Black Women Are Key to the American Kitchen - But Remain Invisible | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Black Women, Architects of the American Kitchen, Deserve a Rightful Place in the Sun

A chef and food writer takes a hard look at the Mammy stereotype, the rare outliers who have achieved recognition for their cooking, and the inequity that still prevents most Black women from owning restaurants.

A group of Black women lead a cooking class; a banner above the chalkboard reads,

A group of Black women lead a cooking class; a banner above the chalkboard reads, “Cease to be a drudge, Seek to be an artist,” credited to Mary McLeod Bethune. (Photo courtesy of The Jemima Code and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University)

There’s a moment in the 2009 animated Disney film The Princess and the Frog, when the main protagonist, Tiana, a New Orleans-born Black woman, is on the precipice of realizing her lifelong dream of owning a restaurant.

Then, a real estate agent, Mr. Fenner of Fenner & Fenner, who had been poised to sell Tiana her coveted restaurant space, tells her she has been outbid.

“A little woman of your . . . background would have had her hands full trying to run a big business like that. You’re better off where you’re at,” he tells her.

A still of Tiana from the Disney movie,

A still of Tiana from the Disney movie, “The Princess and the Frog.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to intuit what function that pregnant pause, and the word “background,” have in the scene. Disney, as much a mirror on American life as any media, was punctuating a disturbing American credo in that scene: the U.S., as represented by Mr. Fenner, thinks Tiana is better off as a laborer, nothing more.

After Mr. Fenner breaks the news, Tiana takes her place back behind the catering table at the Mardi Gras ball where she’s serving her specialty beignets. She trips and falls, all of the beignets she baked for the event go flying, and our heroine sits dejectedly in a dustbowl of powdered sugar and sorrow.

In his foreword to The Jemima Code, author Toni Tipton Martin’s presentation of more than 150 African American cookbooks, journalist John Edgerton wrote:

“Throughout 350 years of slavery, segregation, and legally enforced white supremacy, the vast majority of women of African ancestry in the South lived lives tightly circumscribed [to] . . . domestic kitchens. To them fell the overarching responsibility for the feeding of the South, as well as the duty of birthing and nurturing replacement generations.”

In the collection, Tipton Martin lays out another brutal conundrum: the image of the Black woman chef embedded in the cruel stereotype and barbarous invention of racism and in the caricature of the Mammy—a deceit that functions, in part, to bury the rich culinary gifts that Black women have given American cooking.

After years working as a chef, I did not see myself reflected in the food industry. Around four years ago, Tipton Martin’s book opened up my own personal search for other Black women in food.

I quickly learned that I was not alone in my search. Modern American cooking enthusiasts have long been wringing their hands over the question of what “American” food actually means, and a growing number of chefs are circumventing the Eurocentric answer to that question and revealing actual Native American ingredients and cookery—ancient traditions hidden and all but destroyed by colonialism.

“Of the roughly one million restaurants in the country, about eight percent are Black-owned. About 2,800 are owned by Black women. That’s less than a third of one percent of all American restaurants.”

But the millions of Black women who picked up those Native ingredients and applied both the intelligence and traditions of Africa and those of Europe that were imposed on them have yet to garner rightful recognition in the pantheon of the American professional kitchen. Their toil and intellectual property have been as dismissed and concealed as that of any slave, their names sacrificed and lost to the American project.

Of the roughly 1 million restaurants in the country, for instance, about 8 percent are Black-owned. About 2,800 are owned by Black women, according to 2019 Census information. That’s less than a third of 1 percent of all American restaurants.

Invisible Domestic Work

In his 2015 profile of Southern cooking doyenne Edna Lewis, journalist Francis Lam wrote,

“The elite homes of Virginia, going back to the days when the Colonial elite socialized with French politicians and generals during the Revolutionary War, dined on a cuisine inspired by France. It was built on local ingredients—many originally shared by Native Americans or brought by slaves from Africa—and developed by enslaved black chefs like James Hemings, who cooked for Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Because this aristocratic strain of Southern cuisine was provisioned and cooked largely by black people, it came into their communities as well, including Freetown.”

Freetown was Lewis’s hometown, a Virginia homestead built by a community of formerly enslaved people, including her grandfather.

For anyone concerned with the legacy of the Black chef in America, James Hemings and Edna Lewis are familiar names. Lewis left Freetown during the Great Migration for Washington, D.C. and then New York, where she found work first as a domestic and then eventually as a cook in stylish restaurants, which led her finally to her own restaurant and a cookbook deal.

An early photo of Edna Lewis.

An early photo of Edna Lewis.

In her cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking, Miss Lewis, as she was known, writes in almost ecstatically loving terms about her childhood in Freetown. She recalls details like the “moist smell of chickens hatching” and “the first asparagus that appeared on the fence row, grown from the seed the birds dropped.” Along with hundreds of others, these memories recall a life made of not just four seasons, but the many seasons that arrive each year, and with them, the resulting cuisine that was so endemic it was sacred.

