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Getting What We Need Ourselves: How Food Has Shaped African American Life

Amazon.com Price: $36.00 (as of 24/01/2021 08:07 PST- Details)

Beginning with an examination of West African food traditions during the era of the transatlantic slave trade and ending with a discussion of black vegan activism in the twenty-first century, Getting What We Need Ourselves: How Food Has Shaped African American Life tells a multi-faceted food story that goes beyond the well-known narrative of southern-derived “soul food” as the predominant form of black food expression. While this book considers the provenance and ongoing cultural resonance of emblematic foods such as greens and cornbread, it also examines the experiences of African Americans who never embraced such foods or who rejected them in search of new tastes and new symbols that were less directly tied to the past of plantation slavery. This book tells the story of generations of cooks and eaters who worked to create food habits that they variously considered sophisticated, economical, distinctly black, all-American, ethical, and healthful in the name of benefiting the black community. Significantly, it also chronicles the enduring struggle of impoverished eaters who worried far more about having enough to eat than about what particular food filled their plates. Finally, it considers the experiences of culinary laborers, whether enslaved, poorly paid domestic servants, tireless entrepreneurs, or food activists and intellectuals who used their knowledge and skills to feed and educate others, making a lasting imprint on American food culture in the process. Throughout African American history, food has both been used as a tool of empowerment and wielded as a weapon. Beginning during the era of slavery, African American food habits have often served as a powerful means of cementing the bonds of community through the creation of celebratory and affirming shared rituals. However, the system of white supremacy has frequently used food, or often the lack of it, as a means to attempt to control or subdue the black community. This study demonstrates that African American eaters who have worked to creative positive representations of black food practices have simultaneously had to confront an elaborate racist mythology about black culinary inferiority and difference. Keeping these tensions in mind, empty plates are as much a part of the history this book sets out to narrate as full ones, and positive characterizations of black foodways are consistently put into dialogue with distorted representations created by outsiders. Together these stories reveal a rich and complicated food history that defies simple stereotypes and generalizations.

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Review

[H]istorian Jennifer Jensen Wallach paints a deeper portrait of black foodways. ‘There is not a single African American food story,’ Ms. Wallach writes in Getting What We Need Ourselves . . . but a multiplicity of narratives, lineages, myths and prejudices. Ms. Wallach begins in Africa, where the Atlantic slave trade forced a vast diversity of cultural backgrounds to depend on “amalgamation and compromise.” Adaptability was key. Local ingredients like palm oil, chickpeas, yams and red rice became common culinary threads. New World imports like capsicum peppers, cassava, maize and peanuts, brought by slave traders, further creolized the West African diet. The enslaved and their captors transported these foodstuffs and others, including sesame, sorghum, black-eyed peas, watermelon and okra, to the Americas, where they flourished as symbols of resilience in ‘memory dishes’ like gumbo, Hoppinʼ John and perhaps even tamales. But for enslaved Africans, food could be a source of suffering as well as sustenance. Force-feedings were common during captivity, diets contained far more carbohydrates than proteins, hunger strikes were not rare. Food, Ms. Wallach writes, ‘became a battleground,’ and not for the last time. (The Wall Street Journal)

Emphasizing the diversity of African Americans and their palates, Wallach explores the African roots and historical routes of black food traditions. Conceptualizing her subject as a web, the author traces intersecting experiences, memories, and cultural interactions expressed in the aromas, tastes, and textures of African American foodways, skillfully separating that eclectic and ever-expanding fare from “soul food.” Chapters move from transatlantic exchanges in the slave trade to the politics of the 1960s black freedom struggles. Treating the politics of food ingrained in hunger and plenty, Wallach deftly intertwines intellectual and culinary history in tracing black peoples’ struggles first to make sure they had enough to eat before fussing over what they ate or how to prepare or serve it. Wallach’s lively, innovative, engaging, and carefully researched overview of black culinary traditions and their ever-expanding food options reaches far beyond kitchens and dinner tables to demand a place for itself wherever discussions of African American cultural affinities arise. Verdict: A must-read for all seriously interested in concepts of black identities and the significance of food in shaping those concepts. (Library Journal, Starred Review)

In her latest culinary history, Wallach focuses on African Americans, from exchanges with Native Americans and Europeans prior to and during the transatlantic slave trade through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights era, and the Obama White House. What becomes clear in explaining what African Americans ate is how much control white Americans exerted over nearly every aspect of food in Black lives then and now. Conversely, Wallach shines a light on Black cooking entrepreneurs, family cooks, and domestics, as well as explores lunch-counter sit-ins, cookbooks, appropriation and outright theft of recipes, families housing and feeding civil rights leaders across the country before the desegregation of hotels and restaurants, the question of whether it’s soul food or southern food, and even the dietary regimens of the Nation of Islam and African American vegans and vegetarians. Wallach successfully punctures myths and stereotypes, especially the most persistent assumption that African American women somehow intuitively know how to cook, instead of having generations of instructions and customs passed down through centuries of trial and error. (Booklist)

