We dug deep into the popularity of Southern food, and its roots in black history that are often erased in a trend-driven food landscape. We also delve into the homogeneity of food media itself, by talking through actionable steps we need in order to move the race and food conversation forward. Nicole also takes a few minutes to give a shout out to the many black food writers doing great work (and who have been there the whole time!).
LINKS DU JOUR
- "The Forgotten History of African-American Cookbooks," by Stacia L. Brown in The New Republic
- Carla Hall's appearance on the Eater Upsell podcast, explaining what it's like to publish a cookbook as a black chef
- Nicole on WNYC's The Sporkful, discussing her relationship with Southern food
[voice mail beep]
ALAN MONTECILLO ON VOICE MAIL: Hey, podcast listeners, producer Alan here. I'm just calling in to let you know that once again, we are looking for sponsors. So, if you work at a business or an organization that's interested in helping make food journalism more equitable, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. OK, show time.
SOLEIL HO: You're listening to Racist Sandwich, the podcast about food, race, class, and gender. This is Soleil Ho.
ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: And I'm Zahir Janmohamed.
SOLEIL: So, our guest today is a really great food writer named Nicole Taylor, @FoodCulturist on Twitter. She has written the Up South Cookbook, which is this really great sort of personal, modern Southern cookbook, and she also was the host of the Hot Grease podcast. And she's just a woman about town in New York, and she has so many amazing and poignant things to say. And she also has really great opinions in general and really restorative opinions about what we can do about our national conversations about race and gender.
ZAHIR: Yeah, one of the things that she says is that the callout culture, it has its purposes, but people have been calling out food media for a while. And yet, the changes still aren't happening. So, what Nicole talks about is some solutions, and she names a lot of, there are many Black writers, Black food writers in America. It's just that we need to elevate them. We need to listen to them more, and Nicole is one of them. So, we're super excited to have her. We recorded the interview via Skype. So, thank you, Nicole so much for joining us for that.
SOLEIL: So, I first heard about you on The Sporkful, actually. When we started, they did this series on race and food, right? And you were one of the guests. What was that experience like?
NICOLE TAYLOR: I'm a huge fan of The Sporkful. I remember when I got the email, I'm like, wait. This is totally different from the kind of content that The Sporkful usually puts out. So, I was like uh.... I was a little concerned. I don't know if you listened to some of the early Sporkfuls. I've been listening to that podcast probably like for the last five years, and Dan is really funny. He pokes a lot of fun at different food topics like is a hot dog really a hot dog? Is it a sandwich? So, when he called me, I'm gonna be honest: I was a little hesitant, like, oh, wow. OK. This is a 180 for them.
So, yeah, that was my initial reaction to Other People's Food. It turned into a five-part series. I think it was four parts at first. One of the things that really got me excited about that, they had Mr. McNeil, who was one of the folks who integrated or did the sit-ins at lunch counter in North Carolina. So, I was very honored to be a part of a dialogue that included him because he's really living history. So, but overall, I think that Dan set out, or The Sporkful set out, to do exactly what they wanted to do, and that's to start a dialogue. They made it really clear early on that they weren't trying to come up with solutions, but they wanted to be in the mix of the conversation around cultural appropriation.
ZAHIR: Yeah, so, you know, I love the way you started the episode where you say that you spent your 20s trying to distance yourself from Southern food. And you actually once told a journalist, you said, "I would often make the comment to myself when I went home, 'No, thank you' on the slave food." Can you elaborate on that comment? Why did you distance yourself from Southern food, and then why did you sort of think of it as slave food?
NICOLE: I mean, I grew up around my great aunts; I grew up around a lot of elders. They did not eat fast food. They cooked every day. My entire neighborhood was full of backyard gardens, full of fruit trees, pecan trees, black walnuts. So, that is the food that I saw on the table at home, in my community. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Athens, and the food of neck bones with rice and cornbread and peas and squash and hot peppers, those were the things I grew up around. And I think the older I got, and I started getting a job, to me, being successful or being mobile meant that I had the means or the opportunity to go out and eat at the cool restaurants in Athens or eat at whatever fast food restaurant that was popping up.
