausage, bacon, country ham, fried chicken, or pork chops and rice smothered with gravy; and biscuits or rolls. The petite feast dinner, served after church at around 2:00 P.M., has similar foods in larger quantities with side dishes, such as macaroni and cheese and candied yams; drinks, such as lemonade, Kool Aid, and tea; and desserts, such as peach or apple cobbler or pie and pound, chocolate, pineapple, or coconut cake.
Traditional core foods are also served at small and grand feasts. Whitehead found that to be known as a "good cook" was important to the women of the church, who display their cooking skills at church dinners on Friday nights, Sunday afternoons, or Sunday evenings. Whitehead observed a functional aspect to the concept of "southern hospitality." He suggested that a cook invites a new acquaintance to a food event, usually a petite or small feast, in part to broaden the affirmation of her or his status as a good cook.
African Americans raised in the South but living outside southern rural counties do not eat traditional core foods often, but many include them in feasts. African Americans with southern cultural roots gather on holidays for cookouts, picnics, or barbecues and share foods similar to those from home. In Washington, D.C., the staffs of representatives of some southern states have small feasts at which foods from their states are served. Sometimes a favorite restaurant from the home state caters the food, for example, North Carolina barbecue.
African Americans outside the South go "back home" on other holidays to have petite feasts with their relatives there, and they are expected to come home for family reunions and church homecomings. Family reunions usually last two or three days and involve several feasts. Subfamily units may hold petite or small feasts in addition to the grand feast or banquet dinner for all who attend the reunion. A church homecoming invites members who have moved away back for a celebration. Church members invite their ministers to their family reunions, but Whitehead found that some churches organized homecomings around the family reunions of several church members to broaden the occasion for those returning and to lessen concerns about making too many trips. Feasts are central to all of these occasions, and African American traditional core foods are the primary fare. Whitehead (1989) observed that the greatest incentive for traveling a long distance is to get one's fill of that "good old down home cooking." The more feasts during these visits, the better the time. Moreover, family members in the South know that food is an incentive and prepare enough so visitors can take a little back North with them.
As mass food delivery and marketing systems change the diets of all Americans, the feasts that bring together African Americans, particularly those with cultural roots in the South, provide continuity in African American traditional core foods. As long as festive occasions and the rituals that accompany them continue, those foods will continue as well.
See also Barbecue; Fats; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Kwanzaa; Pig; Poultry; Salt; Sugar and Sweeteners; Sugar Crops and Natural Sweeteners; Tea; Thanksgiving.
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Tony L. Whitehead
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