New exhibit on African American food at the Museum of Food and Drink

Photo courtesy of MOFAD

When Freda DeKnight launched Ebony In the magazine’s “Rendez-vous avec un plat” column in 1946, she transformed the black culinary imagination, with recipes that were not just limited to soul food, but rather, representative of a larger African diaspora. .

The gloss giving voice to black food is just one of the stories included in the Food and Drink Museumit’s Afro-American: laying the table for the nationa new exhibit celebrating the countless contributions of black chefs, farmers, and food and beverage producers who have laid the foundations of American food culture.

The exhibition, presented by The Africa Center in Harlem, opens Feb. 23 after a two-year postponement due to the pandemic. It is organized by Dr Jessica B Harris, the famous culinary historian whose book, High on the Hog: a culinary journey from Africa to America, inspired the 2021 Netflix documentary series of the same name.

The Legacy Quilt, a textile 14 feet high and 28 feet wide, is a standout piece. Illustrated by Adrian Franks, written by Osayi Endolyn and sewn by the Quilt Collective Harlem Needle Artsit includes 406 blocks that represent African American contributions to the fabric of American cuisine.

Visitors are then transported through four centuries of influence on everything from agriculture to brewing and distilling. You’ll learn about the rich history of Gilliard Farms, the impact Leah Chase had on Creole cuisine, and how Nearest Green helped create Jack Daniel’s whisky.

heirloom quilt close up
Photo courtesy of MOFAD

But perhaps most remarkable is the Ebony magazine test kitchen, saved from wreckage in Chicago thanks to conservatives Illinois Landmarks and accessible to the public for the first time. It’s a striking Afro-modernist time jump that invites visitors to imagine how the history of food came to be.

Charla Draper, who served as a food writer at Ebony in the 1980s, is one of many innovators featured on the Legacy Quilt. Hired as Director of Home and Furnishings in 1982, she was responsible for strengthening the food section, which until then had not been managed internally.

For the exhibit, Draper shared a few copies of the magazine she saved, one of which was a cover featuring Barbara “B.” Smith, otherwise known as “Black Martha Stewart”. She remembers her time at Ebony with fondness, especially the social functions that publishing executive John H. Johnson hosted in Chicago.

“I have to tell you, they’ve always had the best shrimp,” Draper jokes. “I told a friend, who was working in advertising at the time, that I was coming to New York for the opening of the exhibit, and she was like, ‘Anything I can think of, it’s those shrimp.'”

Draper was the first food publisher to work in the test kitchen, although it had existed for as long as Johnson’s publishing company occupied the building at 820 South Michigan Avenue. She was in charge of equipping it with all the necessary utensils to test the recipes.

“I used to be a home economist at Kraft Foods, and those kitchens were beige,” she says. “Then come to Ebony, it was a whole new world. The cuisine was vibrant and truly reflected the creativity and diversity of African Americans.

preview of the exhibition
Photo by Clay Williams

Her proudest moment Ebony was a publicity victory. “African Americans have traditionally spent more on food preparation at home than the general market consumer,” says Draper. “But when you looked at the food ad that Ebony was getting, it wasn’t up to par.

She explains that the disinterest in restaurants may have been a holdover from the Jim Crow era, or simply the result of the multiple jobs that African-American families often held. Without much time to spare, going out was treated like a luxury.

Draper made the food section much more appealing to advertisers. She remembers presenting Johnson with a mock-up of an already existing model Ebony article on potatoes. She researched potato trade organizations, found new photographs, and cropped them to fit the page. Under Draper’s leadership, food advertising grew 50% in the first year.

The exposure reveals that the magazine often ran advertisements for many white-owned companies to African-American consumers for the very first time. In 1951, for example, Hennessey became the first liquor company to advertise there, blending French cognac with African-American culture.

Continuing the legacy of DeKnight’s “Date with a Dish” column, Draper was careful not to intimidate readers. She wanted them to feel like they too could make these recipes, whether they were newbies or experienced cooks.

“At the exhibit there is a photograph of a traditional baked ham, with a diamond garnish of pineapple and cloves – a very traditional dish that you will find on many African American family tables “, explains Draper. “And that’s the recipe I broke down: how to get the diamond pattern on the ham, how to make the pineapple filling, etc.”

“I am very happy that there is more interest in the contribution that African Americans have made to the American table.”

This distribution by level of expertise is a technique that is not uncommon in the food media today. “One of the things that the exhibit shows very clearly, I think, is how the presentation of food in magazines has changed over the years,” says Draper. “There are pictures of more complicated dishes or elaborate table settings. But one of the things I did when I was at Ebony was to simplify it. I wanted it to be more contemporary. I wanted to give readers something from which they could say, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ »

As for the future of food media, Draper is optimistic about the direction she sees it. “I’m very happy that there’s more interest in the contribution that African Americans have made to the American table,” she says. “It’s very important, because you might see a dish like mac and cheese and say, ‘Oh, it’s traditionally an African-American dish’, but in reality it was inspired by the work of the chef. James Hemings when he was in France with Thomas Jefferson.”

This story, along with countless others proving that African American food East American Cuisine, will be on view at the Food and Drink Museum until June 19.

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Jessica Sulima is a writer on Thrillist’s Food & Drink team. Follow her on Twitter and instagram.

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