Who Owns Southern Food?

By  |  June 3, 2016
“Mahalet and the honeymilk,” by Meg Griffiths, from the series Honeymilk “Mahalet and the honeymilk,” by Meg Griffiths, from the series Honeymilk

In late March, Eater published a Hillary Dixler essay, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining.” The title was clickbait. The real provocation came with the subtitle: “Exploring the line between shared history and appropriation.” The real conversation began when the white Charleston cognoscenti responded in a voice that was often insular and offended and unflattering, challenging Dixler’s command of the subject. 

If the Charleston social media response played out like a get-off-my-lawn rant, Dixler’s article, on third perusal, read like an honest essay—which is to say it read like an honest accounting of the debts owed to the Gullah and Geechee people who have farmed and cooked on the peninsula for more than three centuries. She dared to ground the white-dominated restaurant cooking of modern Charleston in the “enslavement and forced diaspora of West African people, and the continuation of the long-held traditions they brought with them to South Carolina.”

Her original sin was asking questions from a perch in New York City. (What her critics failed to recognize is that this conversation is not provincial. It is, instead, resolutely and broadly and importantly American.) Dixler’s greater sin, in the eyes of some Charleston critics, was giving the mic to Michael Twitty, a Gullah descendant who is also from, as they say, off. 

An autodidact historian of African-American foodways, Twitty made his bones a couple years back with an open letter provoked by Paula Deen’s use of the word “nigger.” He served as Dixler’s primary source. He said things to her like, food “is a part of our culture that couldn’t be beaten out of us.” And, Gullah-Geechee culture is “not the community property of Charleston and Savannah, because it’s not 1864 or any year before that.” Twitty criticized Charleston chefs who are “projecting ownership and making it about them, not even considering the people who have been marginalized and exploited.” I nodded at the first two statements and wished the third had showed more nuance. 

By the time you read this, the vitriolic Tweetstorm that followed will be mercifully buried in a timeline of baseball box scores and celebrity dalliances. Among the worst moments: A white writer and farmer suggested that Twitty return to where he came from. “Charleston knows its past,” Jeff Allen wrote, “we don’t need help understanding it.” (When I called Allen for clarification, he defended his position but admitted that he had spoken harshly, saying, “If my grandmamma was still living, she probably would have told me I needed to apologize.”) Among the best: On his blog Afroculinaria, Twitty wrote a 3,000-word letter of invitation to Sean Brock, the white Charleston chef at the low-country citadel restaurant Husk. Brock quickly accepted the opportunity to talk. A jointly cooked meal is planned.

At a moment when conversations about food have become central to the American dialogue about identity, the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored. That notion was top of mind the day after the article was published, when I sat down to eat in New Orleans with Tunde Wey, a Nigerian-born chef and provocateur whom I got to know when he opened Lagos, a food stall in that city’s renovated St. Roch Market. 

Our first meeting, six months prior, had gone something like this: I ordered the okra stew at Lagos. Tunde questioned whether a white boy would enjoy a bowl of that ropy stuff. I took small offense, declaring myself a citizen of the world who revels in okra slime, just as I recognize the West African roots of Southern food. Since then, Tunde has begun staging New Orleans dinner salons focused on the possibilities and burdens of blackness. At our second meeting, over dinner at Compère Lapin, a new Caribbean-inspired Creole restaurant, I learned that Tunde had read deep into recent Charleston conversations, and had some tough questions to ask me. 

Inquiries about power were primary. If I bought the argument embedded in the Eater article—if I acknowledged the inequities and subjugations on which much of Southern cuisine was built, Tunde asked—was I willing to cede what whites have gained at the expense of blacks? Am I willing, now, to cede what I have gained? We settled on a scheme in which I cede half of my column for this issue. Tunde addresses the controversy and concludes with a question for me. I respond. And we split the pay. 

Call me (or us) naive, but I think this is an honest beginning. 

—JOHN T. EDGE


 

Since John T. is a familiar son, allow me, at the outset, to introduce myself. I am African—Nigerian to be specific, a Yoruba boy from Lagos who lived in Ikeja, on Alhaja Kofoworola crescent, about a mile from Airport Hotel, to be obscure.

