In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to highlight 28 books on Black Americans that have had major contributions on our food system throughout history. These books matter as they address many themes, including the significant contributions of African and African American food-ways to “American” food culture; the knowledge, expertise, and agency of enslaved people, expressed through agriculture, cooking and domestic labor, and food commerce; the meaning and historical trajectory of Soul Food; and the intersections of food and race with embodiment, health, medicine, agriculture, and power.
Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement by Monica M. White
Freedom Farmers expands the historical narrative of the black freedom struggle to embrace the work, roles, and contributions of southern Black farmers and the organizations they formed. Whereas existing scholarship generally views agriculture as a site of oppression and exploitation of black people, this book reveals agriculture as a site of resistance and provides a historical foundation that adds meaning and context to current conversations around the resurgence of food justice/sovereignty movements in urban spaces like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York City, and New Orleans.
Recipes for Respect- African American Meals and Meanings by Rafia Zafar
Beginning in the early nineteenth century and continuing nearly to the present day, African Americans have often been stereotyped as illiterate kitchen geniuses. Rafia Zafar addresses this error, highlighting the long history of accomplished African Americans within our culinary traditions, as well as the literary and entrepreneurial strategies for civil rights and respectability woven into the written records of dining, cooking, and serving.
Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights by Peter Daniel
Between 1940 and 1974, the number of African American farmers fell from 681,790 to just 45,594–a drop of 93 percent. In his hard-hitting book, historian Pete Daniel analyzes this decline and chronicles black farmers’ fierce struggles to remain on the land in the face of discrimination by bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He exposes the shameful fact that at the very moment civil rights laws promised to end discrimination, hundreds of thousands of black farmers lost their hold on the land as they were denied loans, information, and access to the programs essential to survival in a capital-intensive farm structure.
To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South by Angela Jill Cooley
This book explores the changing food culture of the urban American South during the Jim Crow era by examining how race, ethnicity, class, and gender contributed to the development and maintenance of racial segregation in public eating places. Focusing primarily on the 1900s to the 1960s, Angela Jill Cooley identifies the cultural differences between activists who saw public eating places like urban lunch counters as sites of political participation and believed access to such spaces a right of citizenship, and white supremacists who interpreted desegregation as a challenge to property rights and advocated local control over racial issues.
African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture by Anna Bower
Ranging from seventeenth-century West African fare to contemporary fusion dishes using soul food ingredients, the essays in this book provide an introduction to many aspects of African American foodways and an antidote to popular misconceptions about soul food. Examining the combination of African, Caribbean, and South American traditions, the volume’s contributors offer lively insights from history, literature, sociology, anthropology, and African American studies to demonstrate how food’s material and symbolic values have contributed to African Americans’ identity for centuries. Individual chapters examine how African foodways survived the passage into slavery, cultural meanings associated with African American foodways, and the contents of African American cookbooks, both early and recent.
We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy by Natalie Baszile
In this impressive anthology, Natalie Baszile brings together essays, poems, photographs, quotes, conversations, and first-person stories to examine black people’s connection to the American land from Emancipation to today. In the 1920s, there were over one million black farmers; today there are just 45,000. Baszile explores this crisis, through the farmers’ personal experiences. In their own words, middle aged and elderly black farmers explain why they continue to farm despite systemic discrimination and land loss. The “Returning Generation”—young farmers, who are building upon the legacy of their ancestors, talk about the challenges they face as they seek to redress issues of food justice, food sovereignty, and reparations.
At the Table of Power: Food and Cuisine in the African American Struggle for Freedom, Justice, and Equality by Diane M. Spivey
At the Table of Power is both a cookbook and a culinary history that intertwines social issues, personal stories, and political commentary. Renowned culinary historian Diane M. Spivey offers a unique insight into the historical experience and cultural values of African America and America in general by way of the kitchen. From the rural country kitchen and steamboat floating palaces to marketplace street vendors and restaurants in urban hubs of business and finance, Africans in America cooked their way to positions of distinct superiority, and thereby indispensability. Despite their many culinary accomplishments, most Black culinary artists have been made invisible—until now. Within these pages, Spivey tells a powerful story beckoning and daring the reader to witness this culinary, cultural, and political journey taken hand in hand with the fight of Africans in America during the foundation years, from colonial slavery through the Reconstruction era. These narratives, together with the recipes from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, expose the politics of the day and offer insight on the politics of today. African American culinary artists, Spivey concludes, have more than earned a rightful place at the table of culinary contribution and power.