[Wallach] expertly recounts the culinary and dining experience of African-Americans from slavery through the 21st century. Wallach notes that African-American cuisine “was a byproduct of the transatlantic slave trade that. . . led to a distinctive African-American identity.” She refers to such notable former slaves as writer Olaudah Equiano, who, she writes, discovered that “food was one of the key tools Europeans used to assert their authority over” slaves. (Equiano, who refused to eat on a slave ship, was force-fed so he could live long enough to be sold.) In the Jim Crow era,Wallach notes, travel guides were sold that provided restaurant and accommodation recommendations for African-Americans on the road, and, during WWII, ‘German prisoners of war often had access to segregated dining rooms that excluded black soldiers’ throughout the U.S. She highlights modern writers such as food historian Michael Twitty and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adiche, as well as Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson, ‘the most famous American chef. . . who learned to cook from his Swedish grandmother.’ Wallach includes a wealth of facts, and the book is meticulously detailed if academic at times. Historians will enjoy this astute take on an American culinary tradition. (Publishers Weekly)

Getting What We Need Ourselves should be required reading for all students of American foodways—and for that matter, anyone interested in the complex set of behaviors we call ‘American cuisine.’ Within these pages, Jen Wallach exquisitely crafts an important—and readable—overview of one of the most important, and little recognized, voices in the American food landscape—that of African Americans—and in doing so, carefully notes the many scholars and writers who have painstakingly contributed to this history. This is a rich, moving, poignant, and timely history of our nation via the expressive power of food in and beyond the African American experience. (Marcie Cohen Ferris, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Sweeping in scope yet telling in details, Getting What We Need for Ourselves masterfully introduces the importance of food in African American history. Jennifer Wallach explores the everyday uses of and meanings behind food in a way that is sophisticated and nuanced, deeply grounded in historical sources and current literature, and still accessible and richly satisfying. Through her prose, Wallach proves herself a premier teacher of African American foodways, and readers will learn a great deal. (Rebecca Sharpless, Texas Christian University)

Cutting through the obfuscations that so often accompany stories of Southern cooking, Wallach provides a polyvocal history of African American foodways from origins on the African continent to today’s high-end Harlem eateries, disrupting and complicating any notion of a “single story” of African American identity. Rather than a search for a single narrative thread to draw a straight line from “then” to “now,” Wallach’s goal seems to be to multiply the threads and to sever some that have been drawn too tightly and conveniently, all with a prose style that is effortless and engaging. (Carrie Helms Tippen, Chatham University)

Mapping the journey of African Americans’ cooking practices, memories about food, and rhetorical significance people give to foods, Getting What We Need Ourselves, crates a cartography that highlights the multiple routes and roots that lead to defining the complex, complicated and often contradictory nature of claim certain foods as those defining an ethnic group. Wallach offers a candid reminder of the dangers in oversimplifying any eating practices of a giving ethnic group or region or nation to that only reflect misunderstanding and promote racial essentializing: African Americans eat watermelon, fried chicken, pork and cornbread. She challenges this tendency by tracing how the foodways of African and African American people have had and has historical, political, and ideological trajectories that have never been just one single story. Wallach adds a great contribution to the fields of Food Studies and Ethnic Studies with the reminder that a group of people’s food practices, memories about food and symbolism given to food are always never static, but always changing according to concrete historical, political, economic and geographical realities. (Meredith E. Abarca, author of Voices in the Kitchen)

About the Author

Jennifer Jensen Wallach is associate professor of history at the University of North Texas. She is the author, most recently, of How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture and Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen. She is also the editor of the University of Arkansas Press’ Food and Foodways series.

Beginning with an examination of West African food traditions during the era of the transatlantic slave trade and ending with a discussion of black vegan activism in the twenty-first century, Getting What We Need Ourselves: How Food Has Shaped African American Life tells a multi-faceted food story that goes beyond the well-known narrative of southern-derived “soul food” as the predominant form of black food expression. While this book considers the provenance and ongoing cultural resonance of emblematic foods such as greens and cornbread, it also examines the experiences of African Americans who never embraced such foods or who rejected them in search of new tastes and new symbols that were less directly tied to the past of plantation slavery. This book tells the story of generations of cooks and eaters who worked to create food habits that they variously considered sophisticated, economical, distinctly black, all-American, ethical, and healthful in the name of benefiting the black community. Significantly, it also chronicles the enduring struggle of impoverished eaters who worried far more about having enough to eat than about what particular food filled their plates. Finally, it considers the experiences of culinary laborers, whether enslaved, poorly paid domestic servants, tireless entrepreneurs, or food activists and intellectuals who used their knowledge and skills to feed and educate others, making a lasting imprint on American food culture in the process. Throughout African American history, food has both been used as a tool of empowerment and wielded as a weapon. Beginning during the era of slavery, African American food habits have often served as a powerful means of cementing the bonds of community through the creation of celebratory and affirming shared rituals. However, the system of white supremacy has frequently used food, or often the lack of it, as a means to attempt to control or subdue the black community. This study demonstrates that African American eaters who have worked to creative positive representations of black food practices have simultaneously had to confront an elaborate racist mythology about black culinary inferiority and difference. Keeping these tensions in mind, empty plates are as much a part of the history this book sets out to narrate as full ones, and positive characterizations of black foodways are consistently put into dialogue with distorted representations created by outsiders. Together these stories reveal a rich and complicated food history that defies simple stereotypes and generalizations.

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