I am not a chef, at least not in the uncomplicated sense. I never trained professionally in accredited schools, never studied under a brand-name chef or staged in a celebrated kitchen. Right before my first professional gig, a little under three years ago (a panicked production, to say the least), I called my mother in Nigeria for recipe refreshers even as a hundred hungry and impatient diners revolted politely just outside my kitchen, where an assortment of newfangled stainless-steel utensils hung, staring accusingly at me. 

I am not a Southerner. I have lived in the South for only about a year—in New Orleans, “the most African city in America,” as I have heard some folks describe it. And I nod sagely in agreement. 

I am African, neither a Southerner nor a chef. But in the matters we’re about to discuss, neither provenance, place, nor title matters. Like humidity, the truth thickens all air.

At age sixteen, I arrived in the United States, landing in Detroit. Sixteen years later, I moved to New Orleans. I remember sitting in the long airplane for the short flight, leaving Detroit for my new home, characteristically unsentimental: pursed lips and large headphones, listening to loud rap music from a glowing phone. Inevitably the boom bap faded into white noise, and my mind’s voice floated from silence to remind me of Detroit’s outsized influence in my life. It was in Detroit, within the city’s actual boundaries—not its romanticized and imaginary borders—where I understood I was an African. There, by kind force, I learned to drop my christened name, which I had used throughout my abortive college career in the U.S., and returned to my first name, Tunde—the contracted form of Akintunde, which means “the warrior has returned.”

After living in New Orleans for a year, I reflect now on how this city, still very new to me, has insisted I confront my identity in a new way. “Here you are black,” she says. And I nod sagely in agreement.

 

My cooking has always been political. It began as an oppositional response to foodie culture, nauseatingly self-referential and boastful. My politics were stated without vocal rancor, inherent in the sloppily plated colorful and strange dishes I served. This was my cooking before I moved to New Orleans.

When one realizes one is black in America—and subject to the political implications of that reality—then it is almost impossible for the immanent not to become conspicuous. It was in New Orleans that I moved from implicit to explicit politics. And because there is probably nothing more politically explicit than the assertion of (black) identity in the face of systemic censure, I launched a new dinner series, Exploring Blackness in America. Through these dinners I purposefully contrive dining spaces that prioritize black experiences—spaces where spicy Nigerian food is background music to lively conversations about black excellence, the erasure of the black woman, colorism, double consciousness . . . and on . . . and more. 

Since I started the dinner series, a strange thing has started happening. From white perches, my opinions are being sought. Older, affluent, and privileged white folks want to know what I think about blackness and race and entrepreneurship and food. There was the early morning breakfast with a white New Orleanian power player—an understated and kind woman with more local connections than God and maybe just a little less money. Then there was the afternoon meeting with a local culinary institution. After we cut through her stadium kitchen and meandered the grounds of her restaurant to eventually find her office, she kindly gave me an hour of her time. It wasn’t even a slow day. (Her establishment doesn’t know a slow day.)

In these conversations, I felt a tipping toward me of some odd power. A tentative deference was offered in exchange for my “black” experience. My words were being elicited as a means to contextualize these folks’ white privilege and power—and maybe subconsciously to defend it. In these people, I saw scales falling away; they were struggling to understand a responsible place for their privilege vis-à-vis blackness. When their frustration finally metastasized into wisdom, they slowly corrected their postures, straightening up after formerly leaning toward me: things are changing, the obviousness was heavy. 

Enter John T. Edge—an honest man, to the extent that anyone can control deeply embedded attitudes. Genuinely thoughtful and exceptionally easy to talk to. Maybe it’s because he snorts when he laughs, a single snort to contain all the amusement found in the prior jolly moment. 

 

It was late March and, on invitation from John T., I bicycled over to the new and trendy Compère Lapin. I was still smarting from my recent tax filing. My restaurant stall at the St. Roch Market food hall, very much a “New South” business—trendy, hip, and white, with a problematic relationship to its gentrifying, middle-income neighborhood—had posted a loss of thirteen thousand dollars. (I have since left the market to work toward my own independent location.) I was hoping John T. would pick up the tab. After he texted that he was running fifteen minutes late, I sat myself at the bar and ordered a shot of Bulleit Rye. With tip, my tab came to $10.15. I was $13,010.15 in the negative and counting.

