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Feeding the Soul: African American Food Culture

November 14, 2013—In African American Food Culture, Assistant Professor of History Marcia Chatelain and her students aren’t just talking about food. They are exploring the many ways food has shaped both African American culture and American history.

Chatelain designed the course for the College’s Ignatius Seminars Program. With each seminar limited to 15 students, first-year students have the opportunity to get to know faculty members and their research in a small, intimate setting. “When I heard that one of the goals of the Ignatius Seminars is to acquaint students with our research interests, I knew that a food class could bridge my study of African American urbanization and my interests in the role of food in pivotal moments in 20th-century black history,” she explained.

According to Chatelain, we often glance over food culture’s connection to historical events. As she passes out ice cream sandwiches at the start of a class, Chatelain reminds students that half of them would not have been able to enjoy ice cream at lunch counter in the early 1960s. Lunch counters were a glaring symbol of black Americans’ unequal access to public space. In African American Food Culture, a simple ice cream sandwich quickly leads into a discussion the beginnings, struggles, and successes of the Civil Rights Movement.

For Chatelain’s first-year students, Washington, DC, becomes a dynamic backdrop for their study of food, race, and history. “I think the students have been moved and surprised by how recently Washington, DC, observed the rules of Jim Crow and segregation,” Chatelain explained. After her lecture on President Kennedy and the architects of the Civil Rights Movement “students were really surprised to realize that DC—a place they know as incredibly cosmopolitan—struggled with a deep color line,” she continued.

To help introduce first-year students to the city, Chatelain arranges field trips to Ben’s Chili Bowl, Eatonville, and Florida Avenue Grill, DC restaurants that reflect the “legacy of black food culture,” she said. Students have the opportunity to meet restaurant owners and employees, who can explain African Americans’ influence on American cuisine. “I absolutely loved Ben’s Chili Bowl and U Street in general. Professor Chatelain had one of her colleagues join us, and he gave us a full [discussion] about the rich history of African Americans in DC,” Victoria Efetevbia (C’17) said.

The class has given students not only the confidence to explore the city on their own, but also to try foods and restaurants they would not have tried before. “I really enjoy having an opportunity to leave the classroom and explore outside of Georgetown,” Shola Powell (C’17) said. “The field trips that I have attended have given me a reason to go to neighborhoods that I might not have otherwise and to have amazing food that would have remained a mystery to me,” Powell continued.

For most of the students, African American Food Culture has shown them the integral role food plays in our lives. “I think about the history and meaning of the food [that] I eat a lot more than I ever used to. When I eat something, I think about who would have eaten it, as well as the when, where, why, and how would it have be eaten in history,” Sinead Schenk (C’17) said.

Students also consider the complex processes that bring food to our plates. “I also think of the effort it took to get the food to the table and where it originally came from,” Schenk said. Exploring all of the aspects of food culture has led to “incredible discussions about food safety, food justice, and workers rights,” Chatelain said.

Although the class primarily examines African American food culture in 19th- and 20th-century American history, current events and political debates can’t help but influence the course. “We talk a lot about food deserts in DC and the racialized component of access to healthy and nutritious foods. We also discussed, at length, how the government shutdown impacted poor and hungry families, as well as food safety protocols and inspections,” Chatelain explained.

By sharing her research interests with first-year students, Chatelain has been able to offer a class that students may have never encountered before. In high school, Abdurrahman Ajeigbe (C’17) had studied the role of African Americans on plantations during slavery, but did not learn about the extent of African Americans’ impact on American food culture. “They had an influence in creating soul food and Southern food,” Ajeigbe said. “Their predecessors introduced new plants and new ways to use existing plants to make the distinctive meals of the South.

“[For me], African American Food Culture opened an entirely new perspective of African Americans’ role in America.”

—Elizabeth Wilson

related information

Learn more about the options for first-year students, including the Ignatius Seminars.