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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Waffles and chicken and malevolent ignorance

An insensitive insult?

A school in Nyack, New York apologized for serving waffles and chicken and watermelon on the first day of Black History Month.    Some people thought doing so "reinforced negative African-American stereotypes."  A middle-school child called attention to the meal, saying the waffles and chicken might have been served without much notice, but watermelon served in middle of winter stood out.

The school missed an opportunity for a significant teaching moment.  It assumed that the menu of chicken and waffles was a mockery, not an attempt to acknowledge the purpose of Black. History Month: "the month that honors the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history."

Apparently, attempts of white people to replicate soul food are resented, rather than acknowledged as a tribute.

But this isn't the first time Aramark [the company that operates the school food service] found itself in hot water. Back in 2018, another racially insensitive meal was served at New York University during Black History Month. It included barbecued ribs, collard greens, cornbread, Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water. When called out, the company apologized and workers were fired.

African-Americans created a huge amount of American culture.  Their contributions are particularly notable and evident in music, sports, and cuisine.  Our popular music including jazz and rock and roll has direct derivations from slave  work songs and spirituals. Many, perhaps most, of our sports heroes are black. And much of what we term American food has origins in the black experience.

African-American culture grew out of "the depravity, emotional abuse, torment and murder that drove and sustained American chattel slavery."  It devised ways for people to survive and support  themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Food played vital role in the development of a survivalist culture.  Many plantation owners provided slaves with inadequate food.  To get the nutrients that could support them, slaves developed strategies that could make unsavory ingredients palatable.  Slave women who cooked for their masters found ways to obtain and cook things that expanded the diet and tasted good, too.  They would catch and cook animals such as opossums, and some thought it was a treat.  After slavery ended, a black woman wrote  dialect poem to celebrate the 'possum.

What’s mo’ temptin’ to de palate,
When you’s wuked so hard all day,
En cum in home at ebentime
Widout a wud to say,–
En see a stewin’ in de stove
A possum crisp en brown,
Wid great big sweet potaters,
A layin’ all aroun’

Watermelon is regarded as a stereotypical craving among blacks, but it is much more than that: 

 Watermelon became a staple crop for black farmers after emancipation, with many growing and selling the fruit which slowly turned into a symbol of freedom for the community. 

Southern whites, threatened with new agricultural competitors and still reeling from the loss of the war, responded by associating the fruit with racists tropes aimed at the black community.   

Racists have promoted the image of black people taking simple minded pleasure in eating watermelon.  But while they are taking pleasure in the taste of the fruit, they are also thinking of the part it played in gaining freedom and self-sufficiency.   People in general like to celebrate with foods that are associated with the better moments of their lives.  Sharing food is an act of sharing life, and foods that have contributed to peoples freedom and aspirations convey a festive element.

One such food for people of Scandinavian descent is lutfisk [Swedish spelling].  My mother hosted the Christmas Eve smorgasbord for our families relatives, and lutfisk was a necessary part of it.  Lutfisk means lye fish.  To get through the harsh winters, Scandinavians dried fish to preserve it for use over the cold season.  When it came time to eat the fish, it would be soaked in a lye bath, which would reconstitute the fish.  Then it would be soaked in clear water to get the lye, then cooked.  

Lutfisk is the object of jokes among Scandinavians. It is not exactly a delicacy; some people detest it.  But it is a traditional food with which people survived and thrived in a harsh climate, and it was served at Christmas as a reminder of a  sustenance that made their life and their culture possible.   Soul food carries that kind of significance for African-Americans. It is the product of their ingenuity and persistence in surviving and gaining their status as a free people.  Why is serving soul food on an occasion to memorialize the liberation of blacks regarded as insensitivity or an offense?  Why would anyone choose to see as a racist taunt?

Perhaps, some regard it as cultural appropriation, which is an anti-democratic concept. No one owns a culture.  But the fact that someone is castigated for serving a food as part of a recognition and celebration of a people's freedom is very hard to comprehend. It seems that some people regard food as a weapon in a culture war, not as something that can be shared as a basis for life.

I have no idea what the food servers at Nyack Middle School and New York University had in mind when they put soul food on their menus for Black History Month, but I doubt that it was a food fight or a mocking insult.  They might be the ones owed an apology.


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States