A Seat at the Table
Martha Cooper, Library of Congress

A Seat at the Table


A version of this story ran in the January 2013 issue.

When I first saw a flyer for the Food for Black Thought (FFBT) Symposium on a wall at Hoover’s Cooking, the celebrated East Austin restaurant, my first thought was: If this is another excuse for a panel of articulate busybodies to tell me what not to put in my mouth, count me out.

But the flyer’s language, promising an exploration of “how [food] issues involve, impact, and engage Black populations from transdisciplinary and community-based perspectives,” pinged my radar. I’m a longtime Austinite who loves this town, but I am also painfully aware that African-Americans are only marginally part of this heavily branded city and its familiar signifiers—the weirdness, the music, the hipness, the healthy food. Perhaps especially the healthy food.

Like much of down-home southern cooking, black soul food is widely considered at odds with the new discourse on health; it’s a species of cheap comfort food that, we’re ceaselessly reminded, contributes to diabetes and heart disease.

So I was heartened when I first spoke to Dr. Kevin Thomas, an assistant professor of advertising, and his partner Naya Jones, a Ph.D. anthropology student, the two young black scholars behind FFBT. They hoped the symposium, held under the auspices of the University of Texas at Austin’s John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the Black Media Council, would serve as an occasion to rethink the relationship between African-Americans and food, while raising challenging questions about the role of blacks in Austin food culture.

“So often black health is connected to black food,” Jones said, “but we’re interested in broad conversations: How do we enjoy food? What are the stories of food in our families? What are the stories of black gardening in our families? What are those histories? Because often in the current popular media, like with Food, Inc. [and] The Future of Food, some of these very popular documentaries that have come out … race, blackness, identity, and the way that we’re approaching it is not brought to the table.”

Jones’ comments point to the extent to which black foodways are seen as not just unhealthy, but a glaring mark of black cultural defensiveness, a contemptible sign of our reluctance to join the brave new world of health! and exercise! Much love for those who wish to change their eating habits for health reasons (God knows I’m one of them), but there’s something a little off about the reduction of black food to fried everything, not to mention the presumption that only heroic intervention by experts will bring black gastronomic enlightenment.

Jones and others are trying to unsettle this picture. As Austin resident Toni Tipton-Martin argues in The Jemima Code, black culinary history is (pardon the pun) saturated with the recipe diversity, variegated tastes and textures, and green leafy goodness that we now associate with good health. More to the point: When did it become impolite to question the monocular focus on health to the exclusion of everything else?

And don’t get me started on Whole Foods. Thomas used this Austin icon to illustrate a larger point about the traps that lie in wait for health-conscious African-Americans who journey into white-dominated food spaces. “As a black vegetarian, do I have access to things that I need in the marketplace to express myself? Or do I have to go outside of my vicinity and basically go into a community that I may not feel welcome in to find those things?” Thomas asked.

Anyone who knows my eating habits might accuse me of special pleading. I love junk food. Like, a lot. This world will take everything else from me before it takes my racial paranoia and my sweet tooth.

I’m also piqued by the possibility that the culture’s opinion of my eating habits contains another message that has special resonance for me as a black man: that my parents didn’t raise me right. Among polite liberals this may be couched less harshly—with the caveat, for example, that within some families the pressures of daily life necessarily make proper food education a back-burner issue. Others are less tactful, even giving tacit approval to such draconian measures as removing “morbidly obese” kids from their homes. This sort of paternalism has a familiar smell to African-Americans.

Right here in these pages, James E. McWilliams earned my undying gratitude when, in his refreshingly sober take on Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, he opined that telling folks how to eat is “something I am coming to realize no serious writer should ever do.”

I’m just cranky enough to wonder if mass media gawking at black and brown eating habits is the last respectable vestige of the kind of voyeuristic exoticism that was drummed out of the anthropological profession years ago. Alice Randall—herself African-American—penned an essay for The New York Times, titled “Why Black Women are Fat,” that mirthlessly recasts our kinda-sorta-more-forgiving body standards as a deadly indulgence we can no longer afford.

I want to think that African-Americans can inhabit the new discourse on food without becoming complicit in the pathologization of their own bodies and the foodways that—however imperfectly—sustain them. At this fraught moment, words are as important as broccoli.

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