An Archive of Taste: Race and Eating in the Early United States by Lauren F. Klein
Lauren F. Klein considers eating and early American aesthetics together, reframing the philosophical work of food and its meaning for the people who prepare, serve, and consume it. She tells the story of how eating emerged as an aesthetic activity over the course of the eighteenth century and how it subsequently transformed into a means of expressing both allegiance and resistance to the dominant Enlightenment worldview. Klein offers richly layered accounts of the enslaved men and women who cooked the meals of the nation’s founders and, in doing so, directly affected the development of our national culture—from Thomas Jefferson’s emancipation agreement with his enslaved chef to Malinda Russell’s Domestic Cookbook, the first African American–authored culinary text.
Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine by Kelley Fanto Deetz
In grocery store aisles and kitchens across the country, smiling images of “Aunt Jemima” and other historical and fictional black cooks can be found on various food products and in advertising. Although these images are sanitized and romanticized in American popular culture, they represent the untold stories of enslaved men and women who had a significant impact on the nation’s culinary and hospitality traditions even as they were forced to prepare food for their oppressors.
The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas by Adrian Miller
James Beard award–winning author Adrian Miller vividly tells the stories of the African Americans who worked in the presidential food service as chefs, personal cooks, butlers, stewards, and servers for every First Family since George and Martha Washington. Miller brings together the names and words of more than 150 black men and women who played remarkable roles in unforgettable events in the nation’s history.
Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine by James McCann
Stirring the Pot offers a chronology of African cuisine beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing from Africa’s original edible endowments to its globalization. McCann traces cooks’ use of new crops, spices, and tastes, including New World imports like maize, hot peppers, cassava, potatoes, tomatoes, and peanuts, as well as plantain, sugarcane, spices, Asian rice, and other ingredients from the Indian Ocean world. He analyzes recipes, not as fixed ahistorical documents, but as lively and living records of historical change in women’s knowledge and farmers’ experiments. A final chapter describes in sensuous detail the direct connections of African cooking to New Orleans jambalaya, Cuban rice and beans, and the cooking of African Americans’ “soul food.”
Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race, and the Green Economy by Alison Hope Alkon
Drawing on ethnographic and historical sources, Alkon describes the meanings that farmers market managers, vendors, and consumers attribute to the buying and selling of local organic food, and the ways that those meanings are raced and classed. She mobilizes this research to understand how the green economy fosters visions of social change that are compatible with economic growth while marginalizing those that are not.
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
In this seminal work, Edna Lewis shows us precisely how to recover, in our own country or city or suburban kitchens, the taste of the fresh, good, and distinctly American cooking that she grew up with.
In this classic Southern cookbook, the “first lady of Southern cooking” (NPR) shares the seasonal recipes from a childhood spent in a small farming community settled by freed slaves. She shows us how to recreate these timeless dishes in our own kitchens—using natural ingredients, embracing the seasons, and cultivating community.
The Potlikker Papers by John T Edge
Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is a salvage food. During the antebellum era, slave owners ate the greens from the pot and set aside the leftover potlikker broth for the enslaved, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. After slavery, potlikker sustained the working poor, both black and white. In the South of today, potlikker has taken on new meanings as chefs have reclaimed it. Potlikker is a quintessential Southern dish, and The Potlikker Papers is a people’s history of the modern South, told through its food. Beginning with the pivotal role cooks and waiters played in the civil rights movement, noted authority John T. Edge narrates the South’s fitful journey from a hive of racism to a hotbed of American immigration. He shows why working-class Southern food has become a vital driver of contemporary American cuisine.
Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and African Diaspora by Edda L. Fields-Black
Mangrove rice farming on West Africa’s Rice Coast was the mirror image of tidewater rice plantations worked by enslaved Africans in 18th-century South Carolina and Georgia. This book reconstructs the development of rice-growing technology among the Baga and Nalu of coastal Guinea, beginning more than a millennium before the transatlantic slave trade. It reveals a picture of dynamic pre-colonial coastal societies, quite unlike the static, homogenous pre-modern Africa of previous scholarship. From its examination of inheritance, innovation, and borrowing, Deep Roots fashions a theory of cultural change that encompasses the diversity of communities, cultures, and forms of expression in Africa and the African diaspora.
Reaping a Great Harvest by Debra Ann Reid
Jim Crow laws pervaded the south, reaching from the famous “separate yet equal” facilities to voting discrimination to the seats on buses. Agriculture, a key industry for those southern blacks trying to forge an independent existence, was not immune to the touch of racism, prejudice, and inequality. In “Reaping a Greater Harvest,” Debra Reid deftly spotlights the hierarchies of race, class, and gender within the extension service.
Black farmers were excluded from cooperative demonstration work in Texas until the Smith-Lever Agricultural Extension act in 1914. However, the resulting Negro Division included a complicated bureaucracy of African American agents who reported to white officials, were supervised by black administrators, and served black farmers. The now-measurable successes of these African American farmers exacerbated racial tensions and led to pressure on agents to maintain the status quo. The bureau that was meant to ensure equality instead became another tool for systematic discrimination and maintenance of the white-dominated southern landscape.
Hunger Overcome?: Food and Resistance in Twentieth-Century African American Literature by Andrew Warnes
Ever since slaves in America labored to produce food surfeit while enduring personal food shortage, says Andrew Warnes, African American writers have consistently drawn connections between hunger and illiteracy, and by extension between food and reading. This book investigates the juxtaposition of malnutrition and spectacular food abundance as a key trope of African American writing. Focusing on works by Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison, Warnes considers how black characters respond with a wide variety of counter-maneuvers to whites’ attempts at regulating access to nourishment, whether physical or intellectual.
Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue by Adrian Miller
In Black Smoke, Miller chronicles how Black barbecuers, pitmasters, and restauranteurs helped develop this cornerstone of American foodways and how they are coming into their own today. It’s a smoke-filled story of Black perseverance, culinary innovation, and entrepreneurship. Though often pushed to the margins, African Americans have enriched a barbecue culture that has come to be embraced by all. Miller celebrates and restores the faces and stories of the men and women who have influenced this American cuisine. This beautifully illustrated chronicle also features 22 barbecue recipes collected just for this book.
Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese
Primarily written by nonwhite scholars, and framed through a focus on Black agency instead of deprivation, the essays here showcase Black communities fighting for the survival of their food culture. The book takes readers into the real world of Black sustenance, examining animal husbandry practices in South Carolina, the work done by the Black Panthers to ensure food equality, and Black women who are pioneering urban agriculture. These essays also explore individual and community values, the influence of history, and the ongoing struggle to meet needs and affirm Black life.
Getting What We Need Ourselves: How Food Has Shaped African American Life by Jennifer Jensen Wallach
Beginning with an examination of West African food traditions during the era of the transatlantic slave trade and ending with a discussion of black vegan activism in the twenty-first century, Getting What We Need Ourselves: How Food Has Shaped African American Life tells a multi-faceted food story that goes beyond the well-known narrative of southern-derived “soul food” as the predominant form of black food expression. While this book considers the provenance and ongoing cultural resonance of emblematic foods such as greens and cornbread, it also examines the experiences of African Americans who never embraced such foods or who rejected them in search of new tastes and new symbols that were less directly tied to the past of plantation slavery. This book tells the story of generations of cooks and eaters who worked to create food habits that they variously considered sophisticated, economical, distinctly black, all-American, ethical, and healthful in the name of benefiting the black community.
