In Manhattan, an Exhibition Honoring How Black Food Traditions Shaped What America Eats
In 1972, the new headquarters for Johnson Publishing Company debuted in the pages of Ebony magazine. Its interior was replete with the design trends of the new decade: a color palette of orange, brown, and yellow in a variety of patterns, complemented by an art collection of nearly 200 works by Black artists. Every inch of the building was considered, including the Ebony test kitchen, a groovy, all-electric room that was then considered one of the most modern in the United States. The kitchen was used to test the many recipes that Ebony published in its monthly issues, which not only highlighted dishes that their readers should try at home, but also celebrated Black cooks, chefs, and other food-world figures.
These culinary efforts by Ebony are honored in the recently opened exhibition “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” on view now through Juneteenth (June 19) at The Africa Center in Manhattan, where the Ebony test kitchen serves as an anchor. Presented in partnership with the Museum of Food and Drink (MoFAD) and curated by Dr. Jessica B. Harris, an esteemed historian of Black diasporic foodways, the show is the first of its kind to explore more than four centuries of Black people’s indelible impact on American cuisine, from agricultural systems created by enslaved Africans to a host of food-and-drink innovations, such as the mint julep cocktail and the ice cream scoop. “I have spent more than four decades writing about African American food culture,” Harris said in a statement. “Why? Because our history is on the plate. For this reason, we need to tell our story and tell it well.”
The exhibition’s strengths lie in the way it marries past and present through the use of contemporary technology and traditional exhibition displays. It opens with the Legacy Quilt, three panels of floor-to-ceiling textiles sewn by the nonprofit Harlem Needle Arts that wonderfully stitches together the importance of storytelling, connection, and community that undergirds Black cooking and quilting traditions. Each panel highlights a person who has contributed to American foodways; visitors are invited to scan a nearby QR code, where they can click on each tile to explore the histories rendered on the quilt and even contribute their own virtual patch.
The remainder of “African/American” is exhibited in one room, organized by a host of culinary themes. One wall discusses the history of farming, and includes historic tools used by enslaved people for rice cultivation, supported by quotes from bell hooks’s 1993 book, Sisters of the Yam, and archival paper bulletins written by George Washington Carver. The section concludes by highlighting present-day farmers, and offers a visit, in V.R., to the organic, family-run Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Georgia, and the intergenerationally owned restaurant Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Kansas.
A digital dinner table sits at the center of the space, where visitors can learn about the history of migration and the cultural food dishes that developed along the journey. Selecting a fried chicken dish, served in a cardboard box, opens onto the history of “shoebox lunches,” in which Black Americans, preparing for road trips during the Jim Crow era, packed boxed lunches of fried chicken and side dishes to provide sustenance, and to prevent travelers from having to stop in the segregated South. The museum also offers shoebox lunches for purchase, which feature food by top chefs including Carla Hall, Chris Scott, and Adrienne Cheatham.
The remaining walls highlight the history of Black contributions to distilling, brewing, and mixology. They show related artifacts and figures such as Tom Bullock, who published the first Black-authored book on bartending, titled The Ideal Bartender, and Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved Black man now celebrated for teaching Jack Daniel how to distill whiskey. Green’s legacy is honored by a mention of Uncle Nearest, a contemporary Black-owned whiskey brand that celebrates his contribution to American spirits. Another wall surveys the history of Black culinary inventions, while an opposite small shelf displays a host of Black American cookbooks, such as Norma Jean and Carole Darden’s Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine and The Ebony Cookbook.
A soundtrack of ’70s music, curated by the Grammy-nominated singer Kelis, lures visitors from the exhibition’s beginning to its close, where they are transported back to 1972 and can walk through the original Ebony test kitchen, which was salvaged from demolition by the nonprofit preservation group Landmarks Illinois and temporarily acquired by MoFAD. Visitors can walk through the kitchen, which looks as pristine as it did in the pages of Ebony 50 years ago. It serves as a fitting end to the show, amplifying the importance of celebrating the countless Black contributions to American cuisine, and the urgency of preserving the past to paint a fuller picture of the nation’s history.