Black women are key to American cuisine — but they remain invisible (2023)

"What about the millions of other women who have confined themselves to the American kitchen for 350 years, and what about their legacies? And your descendants? Where are our restaurants and our offerings?"

Not coincidentally, Tiana's mother enteredThe princess and the frogshe works as a maid and seamstress in the home of a wealthy white family in the upscale Garden District of New Orleans. When Tiana grows up, she works as a waitress and pastry chef in a modest restaurant. At least Disney isn't lying in this portrayal of Southern racial hierarchy in 1912. Although in 1926, at the height of the Great Migration, Tiana was more likely to wake up as a frog than get the keys to a restaurant. (Spoiler: at the end of the movie, Tiana hooks up with Princemthe business of your dreams.)

But among the film's many boring anachronisms (racist voodoo tropes, Bayou natives portrayed as toothless rednecks, etc.), the most boring is the repetition of America's favorite moldy nugget: If you work hard enough, you can get that that you dream of The film does not mention 400 years of unpaid labor.

Criminally little about black history, especially antebellum black history, was told through the eyes of black people. Harriet Jacobs, author ofIncidents in the Life of a Slave, was the first African-American woman to publish her own slave narrative in 1861. She had the very rare fortune of being taught to read and write by one of the women who owned her.

In the book, Jacobs tells the story of his grandmother, known as "Aunt Marty":

"She became an indispensable character in the house, serving in every capacity from cook and nurse to dressmaker. She was especially praised for her cooking, and her beautiful cookies became famous in the neighborhood, as many people wanted to have them. in consequence of many requests of this kind." , she asked her mistress for permission to bake cookies in the evening, after all the housework was done... The business proved profitable, and every year she saved a little, which was saved for a fund to buy her children.'

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Jacobs goes on to describe how his grandmother's lover finally askedto borrowthe $300 he had saved. It was never returned, but the mistress bought a silver candlestick with the money, which was supposedly passed down to her own heirs through the generations. Aunt Martha's 10-year-old son sold for about $700, about the price of two candlesticks.

This description of the plight of the cook, governess, maid, and slave maid was a relatively benign experience compared to the other sadistic abuses described in the book. But it begins to paint a picture of the legacy, or lack thereof, of black culinary workers in America.

The enslaved domestic worker after Reconstruction fared little better than the slave laborer in the sugar mill and plantation, who had no choice but to go into forced labor, working in the same fields, in the same mills, and living in the same places. Sensalas.

For example, in the 1880s, about 98% of black women in large Southern cities like Atlanta worked as domestics. In the 1912 essay, “More slavery in the South,” an anonymous African-American domestic worker contacted hundreds of other women like her and tried to present a snapshot of their daily working lives. "The condition of this vast body of poor colored people is as bad, if not worse, than it was in the days of slavery," he wrote. "Although today we enjoy nominal freedom, we are literally slaves."

She describes 16-hour workdays and adds that as enslaved black women were expected to go along with rape and sexual harassment by their white masters, rejecting the man of the house's advances was a widespread reason for dismissal, even during of emancipation. Many, if not most, black women raised children with their husbands as well as white men in whose homes they worked.

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"You might as well say I'm on call 24/7 - from sunrise to sunrise, every day of the week, I'm the slave, body and soul of this family," wrote the anonymous author. "We are more than horses, beasts, slaves! Perhaps in the distant future, centuries and centuries hence, a monument of brass or stone will be erected to the old black mamas of the South."

To this day I know of no such monument, with the added insult that the "old black mother" is itself a device invented in part to explain the relationship between white men and black women. In fact, domestic workers were likely to be underweight, not overweight, thanks to their high rations, light skin because housework was often assigned to mixed-race women, and young women because less than 10 percent of black women they were living beyond their means. 50 years at the time.

When a Southern movement to erect such monuments and memorials began in the early 1920s, black protesters expressed that a better monument would extend full American citizenship rights to the descendants of these women.

Transition from service to ownership

It's hard to figure out what the tipping point was that ended up winning Tiana ownership of her restaurant.The princess and the frog. After turning into a frog and kissing the prince, she returns to human form and before long the restaurant and the man are hers.

Like a frog, he sang, "I'll do my best to take my place in the sun when we're human." So maybe it was that moment – ​​when he was finally recognized as human.

In 2023, when the best-known black rights movement goes around with the slogan "Black Lives Matter," I think we can agree that we're still fighting to make our lives important enough to be recognized as fully human.

In the Jim Crow era, until 1966, the only jobs available to black women were as maids who cooked, washed and ironed clothes and babysat for only $20 a week. While black domestic workers fought for better wages and conditions, the contribution of black women to the American culinary enterprise is not reflected in a way that even begins to scratch the surface of the true story. And the industry seems happy with that fact.

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There were no better farmers at the end of the Civil War than the former slaves who were captured from the African lands for their agricultural knowledge and did all the planting, harvesting and gardening that also fed the big house. as their own communities and families. Likewise, there were no better cooks than black women, who were in charge of almost all kitchens in the South. Forbidden to read and write, they would cook not according to recipes or formal techniques, but from memory or "by hand" - a skill set that only the most skilled chefs and cooks can boast.

And while it's true that many black women wanted out of the domestic sphere as more lucrative and less oppressive jobs became available after the civil rights movement, I still struggle to understand how America's most skilled cooks still don't have a piece . from their own pie owned by the restaurant.

While the mom stereotype remains highly visible in American culture—with Aunt Jemima (recently retired after 130 years) being the most prominent—the true black cook, by contrast, is invisible. The most famous black chefs—including Leah Chase and Edna Lewis—are dead and gone, and the industry has done little to elevate any of our current talent to household names.

2021, after George FloydNew York Timesarticle, "How high-end restaurants failed black women chefs,” says a study that same year published by a nonprofit restaurant workers' rights group. This shows that racial and ethnic biases combine to make it especially difficult for black women to attain leadership positions in restaurants.

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"Using Seattle restaurants as an example, the study examined multiple factors—overtly discriminatory hiring and training, implicit bias between employers and customers, lack of networking and training opportunities—that drive many black women out of the industry," the article says.

As the 20th century progressed, black women moved out of the domestic service industry to play similar roles in hospitals, schools, and restaurants, including fast food. Today, nearly one-third of black women are employed as service workers, compared to one-fifth of white women.

"We must envision an America where the legacy of black women's intellectual property and centuries of culinary expertise are applied to the restaurant world and true American cuisine emerges."

"Since the time of slavery, the dominant view of black women has been that they should be workers, a view that has contributed to their devaluation as mothers with domestic needs," economics professor Nina Banks wrote inan article from 2019for the Economic Policy Institute. "African American women's unique labor market history and current occupational status reflect these beliefs and practices."

Indeed, the service industry continues to benefit from our labor and skills, but it is less likely to turn over the keys today than it was in 1926.

But that shouldn't stop us from envisioning an America where the legacy of black women's intellectual property and centuries of culinary expertise is applied to the restaurant world, and a true American cuisine emerges from this nation's founding—the arrival of the slave. Africans for the colonies.

It would be a world where more restaurants reflect the true American culinary tradition that begins with native ingredients and African art and intelligence. Where women cook with the spirit of providing everyone with what they need, and where the true definition of food - "giving, nourishing" - is the order of the day.

Where all the Edna Lewises and their descendants, the architects of American cuisine, have their place in the sun. And where black women are seen as living monuments who have all the rights of American citizenship, recognized not for our work but for our humanity.

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