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.
As a lucky survivor of the early pandemic, I now have the luxury of feeling almost amused about the naive zeal with which I indulged in “hygiene theater” in the spring of 2020. I prowled around my house sanitizing doorknobs and quarantining the junk mail that I was certain was a site of contagion. While I am at it, I should probably also confess to indulging in an absurd amount of middle-class angst about supply chain disruptions as I panicked about shortages of toilet paper, Clorox wipes, and the wheat flour I needed so that I could jump onto the pandemic banana bread bandwagon. Almost two tragic years later, I feel an appropriate amount of eye-rolling shame about what struck me then as “problems.” However, I am not sure I will ever have enough distance to forget about the intense emotions that accompanied my frenzied attempts to find countless packages of individually wrapped Goldfish crackers, original Chex Mix, and Kashi chocolate-flavored cereal bars after store shelves were quickly emptied of comfort-inducing junk food. My need to acquire large quantities of these sodium or sugar-laden snacks justified my willingness to lean into a problematic amazon.com habit and to patronize our local Walmart for the first time ever. While I could improvise solutions for some shortages or go without certain culinary luxuries, finding a way to access specific brands and flavors of a handful of industrial food products was a matter of survival to someone who depended upon me and whom I loved with an aching intensity: my five-year-old son.
My most deeply held worries were focused on the tiny figure of an autistic little boy with limited and immoveable ideas about what constituted acceptable food. If his sanctioned foods were not available or even if they were served but not in the “correct” packaging, he simply would not eat. He would not accept any substitutions, no matter how much I wheedled and regardless of the lengths I went to trying to disguise imposters as preferred foods. He knew better. Feeding him was not as simple as finding a source of calories on thinning grocery store shelves. He needed his food.
My household was hardly the only one where this existential drama played out. My child was not alone in the intensity of his loyalty to a small subset of brands and flavors, just as my husband and I were not the only parents with the financial means to buy ample food who were still afraid that their children might not have enough to eat. Other parents also scrambled to find supplies of once everyday items like penne, baby food, processed chicken pieces, SpaghettiOs, and chocolate chip cookies to feed their adamantly particular children who simply could not eat anything else.
As a scholar of food studies, I did not need to live through a global pandemic to understand that the significance of food transcends the nutritive value of its components. However, this experience transformed my intellectual understanding into something visceral as I faced uncertainty about whether or not I could provide what a member of my family desperately needed to feel whole and nourished. As a strong believer that our own emotions can imaginatively fuel our understanding of past realities, my pandemic food anxieties made me appreciate in new ways the value of the lens of food studies in humanistic inquiry. All humans, past and present and spanning all identity categories, are bound by our shared dependence upon food and made vulnerable by the fact that our needs for nourishment are specific to who we are, not generic, and thus not always easily met.
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.