Beyond Aunt Jemima: 5 essential books about food and Black identity
As Quaker Foods North America announced last week, the Aunt Jemima mascot will finally be put to rest after almost a century of innuendo and controversy. Blushing with much delayed shame, other food execs began rolling back racist branding as well. The debate over Aunt Jemima and other food mascots and their own problematic brand marketing stirred up a lot of curiosity about food and race for folks far and wide — and it made me delve back into some of my favorite books about food and Black identity, race, and racism.
It might seem that these conversations feel new because companies are actually starting to listen this time and change for the better, but as a Black foodie myself, I’ve lived and breathed at this intersection for a while. In addition to the literature that challenges stereotypes surrounding Black people and food, there are unique perspectives on food, culture, and race identity that may just challenge what we thought we knew.
So with that in mind, here are six insightful books about the intersection of race and food that belong on your summer reading list.
Notes From A Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi and Josua David Stein
Books on food and race tend to be challenging to produce because racism — in and outside the food industry — is a sobering subject. Notes From A Young Black Chef rises to the occasion, detailing the life and journey of James Beard award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi.
Notes ties Onwuachi’s life to the subject of race in the culinary world in an engaging way. From growing up in the Bronx, then Nigeria, and back to the Bronx again, to working on a Deepwater Horizon cleanup ship, to his flourishing career as a chef, Onwuachi’s memoir describes how unwelcoming the culinary world can be to Black people. We bear lyrics witness, in this book, to how he's able to rise above it while keeping community in mind.
Burgers in Blackface by Naa Oyo A. Kwate
This comprehensive tome gathers stories from authors who have written broadly about racism in the food world. Assembled by Naa Oyo A. Kwate, chefs and writers ruminate over the recently retired Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Chef Rastus of the Cream of Wheat brand, and other household food mascots. This compilation of essays adeptly tie these food mascots to the prevailing stereotype of Black cooks being servile, as well as other racial overtones. There are also several pieces on the restaurant scene, which used colonial themes and stereotypes at times to market their food.
Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cookbook by Lena Richard
Have you ever heard of Lena Richard? I hadn't either, until recently. She was the first Black chef to have a television cooking show in America, hosting Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cookbook in 1949. Now, I love Julia child as much as the next person, but the fact that her most popular book, The Joy of Cooking, and her TV show, 'The French Chef,' are both so ubiquitous in American culture shows how a British woman cooking French cuisine proved more popular to American audiences than a Black woman from America cooking American food. And while this pick is more of a traditional cookbook, its recipes and the commentary Ricard provides offers the reader unique context regarding one of the most eclectic culinary hubs in the country.
The Traphouse Vegan, Lifestyle Guide by Eboni Washington and Michele Simmons
I absolutely love unexpected pairings, which is why when I saw the title of this book alone, I had to have it. Written by a teacher from the Bronx and a counselor from Washington D.C., Traphouse Vegan is a cookbook, but also so much more. The authors intended it to serve also as a lifestyle guide to people in lower income communities, who often-times grow up in food deserts (meaning these folks live in neighborhoods which have less access to fresh and healthy food.) It's a valuable resource for anyone who wants to learn more about how food security shapes our identity — and how we can shift and adjust how we perceive food and therefore, ourselves.
The Jemima Code by Toni Tipton-Martin
Women of African heritage are a large part of the history of American food — as they are a part of American history, but just like their contribution in the suffragette movement was largely erased from the record, their contributions to the culinary world of the United States was similarly snuffed out until recently.
To add push to shove, in their place remained the very problematic image of Aunt Jemima, a fictional figure invented by men who weren’t even Black. Author Tony Tipton-Martin aims to combat that, by presenting more than 150 cookbooks by Black chefs gathered in one place, from the first book by a Black person published in the culinary world, to a rare 1827 house servant’s cooking manual. This book goes deep into the past to combat the prevailing and problematic images of Black women chefs in the United States.