John T. arrived and we sat, caught up, and laughed—or rather, I laughed and he snorted. Soon after the servers deferentially collected our orders, the co-owner/manager came by and made sure to introduce himself to John T., who politely introduced me to the manager. The result of that obeisance was an off-the-menu item and comped cocktails. With embarrassed acknowledgement, John T. left a tip big enough to cover the comped food and drink, then we headed to another restaurant to resume our conversation about appropriation, race, and white grace in the face of a changing reality. It was a recently opened restaurant—wonderfully tattooed with expensive details and preciousness all around. The owner and John T. were friends. After we arrived, there was a momentary commotion at the host stand: the hostess informed us that we couldn’t be seated immediately, despite a few unoccupied tables; I could only assume they were already reserved. She seemed vaguely unimpressed by our party. 

As prerequisite to eventually finding us seating, the hostess asked John T. to provide his name for her waiting list. As soon as he uttered his name, a young white female waiter materialized.

“John T. Edge?” she said. “Oh my God—we have a burger named after you!” 

We were whisked to a table—literally whisked, in a froth of compliments and speedy seating—and delivered cocktails and two off-menu dishes. I felt like I was eating with Michael Corleone—John T. was squirming, positively embarrassed at being feted, but I was enjoying it all. As our evening progressed, aided by honest talk and perfectly equilibrated cocktails, I felt what it must feel like to be him, capable and recognized for it. It left me giddy with privilege. And as I write this, distanced from our dinner by a few days, with the taste of that evening’s sugary drinks still on my lips, I feel this privilege again as I reply to John T.’s prompt to contribute to his column. My preference is to wield this privilege wantonly, unforgivingly, and honestly. 

Bear witness to my preference.

White privilege is an obscene thing. It takes everything, quietly, until there is only silence left. Then it takes that too and fills it with noise. Southern food culture—which to its corrupted credit is more honest than “Northern” food culture, where “modern” is mostly a euphemism for appropriation—is the perfect lens through which to observe this phenomenon. Southern food culture has openly appropriated black food culture and then prescribed the proper feelings the appropriated should possess regarding their hurt. Through kind concern, dispassionate reportage, and open quarrel, this privilege invalidates black folks by suggesting their experiences of prejudice are nothing more than overactive and hypersensitive imaginations at work. 

That Hillary Dixler, whose essay for Eater flattened the most complex of issues into a standard and conclusive three-thousand-word piece, would purport to tell the story of the appropriation of black Southern culinary legacy and its contemporary exploitation by present-day practitioners, is an example of this particular sort of privilege—a privilege that has black actors as bit players in their own story. The sort that centralizes the discomfort of white people while pushing blackness to the outskirts. The story should have been written in a Gullah voice, full stop—as my mother would say in verbalized punctuation.

That Sean Brock or Jeff Allen would openly quarrel with Michael Twitty—and question his perspective on white folks who unabashedly cook black food—is the epitome and a caricature of this prerogative. 

That John T. would broker peace between two necessarily Manichean poles, and then offer to share his byline with me, the “safer” nonthreatening African, instead of any of the many more qualified Southern African-American commentators, is the final statement on white privilege. Even its best intentions have been scrubbed with a dirty washcloth.

White privilege permits a humble, folksy, and honest white boy to diligently study the canon of appropriated black food, then receive extensive celebration in magazines, newspapers, and television programming for reviving the fortunes of Southern cuisine. 

Yet because his (read: faceless white privileged person) hands were calloused and burned in the act of appropriation; because he labored hard to “refine” or “recast” this black food by using the language and techniques of his dominant culture; because his back is crooked from doing the devil’s work in a hot kitchen; because his wrists rattle with discomfort from protracted writing; and because he, without question, deserves everything he has struggled enormously for, being conscious to always “celebrate the provenance of the food”—except that it was never his in the first place to celebrate—they (read: an accretion of faceless white privileged persons) now contrive in themselves the indignation at being confronted by a black man’s question.

But things are changing.

There’s discomfort in the house of the pilgrims. In conscious circles, Thanksgiving is now being discussed around the dining table as “Hell-Day,” just as Nas would have it. A day when “The Chinamen built the railroad / The Indians saved the Pilgrim / And in return the Pilgrim killed ’em.”

