What Black Is...

UPDATE: The anecdote about Harvard is not supposed to be about today. It's supposed to be contemporaneous with the rest of the discussion about the origins of the stereotype--that being the first half of the 20th century or so. I understand that there are likely plenty of white Southerners at Harvard eating fried chicken today. More power to them.

A few responses on that dessert thread get us to some interesting places:


I knew about watermelon, but I really need a scorecard to figure out what's southern and what's black.


As a Southerner, I just have to reiterate that most of the food that is stereotypically "black," just seems Southern to me. I live in the midwest now, but whenever I go home, I have to get me hands on some fried chicken, watermelon, Banana pudding, collards, macaroni and cheese (homemade Southern Mac and cheese is something specific) etc.

I used to think that food was just sort of "regular food" that you could buy at a diner or gas station. No more.

While I'm sharing my irrelevant observations, when the hell is the rest of America going to figure out Barbecue? For God's sake. I didn't think it was that complicated.

I'm not holding out much hope for the iced tea up here.


Another white Southerner here, lifelong Memphian. Frankly I didn't even know about "racially stereotyped" foods until I was a teenager, it was all just... food. And the term soul food is just as pointless as southern food--there's so much variation from city to city, state to state that it's pointless to try and paint them all with one brush.


This whole "stereotype" always confused the hell out of me. I'm white - and we had watermelon all the time growing up - especially in the summer. And yes, we sat on the front porch and ate it and spit the seeds out, etc. etc.

When I first heard about this "stereotype" my thought was "well of course they do... who doesn't like watermelon?"

The same thing with the fried chicken "stereotype". Maybe it's because I'm southern but who DOESN'T like fried chicken? Are there really people out there that don't? I've never gotten why that's a "black thing". It just goes to show you how bizarre stereotypes can be sometimes.

I generally get this response whenever I infer that anything on this blog is black. I think we should begin by stating that categorical ethnic definitions of virtually anything will always fail, and almost always be reductive. If you plumb the depths of any group's traditions, you will almost certainly find some other group's. I'm out of my range here, but I deeply suspect that if you do the math on Italian cuisine you'd find some people who aren't very Italian. Whatever that means. The point is that enthic descriptors are always, always limited, just like words are limited. They attempt to describe the world. They are only somewhat successful.

Beyond that, and to the specific case of black people, it's worth considering the large numbers of white people in this country who come in contact with Southern cooking exclusively through black people. During the migrations of the first half of the last century, millions of black people left the South for the North, relocating in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington. Most of these cities either didn't have large pockets of Southern whites, or the Southern whites didn't stay Southern for long. The repositories of Southern culture in the North, were, de facto, black depositories. Thus if you were a white Southener, in the 1960s, and came to New York looking for a taste of home, you'd probably need to catch the A train to Harlem. Even today, that's generally true. In New York, in D.C., in Baltimore, in Chicago, Southern food is, as they call it, Soul Food. That may not be true in Birmingham or Atlanta.

There is also, I suspect, something else. Southerners have been suspect to stereotypes about their intelligence, laziness, and all around backwardness. One way of resisting those stereotypes is to put them off on other people, who you may share some relation, but who you think of as less than. Hence, I suspect that, say, the Southerner in his freshman year at Harvard might avoid the fried chicken, might even disdain it as nigger food, even if his momma makes the best of it. Smarter people than me can break this down--but it wouldn't surprise me if the fried chicken and watermelon stereotype was the work of white Southerners or white Northerners.

History took a weird turn with my generation. Those of us who lived in cities had no real memory of white people eating candied yams, grits, cornbread, fried chicken, biscuits or collards. Moreover, we tended to live around white ethnics--the Italians, the Polish, the Irish--who had their own food. And of those whites who'd transcended ethnicity, and had just become white, well, we just thought they had nothing. Don't ever eat their potato salad, was the word. But we've already been there. For blacks and whites in the South, having a common food and common traditions, it may well have played out differently. Maybe it was like crabs in Baltimore--everyone eats them.

All of that said, a few things should be kept in mind while reading this blog. It is not--nor does it seek to be--definitive. If I infer that peach cobbler is something black people enjoys, it's a reflection of my singular, limited experience--not a thesis on culinary tradition. Ethnic labels are always very elastic and black and white aren't polar opposites. Inferring that something is enjoyed by a lot of black people, does not mean that white must therefore hate it, are barred from ever doing it, or didn't even create it. It just means that some college drop-out on the internet experienced it that way.