Op-ed: Black Women, Architects of the American Kitchen, Deserve a Rightful Place in the Sun

Photo by Sweet Life on Unsplash

(By Mecca Bos for Civil Eats) – There’s a moment in the 2009 animated Disney film The Princess and the Frog, when the main protagonist, Tiana, a New Orleans-born Black woman, is on the precipice of realizing her lifelong dream of owning a restaurant.

Then, a real estate agent, Mr. Fenner of Fenner & Fenner, who had been poised to sell Tiana her coveted restaurant space, tells her she has been outbid.

“A little woman of your . . . background would have had her hands full trying to run a big business like that. You’re better off where you’re at,” he tells her.

A still of Tiana from the Disney movie, “The Princess and the Frog.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to intuit what function that pregnant pause, and the word “background,” have in the scene. Disney, as much a mirror on American life as any media, was punctuating a disturbing American credo in that scene: the U.S., as represented by Mr. Fenner, thinks Tiana is better off as a laborer, nothing more.

After Mr. Fenner breaks the news, Tiana takes her place back behind the catering table at the Mardi Gras ball where she’s serving her specialty beignets. She trips and falls, all of the beignets she baked for the event go flying, and our heroine sits dejectedly in a dustbowl of powdered sugar and sorrow.

In his foreword to The Jemima Code, author Toni Tipton Martin’s presentation of more than 150 African American cookbooks, journalist John Edgerton wrote:

“Throughout 350 years of slavery, segregation, and legally enforced white supremacy, the vast majority of women of African ancestry in the South lived lives tightly circumscribed [to] . . . domestic kitchens. To them fell the overarching responsibility for the feeding of the South, as well as the duty of birthing and nurturing replacement generations.”

In the collection, Tipton Martin lays out another brutal conundrum: the image of the Black woman chef embedded in the cruel stereotype and barbarous invention of racism and in the caricature of the Mammy-a deceit that functions, in part, to bury the rich culinary gifts that Black women have given American cooking.

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