And it got even more intense for me when I moved to Atlanta. I went to school in Atlanta. And you know. A lot of folks there, 18, 19, and you see other people not eating pork and being a vegetarian. So, I jumped on that bandwagon. And then moving to New York really just kind of just, I was like, wait. All the food that I grew up seeing around me and people ate and people had for Easter and Christmas like red velvet cake, all of my celebration foods were foods that people were charging quadruple the amount.
NICOLE: When I saw lard for the first time at the farmers' market, and it was like a pint of it was $8 or something, I was like, whoa. I grew up seeing that all the time. It was something that you almost hid 'cause you didn't want people to know that you were still cooking with lard.
SOLEIL: That kind of fits in with that theme of The Sporkful's series that you were on, the Other People's Food idea. So, why do you think, then, that Southern food has kind of gone from what you thought of as this sort of depreciated food into this really trendy kind of phenomenon up North?
NICOLE: Well, I think what Southern food is, is it's comforting. It's inexpensive. It's from the land. It respects the seasons. And all of those things are, I mean, they're on the tongues of almost everyone now. Even big corporations, they're trying to figure out how do we turn a marketing campaign of our soup into all those things that I just mentioned?
I definitely think you started to see Southern food becoming more and more popular around 2007, 2008, and we all know that that's when the economy went to hell. And I think people wanted to go back to the basics. I think that there are a lot of people in the South never stopped eating Southern food. They never stopped eating Southern peas, like crowder peas or shucking corn, fresh corn and all that stuff. But 2007, 2008, you could pretty much go to any large metropolitan city, and someone is doing fried chicken and biscuits or trying to do Southern vegetables in some kinda way. But I definitely think the economy and also just the conversations in the mainstream food media shifted the whole focus towards Southern food.
Another thing is that I think Southern food is one of the only American cuisines that has really a true identity. Everything else, you say, what is Midwestern food? Yeah, people can come up with comfort food, and they can come up with chicken fried steak or chicken fried chicken. But Southern food has just this super unique and defined identity.
SOLEIL: Right. And I think it's really important to note that Southern food-or our conception of it-has so much to do with Black folks in the South, right? [chuckles]
NICOLE: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. Without a doubt. I mean, if you look at peas, and you look at rice culture, that's one of the most easiest ways to realize the contributions of enslaved Africans or Black people in the Americas. If you look right at coastal South Carolina, I mean, you can look at rice production in Charleston and other areas of South Carolina. Enslaved Africans were responsible for bringing in the money, the techniques, and all of that. So, rice culture, which is very much a part of Southern culture. And when you think about certain peas, they came straight from Africa. Straight from Africa. And sweet potatoes, and some of the methods of how Black folks fry things, how we stew things, they're very much a part of West African culture, where most of enslaved Africans came from. So, yeah, and there are plenty of scholars like Jessica B. Harris and plenty of cookbooks authors like Helen Mendes who wrote some of the first, she wrote one of the first cookbooks that really explained Black food or Southern food and its roots to African culture or West African culture.
ZAHIR: It's interesting 'cause here in Portland, you have an African American community that's being pushed out, but you still have the Southern restaurants, usually run by white people. And so, you have that Southern food minus the Black people and minus the respect given to its roots. Have you seen that a lot in terms of the way people talk about Southern food, that there's this erasure of its roots in Black-
NICOLE: Oh, god, yeah.
ZAHIR: I mean, in Portland, it's so common. But what about your experience?
NICOLE: I definitely think there's an erasure. I mean, there's a rarity, and I can probably name on one hand barely, some of the chefs that are doing Southern food who pay homage in a way that's just not talking about it, but they also are doing things like Edward Lee, who's very much doing Southern food in Kentucky. He's from New York. He's also Asian, but he is not only talking about, yes, I'm paying homage. You see that he's working with Black youth in terms of giving them a job and training stuff. You have so many other chefs-I'm not gonna say so many other chefs-but definitely a handful of chefs who are doing more than just talking.
A few weeks ago, there was a big online debate, I know it's all on my Facebook about Hattie B's Nashville-style hot chicken and Prince's, which is the original Nashville-style hot chicken. Hot chicken in Nashville, it's the origin. There's no one else in the South that started hot chicken except for Prince's. And someone wrote a article basically giving all this credit to Hattie B's for taking hot chicken mainstream, Bro dudes in Nashville who've opened a few locations. And it was crazy. It's like, really? Come one!
