Why Newspapers are My Key Ingredient to Soul Food History

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Why Newspapers are My Key Ingredient to Soul Food History

Newspapers and soul food? I never connected the two except when I ate at an old school soul food joint that wrapped their “to go” orders, particularly fried fish sandwiches and fries, in newspaper. Yes, I know that the idea of newspaper ink being a condiment does not sound very appetizing, but hey, some say it adds to the flavor.

When I started researching and writing my book on the history of soul food, I had to think anew about this unusual pairing. On top of all of the slave narratives, oral histories of formerly enslaved people and cookbooks, I read thousands — that’s right, thousands — of newspaper articles. Without newspapers, my book would have lacked the details that gave my history some much need context and added texture to the narrative. Journalism has taken quite a few hits of late, but I’ve come to praise the newsrooms of the past, not to bury them. Newspapers — especially in the articles written by curious journalists, tributes to cooks, racist propaganda and the food sections — were my key ingredient to writing an illuminating biography of a cuisine that is much maligned and misunderstood.

Before the advent of radio and television, newspapers played an important role in chronicling daily life in ways that no other medium did. Newspaper reporters were always on the hunt for human interest stories in their community. The white majority culture in the U.S. has long been curious about African Americans, and the rise of newspapers in the nineteenth century gave insight on what seemed to be an alien culture. Before the Civil War, most stories about African Americans centered on slavery, and food was often mentioned. By the 1840s, the adequacy and nutritional value of food increasingly became a litmus test for whether or not enslaved people were treated inhumanely. As abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates gave dueling accounts of plantation food systems, readers got a deeper sense of what the enslaved actually ate and under what conditions. This was information that rarely showed up anywhere else, and certainly not in cookbooks which were primarily aimed to middle and upper class white households.

After Emancipation, newspapers were a mix of joy and pain for African Americans. White resentment fomented as chattel slavery was dismantled and African Americans received unprecedented legal protections. Yet whites did not sit idly by. Since slavery could not legally be revived, white media elites used popular culture to paint African Americans as people who did not deserve the full rights and privileges afforded by the U.S. Constitution because they are subhuman at worst and infantile at best. Along with minstrel shows, newspapers were an important vehicle for spreading such targeted, racial propaganda, and the food references fueled some of the most vicious stereotypes. The food that African Americans enjoyed was by default described as something that no self-respecting whites would ever eat. If blacks and whites enjoyed the same food, like fried chicken, catfish and watermelon, the way blacks ate and the circumstances surrounding their meals were the butt of racist jokes. The ridicule was not limited to the food itself. African American cooks were caricatured as enduring servile stereotypes: “Mammy” or “Aunt so-and-so” for African American women were domineering in the kitchen (but powerless everywhere else), ignorant, and “natural born” cooks. The “Uncle so-and-so” stereotype applied to older, impotent African American men who were dutiful servants and simultaneously lazy.

Newspaper editors all across the country, not just the ones in the South, were all too eager to disseminate these negative images of African Americans. The pain of such stereotypes remains to this day, and much anger arises when whites use food to mock African Americans. The smear campaign against African Americans ultimately worked. By 1896, segregation became the law of the land, and the experiment of treating African Americans as full citizens was over. It would be six decades before those hard-earned rights were restored. A tremendously positive outcome from this era was the proliferation of African American newspapers which unceasingly challenged the racist narrative in the majority press. In more ways than ever before, African Americans had a literary voice, and they could tell their own story, especially about their food.

For much of our nation’s history, being a cook was one of the few professions that an African American could hold without generating much white resentment. For this reason, African Americans dominated most aspects of the food service industry from Emancipation until the civil rights movement era. Every once and awhile though, an African American cook’s culinary skill was so noteworthy that they were given tribute in a newspaper article. Readers rarely got enough of the cook’s back story, but the cook’s skill and the food prepared got top billing. These tributes were a godsend for described soul food was interpreted and performed in different kitchens. As an example, when President Benjamin Harrison hired Laura “Dollie” Johnston, an African American woman and private cook from Lexington, Kentucky to be his White House cook in 1889, newspapers across the country announced her hire and made a point of celebrating the way she made soups and cooked meat dishes.

Another major contribution that newspapers made to my soul food book were the invaluable information found in their food sections. Newspapers had long included recipes, but they were often interspersed throughout the newspaper. It wasn’t unusual for a recipe to be side-by-side with a news report. In the 1890s, newspaper editors began creating pages dedicated to “domestic science,” “domestic economy” or any other term for the tasks required of homemakers. In these food section pages, historians can trace the development of cuisine: what foods were favored and how they were prepared; how certain foods fell out of favor; how foreign foods were embraced; changes in cooking technology and tremendously helpful insight on the cultural, folkloric and social context for particular meals. African American newspapers were good at reminding their readers why sweet potato pie is superior to its pumpkin counterpart, as well as why one needs black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day.

Looking back on what newspapers meant to my research, I can’t help but be saddened by the ongoing decline of that medium. I’ve only shared only a slice of what newspapers have meant to my research, research made possible because private companies, historical societies and the Library of Congress have invested enough resources into digitizing old newspapers. In turn, this resource is easy to search and made available online. If I had to read all of those newspapers cited in my soul food book’s bibliography from front to back, I would have been a contender for the James Beard Award … in 2049. Let’s make an effort to support good food journalism wherever we find it. Who knows how future historians will feast on the stories we tell today.

Adrian Miller is author of the James Beard award-winning book on the history of soul food, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. His next book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas, will be published on President’s Day, 2017.

Photo by Larry & Teddy Page CC BY