Eating While Black by Psyche A Williams-Forson
Psyche A. Williams-Forson is one of our leading thinkers about food in America. In Eating While Black, Psyche offers her knowledge and experience to illuminate how anti-Black racism operates in the practice and culture of eating. She shows how mass media, nutrition science, economics, and public policy drive entrenched opinions among both Black and non-Black Americans about what is healthful and right to eat. Distorted views of how and what Black people eat are pervasive, bolstering the belief that they must be corrected and regulated. What is at stake is nothing less than whether Americans can learn to embrace nonracist understandings and practices in relation to food.
Sustainable culture—what keeps a community alive and thriving—is essential to Black peoples’ fight for access and equity, and food is central to this fight. Starkly exposing the rampant shaming and policing around how Black people eat, Williams-Forson contemplates food’s role in cultural transmission, belonging, homemaking, and survival. Black people’s relationships to food have historically been connected to extreme forms of control and scarcity—as well as to stunning creativity and ingenuity. In advancing dialogue about eating and race, this book urges us to think and talk about food in new ways in order to improve American society on both personal and structural levels.
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin
The Jemima Code features more than 150 Black cookbooks dating all the way back to 1827—a rare servants manual. The book also includes some of the classics such as Edna Lewis and Vertamae Grosvenor. Presented in chronological order, these recipes solidify the reality that Black Americans are the backbone of American cuisine and can create delicious and brilliant dishes from the barest of ingredients.
Farming While Black by Leah Pemmiman
Burgers in Black Face: Anti-Black Restaurants Then and Now by Naa Oyo A. Kwate
Let’s talk about the commodity that is racist ideals when it comes to food. We all know of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Chef Rastus, right? The constant need for suppliers to endorse and profit off of Blackface goes back further than syrup bottles and instant rice. Naa Oyo A. Kwate examines the marketing concepts that “center around nostalgia for a racist past and commemoration of our racist present.” There has been no end in sight for outwardly racist logos and Burgers in Black Face continues to expose how anti-Black the restaurant industry is and the limited actions taken to end the problem.
Every Nation Has Its Dish by Jennifer Jensen Wallach
Jennifer Jensen Wallach bridges the gap between activism and food consumption in her novel, Every Nation Has Its Dish. She also challenges the traditional narrative of soul food, particularly how it’s often regarded as a single type of African American cuisine. A review posted on the Graduate Association For Food Studies says that Wallach, “demonstrates that ingestion is not only a physical act but a symbolic embodiment of national identity.”
In her novel, she unveils how renowned Black food reformers such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois both believed that in order to effectively demonstrate citizenship, one must perform proper rituals of food preparation, consumption, and digestion.
The Cooking Gene by Michael W Twitty
The Cooking Gene offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.
Southern Food and Civil Rights by Frederick Douglass Opie
Southern Food and Civil Rights identifies the connection between food nourishing African Americans’ fight for freedom. Written by Frederick Douglass Opie, professor of history and foodways at Babson College in Massachusetts, the book specifically explores how Southern comfort food fueled the movement for progressive change. For example, Paschal’s restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia provided both safety and sustenance for civil rights leaders. Opie also includes beloved recipes associated with this era.
Black Food Geographies by Ashanté M. Reese
In this book, Ashanté M. Reese makes clear the structural forces that determine food access in urban areas, highlighting Black residents’ navigation of and resistance to unequal food distribution systems. Linking these local food issues to the national problem of systemic racism, Reese examines the history of the majority-Black Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, Reese not only documents racism and residential segregation in the nation’s capital but also tracks the ways transnational food corporations have shaped food availability. By connecting community members’ stories to the larger issues of racism and gentrification, Reese shows there are hundreds of Deanwoods across the country. Reese’s geographies of self-reliance offer an alternative to models that depict Black residents as lacking agency, demonstrating how an ethnographically grounded study can locate and amplify nuances in how Black life unfolds within the context of unequal food access.
If you are interested in purchasing any of these books, here is a link to an article that provides a list of Black-owned bookstores you can buy from in person or online.