NICOLE: And the thing is, at least on my Facebook comments, you know, I have a lot of people on Facebook that are from Athens, older people, people who know my family. And some of the people chimed in that I didn't even think that pay attention to stuff that I post.
ZAHIR and SOLEIL: [laugh]
NICOLE: And they're like, OK, this is a conversation. The gist of it is-and I know this-that Black people have this conversation all the time at the kitchen table, from all generations about how white folks steal our food, they steal our music, and capitalize and make money off it. And that's what you're seeing with this whole hot chicken craze right now. But yeah, it happens a lot. It happens more than you see the folks like Prince's being celebrated and being rewarded or acknowledged for their contribution to this current bro dude, hipster culture that we have going on around Southern food.
SOLEIL: Right. That's very on point, actually. Someone was asking us to talk about the hot chicken-I was about to say conspiracy—
SOLEIL: [chuckles] But maybe that's apt, actually. And it seems like this is also not just a problem with the white chef bros but also with the food media, right, the people who are covering these stories and framing these stories in a certain way without a sort of critical consciousness.
NICOLE: Well, I think it's a two-part thing. It's definitely why is it-you have to pose the question-why is it that a young white chef or chefs are able to open up a hot chicken restaurant and not only one, a few locations, or open up a biscuit or a donut spot so quickly and can get loans to expand, and then you have family-owned restaurants who had lines out the door, and some of them I know for a fact 'cause I've gotten emails saying, "My grandmother for the last 20 years has been trying to get a loan, and these are some of the excuses that we've come up with that have nothing to do with the ability to pay back," or I mean, just crazy stuff. So, that's a conversation that everyone keeps talking about a cultural appropriation, but no one will dig deep into the economics piece. And I wanna have more conversations about that or really, more solutions to that.
The second piece is about the media. Whoo!
ZAHIR: Tell us. [laughs]
NICOLE: One of the things the other day that got me so, I was sad but ecstatic to hear it, Chef Carla Hall, we all know Carla Hall.
ZAHIR: She's amazing, yeah.
NICOLE: She was on another podcast, Eater Upsell, and she was very candid about her journey in her, I think she's working on her third cookbook, and I guess the publisher, they were concerned, I'm paraphrasing, that her book was Black.
NICOLE: Her book was Black, and, "Don't alienate people." And in a nutshell, she was saying, "But are you asking folks who are writing Italian or Southern Italian books, are they alienating Northern Italians?" And so, we all know the few people who've been successful have had the opportunity, like myself, to write a book, and you're a Black person. There are so many other things and so many other hoops that we have to go through and so many other microaggressions that happen to us, you'd be amazed. I think we will never probably talk about them out loud for fear of being blackballed, you know? But some of the stories that I've heard and the things that I've experienced, I have to be far-removed from my book to really have a conversation about it. I think people would be shocked.
So, there's still this publishing industry that is very much white, well-intended, liberal, mainly white women who think they get it, but they don't get it. And I think it scares them sometimes when someone shows up with their full blackness, and they wanna write a cookbook.
ZAHIR: Yeah. Just for listeners who haven't heard: So, Carla Hall, who was on Top Chef, she spoke about how the publisher basically said like, her book, because she's Black, it was too Black; it was alienating white readers. And I read a quote from you, Nicole, that said something like, "As a Black food writer, you always have to be careful not to be put in a box." Can you speak a little bit about that? Do people try to put you in a box, like, oh, Nicole. She's a Black woman. She writes about "Black food?" Do you ever get that?
ZAHIR: As if somehow, Nicole can't be an expert on let's say, Chinese food or let's say, Indian food or something like that, you know?
NICOLE: I definitely get that. I mean, I started out not as a writer. I started off doing a podcast. I started off really being on social media a lot. So, I would go to all these New York City food events, and I would tweet about them. But I also would be very vocal about New York City food events, about the lack of people of color on the panels. And when I started doing my podcast, I pitched my podcast as being this different place, this different audio place where you would hear people of color's voice, not only Black people but just not this same hipster culture that was rising at the moment.
