Program Title: Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Black Progressive Era Food Reformers and the Case Study of the Tuskegee Institute
Speaker: Jennifer Jensen Wallach
June 9, 2014
New York University Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health

June 2014 write upAfrican-American food practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not all the ‘soul food’ of collards and salt pork. Indeed, adopting ‘traditional American fare’ was one aspect of the middle class program for racial “uplift.” Because African-Americans had few viable ways to combat state sanctioned racism and unchecked racial violence, many chose to fight the battle for human dignity within the realm of culture. By disassociating themselves from food practices evocative of southern regionalism and, by extension, of the dark history of slavery, many self-consciously respectable eaters tried to convince white racists of their shared humanity.

At the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington promoted ideas about proper food behavior drawn from the philosophy of racial uplift as well as from the work of white domestic scientists. He advocated for the consumption of beef, a meat that he regarded as a symbol of Americanization, instead of pork, seeing food habits as a possible avenue for assimilation. But he did not strive to displace all southern, regional foods from the dinner table: he used ideas about proper food to advocate for racial pride and for economic nationalism, necessary ingredients if white racism could not be effectively neutralized.

To reflect this aspect of Wallach’s talk, among the refreshments served were benne seed wafers [link].

Jennifer Jensen Wallach is the recipient of the 2013 CHNY Scholar’s Grant. She is an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas where she teaches African-American history and United States food history.