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Black Hunger

Soul Food and America

2004
Author:

Doris Witt

Black Hunger

Explores the complex relationship between food and African American history

Black Hunger focuses on debates over soul food since the 1960s to illuminate a complex web of political, economic, religious, sexual, and racial tensions between whites and blacks and within the black community itself. Doris Witt draws on vaudeville, literature, film, visual art, and cookbooks to explore how food has been used both to perpetuate and to challenge racial stereotypes.

What emerges from this deeply critical, at times humorous, foray into African American food history is a theoretical work as sensuous as the subject matter. Witt takes the reader on a journey through popular food discourses and along the way unpacks the signifiers of belonging, resistance, abjection, purity, and lust. Reading Black Hunger, I was reminded that food is not simply good to eat, it is also good to think with.

American Anthropologist

In 1889, the owners of a pancake mix witnessed the vaudeville performance of a white man in blackface and drag playing a character called Aunt Jemima. This character went on to become one of the most pervasive stereotypes of black women in the United States, embodying not only the pancakes she was appropriated to market but also post–Civil War race and gender hierarchies—including the subordination of African American women as servants and white fantasies of the nurturing mammy.

Using the history of Aunt Jemima as a springboard for exploring the relationship between food and African Americans, Black Hunger focuses on debates over soul food since the 1960s to illuminate a complex web of political, economic, religious, sexual, and racial tensions between whites and blacks and within the black community itself. Celebrated by many African Americans as a sacramental emblem of slavery and protest, soul food was simultaneously rejected by others as a manifestation of middle-class black “slumming.”

Highlighting the importance of food for men as well as women, Doris Witt traces the promotion of soul food by New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne and its prohibition by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and comedian-turned-diet guru Dick Gregory. A discussion of cookbook author Vertamae Grosvenor, who distanced herself from the myth of plantation mammy by reimagining soul food as "vibration cooking," sets the stage for Witt's concluding argument that the bodies and appetites of African American women should be viewed as central to contemporary conversations about eating disorders and reproductive rights.

Witt draws on vaudeville, literature, film, visual art, and cookbooks to explore how food has been used both to perpetuate and to challenge racial stereotypes. Raising her fist in a Black Power salute, wielding her spatula like a sword, Aunt Jemima steps off the pancake box in a righteous fury.


Black Hunger

Doris Witt is associate professor of English at the University of Iowa.

Black Hunger

What emerges from this deeply critical, at times humorous, foray into African American food history is a theoretical work as sensuous as the subject matter. Witt takes the reader on a journey through popular food discourses and along the way unpacks the signifiers of belonging, resistance, abjection, purity, and lust. Reading Black Hunger, I was reminded that food is not simply good to eat, it is also good to think with.

American Anthropologist

A fascinating look at food’s role in African-American culture.

Chicago Sun-Times

A well-researched and insightful discussion of the creation of mythology about black women and food.

Women’s Review of Books

The work is an impressive collection of cultural artifacts that allow a reader to understand the political implications of purchasing a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup, or the gender-specific implications that adopting a vegetarian diet may hold for African American women.

MultiCultural Review

Black Hunger

Contents

Acknowledgments
Prologue

Part I Servant Problems
One "Look Ma, the Real Aunt Jemima!" Consuming Identities under Capitalism
Two Biscuits Are Being Beaten: Craig Claiborne and the Epistemology of the Kitchen Dominatrix

Part II Soul Food and Black masculinity

Three "Eating Chitterlings Is Like Going Slumming": Soul Food and Its Discontents
Four "Pork or Women": Purity and Danger in the Nation of Islam
Five Of Watermelon and Men: Dick Gregory's Cloacal Continuum

Part III Black Female Hunger

Six "My Kitchen Was the World": Vertamae Smart Grosvenor's Geechee Diaspora
Seven "How Mama Started to Get Large": Eating Disorders, Fetal Rights, and Black Female Appetite

Epilogue

Appendix
African American Cookbooks
Chronological Bibliography of Cookbooks by African Americans
Notes
Works Cited

Index