So, I think me in the very early stages being very vocal about that, people kinda put me in a box, and they started inviting me to panels and stuff about, "Let's talk about race and food." And to be honest, it's like, OK, I've talked about this. How much are we going to talk about this? I'm happy to talk about it, but when it makes sense, but can you put me on a panel about something else?
NICOLE: And so, I'm always myself. I show up as myself all of the time, but I also know that if I don't diversify, [chuckles] if I don't diversify my outward facing conscious, that I am going to be put in the box as the person that always talks about race and food. And I have a lot of other things to talk about. And the thing is, sure, let's talk about them, but let's talk about solutions. And let's move to the solution phase. That's kinda where I'm at with this whole cultural appropriation thing. It's like, let's talk about solutions, let's talk about magazines or publications who are doing a great job in bringing particularly African Americans or Black people in their fold. And what I can say to you right now, there aren't any.
NICOLE: There are very few publications. There are very few Black writers who get an opportunity to work full-time at a media company. There are very few young Black food writers who have a column with a online publication. And the ones that do write, you know, you would laugh at what they're getting paid. So, there's a huge, we're at a very crucial point right now in terms of food media. People like to bring up a lot of points of, "We need to diversify," but no one wants to really, no one really wants to relinquish some of their power to really do something.
ZAHIR: So, Nicole, can you give a shout-out to some of the other Black food writers out there just for listeners to know? And then maybe speak about some of the solutions you'd like to see.
NICOLE: I definitely think people who most people already know: Adrian Miller. He wrote a James Beard Award-winning book about the history of soul food. Totally recommend it. Toni Tipton-Martin: She wrote the most quintessential book in the last 20 years called "The Jemima Code," which really highlights the history of African American cookbook writers. She's definitely one. Michael Twitty: He's an awesome food writer who writes and takes people, [chuckles] takes people to charge on anything. You have people like Porsha Williams who I wouldn't consider a writer. She's trained in Museum Studies, but she's one of those folks who I think would be, or is, the next cultural barer. Who else do we have? Wow. Tunde Wey: I think he's a excellent writer. He wrote a piece in the "Oxford American." He's actually a chef, but I tell him all the time, "Boy, you can write!"
NICOLE and ZAHIR: [chuckle]
NICOLE: He is one of the great writers I look forward to reading. He's only written a few pieces, but he needs a column. Lois Illy is a great food writer, cookbook author. Jessica B. Harris, who's definitely probably one of the folks who paved the way for all the folks I mentioned before. Bryant Terry: He's a cook. So, it's a lot of us, and I think a lot of people sometimes don't realize that we're all connected. We all talk. We have this very loose network, and we're all out here trying to make it. We're out here trying to make it. We're out here trying to really carve out a space, and it can be difficult.
ZAHIR: Yeah. I was gonna say, so, I'm a freelance journalist, and I know the hustle. It's real, especially given that the payment from most of these places is just lousy. So, what are some of the solutions? You know, you get paid like $100 for like a 1000-word piece, which is how can anyone live off of that, you know?
ZAHIR: Which is just so exploitative.
NICOLE: I think the folks that I just named that are well-established and have a name for themselves, I think that there's this perception that everything is easy for them. And it isn't. And I think when they have consistent success, that gives them a opportunity to be able to mentor people who are mid-career or people who are just starting off. So, that's number one. There's no reason why Adrian Miller should not have a regular column somewhere. There's no reason why Toni Tipton-Martin should not be teaching Food Studies and Journalism at some major university or what have you. So, with those people who are well-established who are Black in the food world, when they have consistent success, it gives them an opportunity, again, to mentor other people.
Second solution is that we need for publications, the top publications-Bon Appetít, Saveur-their internship program. Do they do outreach to Historically Black Colleges and Universities? And can they say, "We have a intern that we paid who may not necessarily be interested in food, but they interned for us for three months in the summer. And we paid them a stipend or what have you." So, that second solution is making an assertive effort to hire interns who are Black, who are from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and pay them. 'Cause I think that is a huge thing when you're coming from certain socio-economic background, to come to New York City and stay for three months and not be paid is almost impossible. I think that's where anyone from any socio-economic background, but I think that's another solution.
