What fried catfish reveals about race
A conversation with the author of "Getting Something to Eat in Jackson"
Good morning, paid subscribers! Now that it’s just us in the room, I feel comfortable confiding that I can’t make up my mind whether to create a corollary podcast for The Food Section: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter (or any others: E-mail tips, questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org)
In the meantime, allow me to present what amounts to a podcast on the page: My recent conversation with Davidson College associate professor Joseph Ewoodzie Jr., who in October published Getting Something to Eat in Jackson: Race, Class, and Food in the American South.
Hanna Raskin: Let’s start with how you landed on this approach. You could've chosen any city, any topic to get at race and class. How'd you end up doing food in Jackson?
Joseph Ewoodzie: Well, honestly, when I was in graduate school, I saw this documentary about how Black people in Mississippi were making decisions about what they eat. And they made this argument that Black folks were eating what their grandparents ate, and they were eating what their grandparents ate. It didn't seem like there was much change happening: Things were just being uncritically passed down. And that felt to me too simple of a story.
As somebody born and raised in Ghana, I was familiar with people telling simple stories of a place. I didn't know anything about Mississippi, but the similarity sort of struck me. So, I thought to myself, “Huh, wouldn't it be great if somebody went down there and actually found out if this thing that this documentary is saying is actually happening?”
Foodways struck me as a good avenue to think about the lives of Black people in the contemporary South. Because what we think about Black people in the South is often really dated: It’s all just images of civil rights movement stuff. We can't ever have enough conversations about the civil rights movement, but I felt like, life is still happening in Selma and Birmingham and Jackson.
HR: When folks from the South hear “foodways,” especially amongst my readers, I think they're familiar with the Southern Foodways Alliance. But they maybe haven’t really thought about how to define foodways, which you lay out as an academic. What does foodways mean?
JE: OK, so I don't presume that my definition is standard, but I felt like I needed to make the term mean something to me, so I was very clear.
What I was trying to understand is four class groups of Black people, starting with people who are homeless; people who live in poverty; people who are in the lower middle class and people in the upper middle class.
For each of these groups of people, I was interested in three things: One, what types of foods are available to them? Two, how do they choose among the foods that are available to them? And then three is food consumption.
So my definition is foodways equals food availability plus food choice plus food consumption.
HR: Well, it's interesting you talk about food choice. In your book, you write about how the unhoused men who are coming to (a soup kitchen) to get fed have agency around food; that food choice is not limited just to those of great wealth, right?
JE: With these folks who are on the streets, they don't get to decide what's put in front of them. In fact, during my entire field work, that's one of the things that struck me the most. The idea that you enter a place; you sit down; you have no idea what it is that you're going to get fed.
One can read that as almost completely agentless, but it's not agentless. Because these men can also say, "You know what? Fried chicken at eight o'clock in the morning, I'm not doing it." And either not show up at all, or just refuse to eat that stuff.
I saw some of the men, they’d put the stuff in front of them; they look at it and they're like, "I'm not with this." And they'll just carry the whole tray, dump it and go. It's not the case that they have no agency.
When you move up, people in poverty have more agency. What they're going to put in their stomach isn't completely dictated by some other entity. But their agency is also limited, not just because they have less money to buy stuff, but also because they have less time to think about what they're going to eat because their entire life is taken up by trying to figure out life in poverty.
Then when you move up to those in the middle income, they have more agency than the class below them. But they're Black, lower middle class, and what we know about the experience of Black lower middle class is that they don't gain the benefits of middle classness in the same ways as their white counterparts.
They also want to be vegan and they want to eat all these ways that are part of the middle class experience. But their neighborhoods don't have the same amenities as the white people's neighborhoods.
HR: I'm glad you brought up the vegan part because obviously that's become such a dominant thread of African American food. Tell me a little bit more about how that's playing into both race and class, as you witnessed it there in Jackson.
JE: I learned a lot about this through a guy named Charles. I met Charles at a barbecue restaurant, and I loved talking to Charles.
The first thing you would notice about Charles is that he's morbidly obese. He's a big dude: Five foot something, 400 pounds. But he has an incredible presence. I mean his physical presence is there, but he also laughs from the pit of his stomach, and he is brilliant. Charles can tell you about everything about Mississippi from the top of his head.
After a while Charles stopped coming to the barbecue restaurant. And I found out later that Charles is becoming vegan. So part of my thing was to follow Charles as he attempted this new veganism foodway.
Charles lives in west Jackson, just like other lower middle class folks. For Charles, for him to remain vegan, he always had to drive to a restaurant across town to get something to eat. And after a while it just gets daunting. And so, for Charles, at some point, the veganism doesn't quite work out.
