So, I was doing a search for websites on African American food, using that search term specifically, and essentially came up with nothing. Most of the entries ended up being redirected to sites about soul food, which while encompassed under the umbrella of African American food is really, it seems, more of a concept than anything else that conjures images of black folks dancing, singing, and eating chicken, at least for me. I think the reason I have a problem with that term is that it tends to force the food that African Americans eat into a box that has no room for the sheer diversity of ingredients, techniques, or regions that exist, ultimately leading people (most notably African Americans themselves) to accept/believe that all African Americans eat is fried chicken or catfish (and we only eat catfish and occasionally fried shrimp), greens, biscuits, chitlins, candied yams, and, of course, peach cobbler for dessert. In the summer, we can throw in some barbecue, but otherwise, forget it. Of course all of this ish is delicious but that’s beside the point.*
I’ve already discussed in an earlier post, how this myth is debunked by the late, great Edna Lewis in her seminal The Taste of Country Cooking. The creation of soul food as a concept in and of itself came to be in Amiri Baraka’s 1962 essay “Soul Food.” I am simplifying (mostly because I’m feeling lazy right now), but like most things culturally African American the concept made it to the mainstream and the script was flipped until we ourselves began believing that the dishes mentioned above were all with which we could fill our tables and our bellies. Sigh.
But I have digressed far further than I meant to…
So let me get back on track. Alright. I took a peek at a few of these websites and found that every one of them had one or more recipes linked to Mama, Big Mama, etc. There is “Mama’s Fried Catfish” and the enticing “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf” both at www.soulfoodcookbook.com and a recipe for “Mama’s Pecan Pie” at www.washingtonpost.com, just to name a few, but this is just on the web. I have an entire book called Soul Food by Sheila Ferguson that has recipes with titles like: Roast Pheasant with Wild Rice Stuffin’ (emphasis on the stuffin’) and lines like: “It’s that shur-‘nuf everlovin’ downhome, stick-to-your-ribs kinda food that keeps you glued to your seat long after the meal is over…Yes suh!” [sic] The book even has a whole section on how black people speak. It was written with a British audience in mind primarily but this annoys me even more. And I’m sure that somewhere there is an entire book of “Big Mama’s” recipes floating around somewhere. I have to say that I do not have a Big Mama. I have a feeling that if I had ever called my Grandmother that, she would have looked at me like I was crazy and let me know the bid’ness, like the time I asked her why she never baked any cookies. Needless to say, I never questioned her domesticity again.
Doris Witt wrote a great book exploring all of this called: Black Hunger: Soul Food In America. I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.
Maybe I am all fired up over nothing, because yes, this is a pattern of speech among some black folks, and yes, as with any culture mothers and grandmothers are usually held in the highest esteem when it comes to cooking but…Why? Why “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf?” Why? I will never understand this. And why do they always have to be big? We’re not all big…damn.
*I can speak with authority on everything except chitlins. I haven’t ever tasted them. When my great Grandmother was still alive she once tried to bribe me, offering me $20 to take just one bite and I still wouldn’t do it.
Herbal medicine stall in Coronation Market -- Kingston, Jamaica