SOLEIL: Right. I mean, a lot of these internships are de facto only available for people with money who can support themselves on very, very little.
NICOLE: And I think another thing that media people, especially editors and stuff, they have to stop being so lazy, right?
NICOLE: The biggest thing I hear all the time is, "I don't know any Black food writers."
ZAHIR: [chuckles] Oh, my gosh.
NICOLE: Oh, my gosh. I get that so much. And to me, that means that they're not paying attention. You're not paying attention 'cause there are a lot of people out here who are Black, and they're writing about food or have a interest to write about food, but they need to be nurtured. They need to be mentored. And so, I say to people of power who are not of color, how many people in the last three years did you give-or last year-that you've given an opportunity to? Who have you called and said-who doesn't look like you or sound like you, who's never at your dinner table-and said, "Hey, I have an extra ticket to an event. I just wanna give this to you," or, "Hey, I'm having a dinner party. You should come over. Hey, we're looking for freelancers. Hey, there's a job with benefits here. I want you to apply for it. Here." Or even simply doing introductions to other people. I mean, that stuff goes a long way.
And I think that most of the people in power, they're not doing that. They like to talk about, "Yes, I don't know what to do. We need to be more diverse." But how many of them can say that they've had a person that doesn't look like them around their dinner table or invited them to their little fancy end-of-summer party that they do at their house in the Hamptons or their fancy New York City apartment?
I can tell you because I've gone to some of those events, and I'm usually the only Black person in the room.
SOLEIL: I think especially, too, as women, right-
NICOLE: Ooh, yeah.
SOLEIL: [chuckles] -there's that whole other intersection. It's really, like how do you get into those networking opportunities that are so consolidated in these spaces that I just, I don't know. I feel like they're just locked away. I just can never get to the Hamptons. [chuckles]
NICOLE: [laughs] Yeah! Never been there myself. You know, you speak of another layer of it, and I think a few years ago, there were-well, now it's still happening-women in food. But I feel like it was more pronounced maybe like two years ago or a year ago about women in food, and I think I brought it up online. And well-respected journalists in Charlotte that I love, we had a conversation. I was like, "Yeah, you speak of women in food, but does that apply to Black women?" Because I've gone to stuff. I've gone to all-women networking events in food, and I'm the only Black person there. And I'm like, this is still a problem, though. I'm the only person with melanin in my skin here!
NICOLE: And so, we have two issues. We got another issue, and I'm like, how can women all be in the same room and not look around them, and you still don't see, you still only see white women? So, but no one wants to tackle that issue. [chuckles] No one wants to tackle that issue. And then, so, we have a lot. It's a layered conversation, the whole women thing. So, what does it mean to be a woman in food and have solidarity with other women? We haven't even moved to that frontier yet. But yeah.
SOLEIL: No, I totally get that. Food writing is very, I think, feminized, and there are so many female food writers. And there's a lot of good conversations happening about female chefs and women makers, and there are a lot of women in really big positions. But. There's a big but, right? But the intersectionality of feminism hasn't really reached that.
NICOLE: I mean, there's some people who get it. I think Grace Bonney at Design*Sponge is a person that totally gets it. I mean, a person who's a food editor for Design*Sponge, which is primarily a design blog, but she does lifestyle stuff, her food editor is a Black woman.
SOLEIL: That's awesome.
NICOLE: If you go on Design*Sponge, you will see that she has made a commitment to not have this whitewashed conversation in design with only white women. Even when they feature recipes or cookbooks or drink stuff, it's just you see something different. And she's written about it and talked about it, that she made it a goal. She made a effort to make this a part of who is in the magazine, who's writing, and all of that stuff. So, there are some women who are championing women and who are championing women of color too at the same time, and I do think you can do both.
ZAHIR: Can I just ask you something? You mentioned something in an interview that I really related to where you said that when you moved to New York, people oftentimes stop you and ask you, "Where's the best fried chicken? Or where's the best Southern food?" The reason why I related to it 'cause I'm Indian; I'm Indian American. I moved to Portland, and white people ask me all the time where to get curry, and it annoys the hell out of me. I'm just like, "Dude, can I just check out at the grocery story?"