My argument in this is that he was raised on what one might consider soul food or Southern food, but because of his class ascension, he was able to include other food tastes in his diet. Part of what it means to move up the social economic ladder is an expansion of one's taste. That's one of the privileges of class upward mobility. He loved Mediterranean food and Mexican food and Thai food and all those sorts of things.
The privilege of his class life is that he was able to include some of those in this diet. But the tension of his racialized class mobility is that he didn't live in the right neighborhoods with all the stuff that he wanted. So that's one of the ways in which those race and class things intermingle with one another.
HR: I want to go back to the soul or Southern food bit. Earlier this year, I was at a museum that had some sort of decorative arts exhibit, and it was talking about how important it was in the Antebellum South to have really fancy dinnerware, because that was the only way the enslavers could distinguish themselves from enslaved people. Because everyone was eating the same food.
JE: That's interesting. Yeah, that's great. I'd never thought about that, but that's great. That's important.
HR: I hadn't either, but I think it's something you touch on in your book; that fried catfish goes all the way up and down the socioeconomic ladder.
JE: Yeah, when you go to a fancy restaurant like Parlor Market in Jackson, Mississippi, all you're finding is refined Southern food, which is refined poor people food. And I think if I were to have done my study in L.A. or Chicago or New York, the foods that I would encounter across class would themselves be more different. But, in Mississippi, the foods were similar.
At these fancy restaurants in a place like Jackson, it was just the construction of a space as a white space, right? It wasn't that the taste was that different. It's that the people who were running the restaurants don't have Black people in mind.
Black people know that the people running the restaurants don't have them in mind; that the fancy restaurant owners reject Black people, if not consciously, subconsciously. And Black people also do the rejecting. They also say, "We're not coming, because this is..."
The question is why don't upper middle class Black folks who participate in upper middle classness in a lot of different ways, why don't they eat in fine dining restaurants more frequently than they do?
Part of my answer to that is that there's a tension between their race and their class. Because we imagine Black folks, especially in Mississippi, to be poor, upper middle-class Black folks have to go out of their way to nurture their racial identity.
And this nurturing is not just because white folks can't stand uppity upper middle-class Black people. It's also because poor Black folks can at times look at upper middle-class Black folks and say, "Why are you pretending to be white?" They misread their class mobility as a wish for a racial mobility.
If you are what you eat, then upper middle-class folks try to make themselves Black by the foods they eat. And so they are the folks trying to bring back soul food and going to fancy ass soul food restaurants.
As it turns out, poor Black people today are not actually eating soul food that much. Because it takes too much time to prepare soul food. So that's a very long-winded answer to your question.
HR: But it's a really fascinating one. So what are the lower middle class and impoverished classes eating in Jackson, if not what the upper class thinks of as soul food?
JE: I think we overlook and underestimate how mentally exhausting trying to make do in life and poverty is, right? It just takes up all your time. It takes up all your mental and emotional energy. So when you go home, the last thing you want to do is shop.
You know who knows this? McDonald's. They make it very easy for them: “You're tired and you don't have that much money. Well, come feed your family for $5. And I know you're going to take me up on it because you're tired."
You're not going to do what these health people are telling you: "Go to the grocery store and use your food stamps or go to a farmers market and buy stuff. And here's a really easy recipe."
What are poor people eating? They're eating whatever allows them to survive. And so in some crazy ways, it turns out the way they're eating, in a theoretical sense, is the exact same way that poor Black people have always eaten. That's how they created soul food. They just took some bad crap and they made something out of it.
But the poor Black folks today, they don't even get a chance to do that. They don't get a chance to do something creative, because the food industry has made Cheetos available: They can just feed their kids on Cheetos and be done with it.
HR: I mean, obviously the solution to this is just to fix income inequality, as easy as that is to do, and make sure people have enough money. But short of that – and I know you're a sociologist and not a politician -- were there public policy solutions that seemed to present themselves?
JE: Yeah, as sociologists, we are not nearly as important in the public policy conversations as we wish we were. But I think our job is to point to the mechanisms that allow for inequality to perpetuate itself with the belief that those mechanisms point to potential solutions.
Then, if we take something like how poor people eat today, a very simple thing is: Why don't we have a food truck that's just riding around through the neighborhood right at four o'clock, saying, "Here. Here's food, and you can use your food stamps. It's already prepared. You can use your food stamps to get this.”
You know, that's actually not a crazy idea. I subscribe to Sunbasket, because my wife and I are busy faculty members. What Sunbasket does is say, "You're tired. You don't have the time to go to the grocery store. So just pick your meals and we'll send everything to you." Why can't poor people have that?
Some of this stuff, if we thought about the lives of poor people with the same kind of dignity and respect that we give a bunch of other people's lives, the solution in some ways presents itself.