But by the time she was 15, Lewis left Freetown as part of the Great Migration, an event often described as millions of people moving for a “better life.” In reality, 6 million African Americans fled the South in an effort to get away from white terrorism: the lynching and indentured servitude that made “free” life not much better than enslavement, and the destruction of their homesteads and farm properties to a degree that often resulted in starvation.

Miss Lewis likely didn’t leave her community as a child—for a place completely unknown to her—because she was in search of a better life. When she did leave, her dressmaking skills put her in circles with white socialites, including an antiques dealer with whom she eventually became a partner in her first restaurant.

Tipton Martin, who had a chance to meet Miss Lewis before she passed away in 2006, told her that the world needed to know that there were a lot more people like her—they have just been invisible, hidden. Miss Lewis responded in a letter: “Leave no stone unturned to prove this point. Make sure that you do.”

So what of the millions of other women constrained to the American kitchen for 350 years, and what of their bequest? What of their descendants? Where are our restaurants and our book deals?

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“So what of the millions of other women constrained to the American kitchen for 350 years, and what of their bequest? What of their descendants? Where are our restaurants and our book deals?”

Not at all incidentally, Tiana’s mother in The Princess and The Frog works as a domestic and seamstress in the home of a wealthy white family in New Orleans’ opulent Garden District. When Tiana grows up, she works as a server and baker in a modest restaurant. At least Disney does not lie in this portrayal of Southern racial hierarchy in 1912. Though in 1926, at the height of the Great Migration, Tiana would have been more likely to wake up as a frog than be granted the keys to a restaurant. (Spoiler: in the film’s end, Tiana gets the prince and her dream business.)

But among the many tired anachronisms in the film (racist voodoo tropes, Bayou dwellers portrayed as toothless hillbillies, etc.) the most tired is its repetition of America’s favorite fusty nugget: If you just work hard enough, you can get what you dream of. The film doesn’t mention of the 400 years of work with no pay.

Criminally little about Black history, particularly antebellum Black history, has been told through the eyes of Black people. Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was the first African American woman to publish her own slave narrative, in 1861. She had the extremely rare fortune of being taught to read and write by one of the women who owned her.

In the book, Jacobs recounts the plight of her grandmother, known as “Aunt Marthy:”

“She became an indispensable personage in the household, officiating in all capacities, from cook and wet nurse to seamstress. She was much praised for her cooking; and her nice crackers became famous in the neighborhood that many people were desirous of obtaining them. In consequence of numerous requests of this kind, she asked permission of her mistress to bake crackers at night, after all the household work was done. . . . The business proved profitable, and each year she laid by a little, which was saved for a fund to purchase her children.”

Jacobs goes on to describe how her grandmother’s mistress eventually asked to borrow the $300 she had saved. It was never returned, but the mistress did purchase a silver candelabra with the money, which likely got passed down to her own heirs over the generations. Aunt Marthy’s 10-year-old son was sold for around $700, about the cost of two candelabras.

A formal portrait of Harriet Jacobs.

A formal portrait of Harriet Jacobs.

This description of the condition of the enslaved female cook, housekeeper, waiting maid, and housemaid was a relatively benign experience, compared to the other sadistic abuses described in the book. But it begins to paint a picture of the legacy, or lack thereof, for the Black woman culinary worker in America.

The enslaved domestic servant after Reconstruction didn’t fare much better than the enslaved sugar mill and sugar plantation worker, who had no other choice but to go on to coerced labor or indentured servitude, working in the very same mills and living in the very same slave quarters.

For instance, by the 1880s, about 98 percent of Black women in large southern cities like Atlanta worked as domestics. In the 1912 essay, “More Slavery at the South,” an anonymous African American domestic woman contacted hundreds of other women like her and attempted to present a snapshot of their daily working lives. “The condition of this vast host of poor colored people is just as bad as, if not worse than, it was during the days of slavery,” she wrote. “Tho [sic] today we are enjoying nominal freedom, we are literally slaves.”

She describes 16-hour work days and adds that just as enslaved Black women were expected to acquiesce to rape and sexual harassment by their white masters, as rejecting advances by the man of the house, even under emancipation, was widespread grounds for termination. Many, if not most, Black women were raising children by their husbands as well as by the white men whose homes they worked in.

“You might as well say that I’m on duty all the time—from sunrise to sunrise, every day in the week I am the slave, body and soul, of this family,” the unnamed author wrote. “We are but little more than pack horses, beasts of burden, slaves! In the distant future, it may be, centuries and centuries hence, a monument of brass or stone will be erected to the Old Black Mammies of the South.”