NICOLE: [laughs] Yes, yes.
ZAHIR: Can you speak about that experience? How do you react, and how does that make you feel? I mean, it makes me feel awful, but what about yourself? What's the experience been like for you?
NICOLE: Well, I'll say this: I love fried chicken. I realize it, and I understand what fried chicken has mean to Black people and what it did for us. Psyche A. Williams-Forson has a book called "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power," which talks about how fried chicken built a middle class, and women catered, and how it sustained us. So, I'm very proud of what Black people have been able to do with fried chicken. So, a lot of times I'm like, OK, you asking me this fried chicken question because I'm Black. And I used to try to say, oh, it's because I'm from the South. Maybe. But I think it's because I'm a Black woman, you know?
So, sometimes I get angry. Number one, it's like OK, where can you find fried chicken in New York City? I'm like, it's New York City. I mean, where can you find fried chicken? Uh...a million places. So, I kinda decided I'm just gonna come up with a little zine, and I listed all the places. So, now I tell people jokingly, "Hey, go buy my zine. You can find all my favorite fried chicken spots."
But the biggest thing I really wanna tell them is, "You know, somebody's house?! Someone's house. Someone who migrated from the South. Someone that left the South, and that's where you can find fried chicken." It's such a complicated question, such a loaded question that I am sometimes irritated by it. But now I'm almost numb to it, and I try not to be reactionary about it and just have a conversation. 'Cause I think people are, they're genuinely asking a question, and they gotta know. But I'm like, if I really have a good hankering for fried chicken, of course there are places I can go in New York City. But I just fry it at home. Period. Point blank. It's one of the first things that I've learned how to cook. So, I can fry chicken with my eyes closed, but I also realize that people, the things that we take for granted, whatever your cultural foods are, other people are just so mesmerized by them.
And so, I'm starting to realize or starting to just kinda just take a deep breath and say, you know what what? People are mesmerized by your food because-or by your fried chicken or whatever the "it" thing is that they wanna ask for at the moment-because they just don't know. And they don't know how to just ask that question and say, "You know, I'm so curious about" fill in the blank. If they just say, "I'm super curious about" fill in the blank, I could have a conversation or at least lead them to people or lead them to a podcast or something that's talking about it. But that, "Where do you find the best fried chicken" is just, [chuckling] it's a hard question to answer as you can see how I went all around the world answering your question!
SOLEIL: No, it's great. That's fine.
ZAHIR: Thank you so much, Nicole. This has been awesome. There's so many more things. We would love to have you back on again. I hope everyone buys your cookbook. If you wanna just tell people again where they can find you, where they can buy your cookbook.
NICOLE: My cookbook is titled "The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen." If you can, go to your local indie bookstore. They should have it there, and if they don't, they can always order it. And then you can find it anywhere else online. I'm on social media, all social media platforms under @FoodCulturist. Yeah, and all of my old podcasts of Hot Grease Podcast you can find them on Heritage Radio Network. I've done a few other audio pieces, and I have a SoundCloud. So, folks can find those pieces right on SoundCloud.
SOLEIL: Awesome. Thank you so much, Nicole.
NICOLE: Thank you, guys, for having me on.
ZAHIR: Thank you, Nicole. This has been awesome.
NICOLE: I appreciate it.
ZAHIR: I appreciate it. Cheers. Thanks so much.
Thank you all for joining us.
SOLEIL: You can find us at www.RacistSandwich.com. Our Twitter handle is @RaceandFood, and you can find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/RaceAndFood.
ZAHIR: Our music is by AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions.
If you still would like to contribute, you can go to our website, and there's a link to our IndieGogo.
SOLEIL: You can still get stickers. I just sent out our first batch of beautiful, giant Racist Sandwich stickers. Put them on your laptop. It's only $7, and you get two! And they're like three by three.
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ZAHIR: By the way. We haven't had a single podcast on donuts. How has that happened?
ZAHIR: I know. I love donuts. OK, ready?
SOLEIL: Oh my god.
ZAHIR: All right.
Transcribed by StoryMinders