Yes, things are changing—albeit not fast enough for my “taste.” Instead of a complete relinquishing, there’s an offering of compromise, of “sharing.” John T. has decided to share this column with me—why the fuck would I not accept half his column wage when I have these debts to pay? Brock has decided to accept Twitty’s invitation to share a kitchen and cook together—shit, get some money out that pot, Michael, Sean seems good for it. But each of course will eventually retreat after this gesture to the safety of his own privilege: John T. to his writing and non-profiteering, Sean to his celebrated kitchen. 

Unless we keep them honest and desperately uncomfortable.

Because now is the time for John T. and Sean (and Hillary Dixler, too)—these avatars of white privilege—to give up something, completely and honestly and permanently. In fact, let’s accelerate this already. I’m impatient for a Tunde Wey Burger at some fancy restaurant. Matter of fact, I want to own the restaurant and be the one handing out branded burger names.

In the meantime—before I take over Husk and turn it into a proper Nigerian restaurant—I’ll settle for both John T.’s and Hillary Dixler’s jobs. And I’ll craft my question for this contrived exercise.

John T., you have endorsed and celebrated the appropriation of black Southern food without consequence, and the consequences have compounded with interest. You have to return what you took to the place where it was, to the people to whom it belongs. And, after this principal has been repaid, the interest is due. You have to strip yourself of the marginal benefits of this appropriation willingly, with grace, or unwillingly by force and with shame. You’re a graceful man, John T. So what will you willingly give up to ensure the Southern food narrative services properly and fully the contributions of black Southerners?

—TUNDE WEY


 

At table in New Orleans, as we conceived this exercise, and I spooned into a bowl of pepperpot bobbing with coconut broth and shrimp crescents, Tunde told me, “This will be painful.” Via text, he later asked, “Are you uncomfortable yet?” In both cases, he sounded like a sadist. But was I willing to be a masochist? Certainly, there was no pleasure in the exercise. But there might be lessons to learn.

The implication was that, if I am game to face down the realities that blacks suffer, not just historically, but today, then I must open myself to discomfort. Indeed, if I aim to understand the food and culture of the place I call home, I have to welcome discomfort. As I sat down to write this, discomfort settled in to roost alongside me, like a gator with a chicken in her sights.

It would be too easy to blame Donald Trump. Though it would not be inaccurate. 

A couple months back, I gave a dinner talk to a meeting of SEC conference academic provosts. I opened by declaring that this was a hopeful moment. I told them that the South was in renaissance. I said that, just as economists customarily declare a recession or boom six months or more after it occurs, we will not recognize this renaissance until it has passed. But it is here. 

To sketch what is different this time out, I talked about how all Southerners may now claim the region. And I cited Brittany Howard, lead singer of the Alabama Shakes. To mark her love of the place over which George Wallace once lorded, Howard wears a tattoo of the state of Alabama on her right bicep. This time, I said, “Southerner” is not code for “white Southerner.” When we speak of the South and of Southerners, the reference is no longer monochromatic. 

When I took a seat at table, after delivering a talk that focused on how food now serves as a unifying symbol for Southerners of all colors, one of my tablemates leaned in to question my vision. Faced with the Trump carnival of bigotry and intolerance, she asked kindly, how could I see the region (or the nation) with such optimism? Was I not paying attention? Or was I willfully ignorant? Identity, it seems, is an especially thorny subject at a moment when Trump supporters adopt Nazi salutes and Trump himself incites racial violence.  

Tunde posed a complementary question, flipped to reveal an obverse that I hadn’t glimpsed before. How could I claim the moral pulpit in the Southern food dialogue when I take my stances from the levee? If you live on the same street as me you know I’m a liberal. If you follow my Twitter feed, you recognize that I reserve a circle in hell for the neo-Confederates and country club privilege jockeys who knead and twist and shape the history of this region until they render themselves victims. 

When attacks on my beliefs and stances occur, they come from the right. Or from someone who has a score to settle. But here came Tunde, without personal malice, and with great charm, saying things that made me supremely uncomfortable, making it clear that he saw me as a kind of colonial force, appropriating black cultural processes and products. 

As a columnist for this magazine, I’ve observed that the true promise of writing about food lies in the opportunity to pay down debts of pleasure and sustenance to the cooks who came before us. I’ve acknowledged that, for much of our region’s history, blacks and women did much of the conceptual and physical labor in the region’s kitchens but received niggling credit.