HR: Right, with these meal delivery services, there's a degree of respect, like, "Oh, well you're doing something more important with your time."
JE: Right. I hate cooking because I don't want to go find two tablespoons of parsley.
HR: You talked at some point in the book about ingrained preferences that people may not even question. If there was an entrepreneur who wanted to start one of these services in the South, what would they have to work with in terms of those ingrained preferences?
JE: I mean, I think the palate of the South is as broad or as narrow as the palate of America. But one of the tough things about being stuck in poverty is you don't have the opportunity to expand your palate as much. And part of it is, you have so little resources; “When I come to your restaurant, I'm not trying to try no new meal right now. Because I need this to fill me up, I need this to fill me and my family up.”
Eating for those in poverty is, in some ways, a utilitarian act. But when you go up the socioeconomic ladder, food and eating become a form of self-expression; a way of expanding your views in life and so on and so forth.
And so, if we had this proverbial food cart, maybe in addition to a hamburger or whatever, we say, "You know what? Why don't you try this Cuban sandwich? Why don't you try..." or, better yet, "Why don't we start trying foods that in other cultures are also poor people food?" That may not be familiar to you, but in Ghana we eat this with this, or in Morocco we eat this.
HR: That's really interesting, because whenever they try these well-meaning programs to teach kids to eat better, they go and they teach them how to tell a carrot from a turnip, or whatever. But it seems to me that if you're going to rise up the ladder, you have to know a lot about food. You can't just know carrots and turnips.
JE: Oh, absolutely. And the best people to see this in is working class professors at fancy dinner meetings, they're like... I'm talking about ‘they.’ We are like totally lost, because yeah, we might be here because of our education, but we don't know this stuff.
I remember in graduate school explicitly beginning to try wine. We would start with a Pinot Grigio, you know what I mean? Having an expanded taste palate is strictly a class performance.
HR: Another question: This is something we talk about in journalism a lot, and I bet y'all talk about in sociology too, and I'm just not aware of how the discussion goes in your field, which is writing about and covering people who are unlike you. And what interested me was from page one, when you're with the wealthy Black men. I thought, ‘Boy, me as a white woman, I'd have a very different role if I was even allowed into that meeting.’ Right?
JE: Right, right, right. You wouldn't be allowed into that. The gender would not allow you into that at all.
HR: Exactly. So I wonder, as I think about covering food in the South, how do you think about approaching folks of different races or gender?
JE: For me, since I was 100 percent interested in the experiences of Black folks, I had a really convenient proximate identity, which is that I was born and raised in Ghana. People in Mississippi endeared themselves to me because I'm African born: That's from the whole idea, sometimes a bit romanticized, but in a lot of senses real and important, of the continual tie between people who are Africans and people in the African diaspora. We're all part of the same diaspora. So, that gave me a great deal of access.
On the racial front, it was that. On a class front, I grew up in a squarely working class: My father's a preacher. But because I was a dissertation student, upper middle-class Black folks also endeared themselves to me. That also got me in because they were like, "Oh, young brother doing his Ph.D. That's cool. Come on."
On a gender sense, you will notice that I don't write at all about the experiences of women who are homeless. And that's just zero access. The extent of sexual assaults that they experience is such that it was virtually impossible for me to build any meaningful relationship with them that didn't remind them of abuse.
Ethically, that was not a good space for me. For the young women in the second part of the book, I was conscious about creating our relationship so that I was a brother to them, as opposed to somebody that they imagined to be interested in them sexually.
I also write about a grandmother, who took me up on as a young man who's doing well in school, but doesn't know how to cook. But there's a lot of men in my book, and it's because I'm a man.
How do we do this in our respective fields? This is probably a paper that we need to all think about writing someday. We may just be writing about people that we can tie some bits of our identities to.
HR: I guess this is not a problem we're going to solve on this one call. Should we talk about something else?
JE: So the very last chapter of the book is not about food at all. In fact, it's about a political campaign. It's about a guy running for mayor who didn't win for all kinds of reasons. But as the opponents pitched it, the reason that he didn't deserve to be mayor was because he wasn't Black enough. That he was rich and therefore could not adequately understand the experiences of poor Black folks.
JE: Of course. One of the ways he would do like, "No, trust me, I am Black enough," is he'd show up at fish fries, which was a way of doing it. I had to just step away from strictly talking about food to really be able to hammer away at my argument:
I worry that richer Black folks sometimes use race to make decisions that end up negatively impacting poor Black folks. I find that worrying because white people, poor and rich, are not caring about poor Black people. And if richer Black people are not caring about poor Black people, then who's going to care about poor Black people?
This is not to lay the blame or the burden on richer Black people, but instead it's to say simply that poor Black people are suffering, have been suffering for a long, long time, and nobody's looking out for them.