How the South Leads
Clockwise from top left: Todd Richards, Caleb Zigas, Gustavo Arellano, John T Edge, Lora Smith, Adrian Miller, Paul Fehribach, Andrea Reusing, Michael Twitty, Lolis Eric Elie, Toni Tipton-Martin, Tunde Wey, Diep Tran, Nicole A. Taylor. Not pictured: John Simpkins.
By Toni Tipton Martin
“What if the South led?”
Moderator John Simpkins posed this question halfway through a two-day gathering at Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee, which focused on how difference based on color imprints and imperils American food culture. He already knew the answer.
The South had led before. And the South had led from a nearby perch.
Ten miles up the road at Monteagle, Highlander Folk School had, since 1932, convened Southerners fixed on tearing down the false constructs that divided the region. At first, Myles Horton and his colleagues focused on labor issues and adult education. But by the 1950s, Highlander had become a Civil Rights Movement training and planning hub.
Four months before Rosa Parks and the domestic workers of Montgomery, Alabama, began a bus boycott that ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement, she participated in a Highlander workshop. At Highlander, Pete Seeger popularized the anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
During the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, Horton received a steady stream of people who sought advice on what was then called ‘the race problem.’
“Tell me, Mr. Horton, how do you get Negroes and whites to eat together?” a government bureaucrat asked after the February, 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina began to render lunch counters as battlefields.
There are three things that you must do commissioner,” Horton answered. “You must cook the food. You must set the table. You must ring the dinner bell.”
That was our charge. Could fifteen food world colleagues cook together, set a common table, and ring the dinner bell to welcome all, despite differences in background and vocation that might to divide us? Could we speak honestly to one another? Could the ideas we discussed, the agendas we promoted, reconcile us to one another? And could our reconciliation offer a forward progress blueprint for our colleagues across the nation?
By the morning of day two, we decided that labeling differences of situation and perspective as cultural appropriation provided a sort of smoke screen. Turns out, we might not need that cover. One congregant said, “If you cook the food of your people, you own the source code. When you share those foods with people outside your sphere, you exercise the power that comes with ownership.”
The real measure of a dish or a meal is that it was conceived and prepared with respect. For the history of a place. For the anthropology of a people. For the lives of farmers, workers, chefs, cooks, servers, and consumers. For the ecosystem that swirls around each meal we savor. For the struggles for justice that continue today.
To limit our talk to cultural appropriation would have simplified our inquiries. Just as conversations about tradition and heritage and authenticity and political correctness prove meaningless and rudderless. Too often, when we use those words and engage those ideas, we talk past one another. That’s where conversations stop.
We aimed to talk with one another, to listen intently and define common purpose. Conversations about food culture, grounded in respect and directed toward action: That’s where we began.
We isolated the problems:
- The current food system is built on inequality, wrote two of the congregants, channeling all.
- Current immigration policy renders much of our workforce invisible and subject to exploitation.
- Current inequity in worker compensation is unsustainable. Historic theft and loss of land access devastates communities and perpetuates cycles of poverty.
- The lack of access to capital severely limits economic opportunities in communities of color.
- The lack of representation in media obscures perceptions about the capabilities of people of color and their contributions.
What were we, together and apart, going to do with these realizations?
The Southern Foodways Alliance, conceived by 50 colleagues of good will, spent two days exploring similar issues at a founder’s meeting in 1999. Through scholarship and honest dialogue, the SFA, and more recently, the Soul Summit–which co-sponsored our Rivendell congregation–attempts to bridge race and color divides. Today, a new generation of social justice advocates drives a movement focused on equity and access.
Inspired in equal parts by Civil Rights Movement heroes and new guard leaders, we Rivendell congregants defined broad categories of inquiry and asked deeply personal questions: What am I passionate about? Where can I best use my expertise? Whom can I influence? In an attempt to frame the possibilities, we returned to Horton.
You must cook the food.
Recipes are formulas, practiced for desired results. We accept that food justice work requires daily practice. Like baking good cornbread. Or frying great chicken. We pledge to ask hard questions and compassionately listen to voices that are different and truths that are new and often hard.
You must set the table.
At a well-laid table, all share a common feast. Progress requires that every voice is heard: farmers who grow, laborers who pick, chefs who design, cooks who stew, servers who deliver, and consumers who eat. When we respect individual histories, we discover common ground and forge relationships that we can leverage for change.
You must ring the dinner bell.
A ringing bell calls us to action. Our writing in books and magazines and newspapers and blogs has potential to mobilize, shift social paradigms, and confront racist laws. So does our restaurant work. Every moment is an opportunity to drive our message.
Cook the food, set the table, ring the bell. This, we decided, is how the South leads.
More voices from Rivendell
“My hope is that the upcoming months will be void of think pieces about cultural food appropriation [….] What I want to see are more highly designed and well-funded food culture apps and websites created by and for people of color.
As Tunde Wey asked, “What will the white privileged people give up?” What power and resources will they share to create a more balanced narrative? My dream is to see some of the white privileged folk step aside and make room for hungry, eager and marginalized media innovators of color.”
Nicole A. Taylor
“It seems rather odd to me that most collard green recipes direct the cook to ‘strip the leaves away from the stems; discard stems.’ That is a recipe of privilege.
Modern home cooks who follow cookbook instructions to discard this-and-that are missing what the rural home cook knew: Some of those discarded parts are good eating and they carry vital nutrients. When American industry fails to pay food service employees and migrant workers a living wage it’s like throwing away the stems. Survival demands that the entire plant, the whole society, evolves to care for every part of itself.”
Toni Tipton-Martin is a journalist and author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. She received the 2014 Southern Foodways Alliance John Egerton Prize and in 2015 staged the first Soul Food Summit: A Conversation about Race, Identity, Power and Food.