To this day I don’t know of any such monument, with the additional added insult that the “Old Black Mammy” is itself an invented apparatus, in part to explain away the relationship between white men and Black women. In actuality, domestic workers were likely to be underweight, not overweight, thanks to severely rationed food, light skinned, because household work was often assigned to mixed-race women, and young, because less than 10 percent of Black women lived beyond 50 during that time period.

When a Southern movement to erect such monuments and memorials began in the early 1920’s, Black protests voiced that a better memorial would be to extend the full rights of American citizenship to the descendants of these women.

Moving From Service to Ownership

It’s difficult to discern what the turning point was that ultimately gained Tiana ownership of her restaurant in The Princess and the Frog. After being turned into a frog and kissing the prince, she was transformed back into human form, and in short order, the restaurant, and the man, are hers.

Whilst still a frog, she sang, “I’m going to do my best to take my place in the sun when we’re human.” So maybe it was in that moment—when she was at long last recognized as human.

In 2023, when the most recognizable movement for Black rights goes by the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” I think we can mostly agree that we are still fighting for our lives to matter enough to be recognized as fully human.

By the Jim Crow era, as late as 1966, the one job open to Black women was as a maid who cooked, washed and ironed clothes, and cared for children, for as little as $20 per week. Though Black women domestic workers fought for better wages and conditions, Black women’s contributions to the project of American cookery hasn’t been reflected in a way that even begins to scratch the surface of the true history. And the industry seems content with this fact.

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There were no better farmers at the end of the Civil War than the formerly enslaved people, who were captured from African countries for their agricultural knowledge and had done all of the planting, harvesting, and gardening that went to feed the big house, as well as their own communities and families. Similarly, there were no better cooks than Black women, who were at the helm of virtually every kitchen in the South. Forbidden from reading and writing, they would not have been cooking from recipes or formal technique, but by memory, or “by hand”—a skillset that none but the most proficient cooks and chefs can boast.

And while it’s true that many Black women wanted to move out of the domestic sphere when more lucrative and less oppressive jobs became available to them after the civil rights movement, I still have extreme difficulty understanding how America’s most proficient cooks still don’t have a piece of the restaurant ownership pie.

While the Mammy stereotype remains highly visible in American culture—with Aunt Jemima (who was recently retired after a 130-year run) being the most prominent—the actual Black woman chef is, conversely, invisible. The most famous Black women chefs—including Leah Chase and Edna Lewis—are dead and gone, and the industry has done little to elevate any of our current talent to the status of household name.

The 2021, post-George Floyd New York Times article, “How High-End Restaurants Have Failed Black Female Chefs,” cites a study from that same year published by a nonprofit advocacy group for restaurant workers’ rights. It indicates that racial and gender biases compound to make it especially hard for Black women to attain leadership roles in restaurants.

“Using Seattle’s restaurants as an example, the study detailed several factors—openly discriminatory hiring and training, implicit bias among employers and customers, a lack of networking and training opportunities—that prompt many Black women to leave the industry,” the article reads.

As the 20th century progressed, Black women went from the domestic service sector to performing similar duties in hospitals, schools, and restaurants, including fast food. Today, almost a third of Black women are employed as service workers, compared to one fifth of white women.

“We should imagine an America where the legacy of Black women’s intellectual property and centuries of culinary know-how gets applied to the restaurant world and a true American cuisine emerges.”

“Since the era of slavery, the dominant view of Black women has been that they should be workers, a view that contributed to their devaluation as mothers with caregiving needs at home,” wrote economics professor Nina Banks in a 2019 article for the Economic Policy Institute. “African American women’s unique labor market history and current occupational status reflects these beliefs and practices.”

Indeed, the service industry continues to profit off of our labor and skill, but it is hardly more likely to hand over the keys today than it was in 1926.

But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining an America where the legacy of Black women’s intellectual property and centuries of culinary know-how gets applied to the restaurant world and a true American cuisine emerges that hails from the actual founding of this nation—the arrival of enslaved Africans to the colonies.

It would be a world where more restaurants reflect the genuine American cooking tradition that starts with Native ingredients and African artistry and intelligence. Where women cook with the spirit of providing everyone with what they need, and where the true definition of feeding—“to give, to supply with nourishment”—is the order of the day.

Where all of the Edna Lewises and their descendants, the architects of the American kitchen, have their rightful place in the sun. And where Black women are seen as living monuments who have the full rights of American citizenship, recognized not for our labor, but for our humanity.

Mecca Bos has been a Twin Cities-based journalist and chef for more than 20 years. In these dual roles, she has become known as one of the leading local voices for marginalized voices in the food community. Mecca has been the dining critic of the now-defunct publications Twin Cities Metro and City Pages. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Taste, VICE, Paste, Travel + Leisure, Midwest Living, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Minnesota Public Radio, and is producing her own audio documentary work, Hidden Black Foodways. Read more >

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