The Hidden Histories of American Food Reform

The following is a guest blog post from Jennifer Jensen Wallach, author of Every Nation Has Its Dish: Black Bodies and Black Food in Twentieth-Century America. Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s nuanced history of black foodways across the twentieth century challenges traditional narratives of “soul food” as a singular style of historical African American cuisine. Wallach investigates the experiences and diverse convictions of several generations of African American activists, ranging from Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois to Mary Church Terrell, Elijah Muhammad, and Dick Gregory. While differing widely in their approaches to diet and eating, they uniformly made the cultivation of “proper” food habits a significant dimension of their work and their conceptions of racial and national belonging. Tracing their quests for literal sustenance brings together the race, food, and intellectual histories of America.

Directly linking black political activism to both material and philosophical practices around food, Wallach frames black identity as a bodily practice, something that conscientious eaters not only thought about but also did through rituals and performances of food preparation, consumption, and digestion. The process of choosing what and how to eat, Wallach argues, played a crucial role in the project of finding one’s place as an individual, as an African American, and as a citizen.

Happy Book Birthday to Every Nation Has Its Dish: Black Bodies and Black Food in Twentieth-Century America, officially on sale today!

In 2010, Michael Pollan informed readers of The New York Review of Books that “food in America has been more or less invisible, politically speaking, until very recently.” In his telling, a new “food movement” emerged in the 1970s when Francis Moore Lappé published her influential Diet for a Small Planet, which documented the environmental cost of intensive meat production and recommended vegetarianism as an ethical way to eat. Indeed, in the intervening years, seemingly countless authors, activists, and consumers have publicly engaged with these ideas, asking similar and related questions about what styles of eating and modes of food production might create both the healthiest people and planet. In Pollan’s own famous contribution to the discussion, his bestselling 2007 The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he similarly mourns the failings of the modern food system, while coming to a different conclusion about the best way to eat. Given the large audiences and positive reception of these works and proliferation of food reform initiatives, including First Lady Michelle Obama’s decision to use her platform to advocate for increased attention to the dietary health of children, it is understandable why Pollan conceptualized of food politics as a new phenomenon. However, at the risk of becoming just another critic eager to poke holes in Pollan’s claims to food chronicler omnipotence, I feel obliged to point out that American political food consciousness predates the late twentieth-century. 

Americans have long used food as a locus for anxieties about a variety of moral issues and have identified the topic as one that is worthy of attracting the reformer’s ire. From Thomas Jefferson’s tribute to the glorious lifestyle of the small farmer to Sylvester Graham’s crusade to get Americans to eat whole grains and eschew spicy foods to the efforts of domestic scientists to standardize and perfect the kitchen arts, the idea that some ways of producing and consuming food are superior to others is an ideological theme that can be traced throughout the nation’s history. 

With some notable exceptions including, of course, a former First Lady, many of the most widely heralded food activists have been white. Their prominence has led to a distortion in the way the history of American food reform has been narrated and to the erasure of other voices who have proclaimed that food choices have political consequences. For example, while a 2021 article in Bon Appétit proclaims Frances Moore Lappé as the founder of a plant-centered food revolution, other genealogies point to the enormous influence of African American civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory and to other radical Black eaters who argued that meat eating is harmful to both bodies and minds, associating the practice with poor health outcomes and linking it to a culture of violence and domination. The tremendous influence of Gregory and others like him is evident in the fact that Black Americans are more likely to be vegetarian or vegan than members of any other racial or ethnic group, yet this style of eating is often associated with whiteness in the popular imagination. 

The historic African American impulse toward food reform is often hidden in plain sight, even from those scholars who have not yet been convinced that food is indeed the “world’s most important subject.” In some ways this omission is understandable, as African American activists have seldom framed themselves as single issue food reformers. For example, race leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois saw food issues as being interconnected with the gargantuan task of creating a positive post-emancipation reality for Black people. Washington, a former slave, wanted students at the Tuskegee Institute, which he founded, to eat foods associated with upper mobility, sophistication, and nutritional science as a means of claiming their share of space in the nation’s future. Du Bois turned to the politics of the table in different seasons of his life for a variety of reasons, ranging from his mainstay desire to preserve the health of the community, to demonstrating patriotism to a nation that had spurned Black desires for inclusion, to advocating for Black cooperative economic activity in the face of relentless segregation. Both men knew that reforming food practices and systems was key to a more equitable future long before the advent of the modern food movement. If the issue of food was not visible to many before the 1970s, they simply were not looking in the right places.

Jennifer Jensen Wallach is professor and chair of the department of history at the University of North Texas. She is the author or editor of several books, including Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop.