African American Studies Food and African American Culture
Jennifer Jensen Wallach
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0045


Historically foodways have played an important role in the process of black identity construction in the United States. During the era of slavery, captives used food practices to maintain a cultural connection with Africa. After emancipation, foodways provided many with a cultural link of solidarity to enslaved ancestors. Not only have food practices been used as a means of performing a distinctive African American identity, but also people of African descent have played a significant role in shaping a unique American style of eating. African ingredients such as okra, watermelon, and sorghum traveled alongside human cargo during the era of the transatlantic slave trade, becoming widely consumed, particularly in the American South. Enslaved African cooks brought culinary knowledge with them on their involuntary journey to the Americas, creating dishes that combined familiar ingredients and techniques with European and Native American customs and food items. Because food habits in the United States are a product of cultural hybridity, it is impossible to identify completely separate and distinctive racial styles of eating. Although evidence exists to show some differences in food preferences along racial lines, many Americans, regardless of racial categorization, eat similar foods. However, differences are found in the meanings assigned to even superficially similar food habits. Black Americans have often been the victim of hurtful stereotypes that claim they have voracious and peculiar appetites. Some African American eaters have countered these claims by embracing different, but equally essentialist, ideas about black appetites, claiming, for example, that black Americans are uniquely talented cooks. The historical literature about African American food culture is expansive. It not only documents actual recipes and food practices with a focus on cultural linkages to Africa, but also it probes ideas about distinctly black ways of eating that exist both in the imagination of the black community and of the larger society.

General Overviews

Edited essay collections—Bower 2007 and Wallach 2015—demonstrate the diversity of scholarship about African American foodways and the interdisciplinary nature of food studies. Harris 2011 and Mitchell 2009 provide accessible overviews of African American food history, which will appeal to students as well as to a general audience, while Opie 2008 and Opie 2014 also survey the subject and include useful scholarly citations. Wallach 2016 makes a case for the centrality of food studies in African American history, arguing that the concept of race in the United States is built, in part, upon ideas about racially specific ways of eating. Williams-Forson and Wilkerson 2011 situates food studies in conjunction with other areas of academic inquiry, including African American studies.

  • Bower, Anne, ed. African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

    These seven collected essays survey topics ranging from archaeological investigations of slave food to analyses of African American cookbooks. Contributors include Doris Witt, Rafia Zafar, and Psyche Williams-Forson.

  • Harris, Jessica. High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

    This survey written by one of the leading authorities on African American foodways begins with African food at the time of the transatlantic slave trade and ends with a discussion of contemporary African American cooking. The book contains useful suggestions for further reading but lacks scholarly citations.

  • Mitchell, William Frank. African American Food Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009.

    This accessible overview is appropriate for students and summarizes the history of African American cuisine and describes key ingredients, holiday celebrations, and the health issues associated with certain dietary choices.

  • Opie, Frederick Douglass. Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

    The author describes a racially specific style of eating that he labels “soul” and traces this cuisine from the transatlantic slave trade through the contemporary moment. Opie includes an analysis of African American critics of soul food and information about Caribbean influences on black foodways in the United States.

  • Opie, Frederick Douglass. “Influence, Sources, and African Diaspora Foodways.” In Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History. Edited by Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin, and Ken Albala, 188–208. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

    This book chapter provides the most comprehensive brief introduction to African American food history. Opie situates this history in a diasporic perspective.

  • Wallach, Jennifer Jensen, ed. Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2015.

    This collection of fifteen essays includes a foreword and afterword by food studies stalwarts Psyche Williams-Forson and Rebecca Sharpless. The chapters span the era of slavery through the present day and cover a wide array of topics—ranging from the African influences on Creole cuisine to the foodways at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute to the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes on food television.

  • Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. “Food and Race.” In The Routledge History of American Foodways. Edited by Michael D. Wise and Jennifer Jensen Wallach, 293–310. New York: Routledge, 2016.

    Wallach demonstrates that ideas about different tastes and appetites have been used to construct the American concept of race, beginning in the Early Modern period and continuing into the present.

  • Williams-Forson, Psyche, and Abby Wilkerson. “Intersectionality and Food Studies.” Food, Culture, and Society 14.1 (March 2011): 7–28.

    Williams-Forson and Wilkerson discussion the intersection of food studies with other academic fields, including African American studies, women’s studies, and disability studies.

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