I think of myself as a progressive. I’m proud of the subjects I’ve written about, from the race-baiting politics of Lester Maddox, the Atlanta restaurateur turned Georgia governor, to the booty-call white patronage of an Arkansas Delta barbecue joint. I suspect that if I had said any of this to Tunde, he might describe that as comparatively easy and riskless work. He might say that it’s guilt-assuaging work. And he would be right.

After the Eater article came out, I exercised my power in what seemed a becalming way. I wrote Hillary Dixler to thank her for asking good questions. I called Michael Twitty to talk about the power I believe he now possesses. I spoke with Sean Brock about the reconciling possibilities I see in the meal they plan to cook together. And, as I barreled toward New Orleans, I suggested to Tunde that the article and its fallout might serve as a text for our dinner conversation. As you have now read, I got what I asked for. What I deserved. 

I’ve been on this path for a while now. From Ta-Nehisi Coates, I learned to talk about racism instead of race. From Osayi Endolyn, I learned that Africa is not a country and West Africa is a more complex region than I could comprehend. From the fallout after the Eater article, I learned that a wide range of folks, both black and white, burn for these conversations. Now I brace for what comes next. Demographers tell us that 56 percent of Americans will be people of color by 2060. That doesn’t mean that people of color will control the power. When blacks were the antebellum majority in states like Mississippi and South Carolina, they didn’t wield monetary power or control politics. Tunde suggests that, unless power is ceded this time, there will be hell to pay. I fear that he’s right. 

Over dinner in New Orleans, I told Tunde a couple stories about the late Will Campbell, the white Baptist preacher who was born in rural Mississippi, educated at Yale, and who practiced a radical Christianity during the civil rights movement. One story involved Campbell’s decision, on a prompt from civil rights leader John Lewis, to work with his own people. Brother Will, I told Tunde, took that message to heart and began ministering to Klansmen, who needed God’s grace, too. Instead of fighting on the front lines of the civil rights movement, as he had done in 1957 when he escorted black children to a Little Rock high school, Brother Will moved to the rear, where the wounded were white. 

Tunde liked the message embedded there. And he interpreted it this way: Leave black culture alone. Let it find its own way beyond your white gaze. Stand down, and, in your absence, black voices might be heard, black thought might find purchase, black enterprise might flourish. 

I heard Tunde as loud and clear as I was able. So loud and clear that, when I called Jeff Allen to talk through his incendiary comments, I heard myself voicing Tunde’s power dynamic critiques. 

Still, I know this about myself: I’m not willing to step away. I’m not able. 

In the South, black and white culture are enmeshed and codependent. To walk away from writing about black life would be to divorce myself from writing about the South. To parse by color would be to render a syncretic culture a racial or geographical one. To step away, at the moment when Brittany Howard is climbing the charts and inking her troth, would be a rejection of the possibilities that she sees clearly and I squint to apprehend. 

What I can offer rings meager, even to me. I aim to listen more and speak less. I pledge to cede what is not mine and try to understand the difference. And I aim to do this, not out of noble obligation, but owing to the thoughtful path Tunde charts. He may see that promise as inherently false. As much as I’m open to and appreciative of Tunde’s reality, I can only act on mine. What I offer is as true and graceful as I can manage.

 

Despite my best efforts, and his, and despite my pledge, I didn’t really get Tunde’s point until I returned home to Oxford and opened my mail. A month prior, when I submitted the manuscript for my next book, a history of Southern food that begins with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56, I treated myself to a gift. To commemorate a chapter focused on the black power movement of the 1970s, I bought a sweatshirt from a company called Philadelphia Printworks. The design was bold and elegant. At center on a field of dove gray, the legend people’s free food program surrounded a leaping black panther, rendered in midair strike. 

I knew the history behind the legend. I admired the actors in that historical moment. But I recognized, as I slipped the hoodie over my head: This shirt is not mine to wear. Removed from the context of Southern history, that story is not mine to tell. As I took stock of what Tunde said, I recognized that, by refashioning a symbol of black power and resistance into a white fashion statement, I had unwittingly made Tunde’s argument. That next Monday morning, I repackaged my own gift and dispatched it as a present to Tunde. When the mail carrier arrived to pick up the package, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a gator retreat. And then I saw her retrench.

—JOHN T. EDGE


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John T. Edge, founding director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. In the spring of 2017, Penguin will publish his next book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.

Tunde Wey is a writer and cook based in Detroit and New Orleans. Find information on his restaurant projects at FromLagos.com.