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When Did Soul Food Get Too Hot to Handle?

Adrian E. Miller

Adrian E. Miller

Fried chicken could use a publicist these days to improve its image with a growing number of African-Americans. Surprised? I am. Some recent events show that it has become problematic for African-Americans to celebrate fried chicken in mixed company.

In January 2010, the Denver Public School system planned to serve a district-wide lunch “in honor of Dr. King” that featured Southern fried chicken with a biscuit, a choice of collard greens or sweet potatoes, and a peach crisp. Jennifer Holladay, a white parent and anti-bias educator, saw the menu and immediately complained to the principal at her child’s school. Holladay was concerned that connecting King’s legacy with fried chicken perpetuated a racial caricature. Denver Public Schools canceled the scheduled lunch, and a spokesperson apologized for the meal being “highly insensitive in light of certain hurtful cultural stereotypes still harbored in parts of our society.”

In February 2010, NBC‘s New York City office cafeteria served a soul food meal to celebrate Black History Month. ?uestlove, an African-American drummer who plays for NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” took a picture of the soul food menu placard which listed fried chicken, collard greens with smoked turkey, black-eyed peas, white rice and jalapeño cornbread. He tweeted the photo to his million-plus Twitter followers saying “Hmm HR?” NBC soon removed the sign and apologized to anyone who was offended. Ironically, the entire menu was planned by Leslie Calhoun, the cafeteria’s African-American chef who had lobbied NBC’s management for eight years for permission to celebrate Black History Month with a soul food meal. Calhoun publicly defended the menu, and ?uestlove eventually released a statement clarifying that it was a joke gone too far, that he didn’t believe NBC’s management was insensitive and that he was simpatico with what Calhoun was trying to accomplish.

Chicken and waffles upset

In January, University of California Irvine’s cafeteria decided to serve chicken and waffles on the first day of a Martin Luther King Jr. symposium being held on campus. When Ricardo Sparks, co-chairman of the university’s Black Student Union, saw the “MLK Holiday Special: Chicken and Waffles” sign, he took a picture and posted it on his Facebook page with the caption: “Yes, the OC [Orange County] is very racist.” The cafeteria’s Filipino chef had consulted with some African-Americans on the culinary staff beforehand, but that action also spurred criticism because it assumes that all African-Americans want the same thing. The university apologized for the menu choice and sign as exercising bad taste.

These disparate events share common elements: They involve African-American cultural celebrations at majority-white institutions; fried chicken was the entrée; the events happened outside of the South where fried chicken traditions cross racial lines. Most important, they all lack meaningful reconciliation. After the protests, online shout fests and apologies from the institutions, the acknowledged “teachable moments” never seem to get taught. The root causes of the controversy remain unexamined, and many are left to scratch their head and await he next flare-up.

Food stereotypes employed as ridicule

So how did fried chicken become such a toxic cultural asset for some African-Americans? History is mainly to blame. Those who were upset by these fried chicken meals recalled a painful legacy of food-related stereotypes that date to antebellum America. Through humor, minstrelsy and vivid print images, racist whites used food to depict African-Americans as simple-minded, sensual, near-beasts unworthy of any humanity. Though many traditional foods were used to ridicule African-Americans, fried chicken and watermelon were the favorites. Absent any context, when it seems that white people are drawing upon stereotypes to undermine a positive celebration, it’s understandable that things might heat up.

Some may continue to wield the stereotype to demean African-Americans, but that doesn’t mean that we should continue to give the stereotype power. Let’s take the lessons learned from these incidents and de-fang the fried chicken stereotype once and for all. In 2012, I hope to see more, not less, fried chicken at King Holiday and Black History Month celebrations across the country.

Time to change the dynamic

Over a communal meal with a diverse group, African-Americans should share the stereotype’s history, explain why it hurts and show how we all have a collective responsibility to refrain from denigrating others through the use of their traditional foods. We should then celebrate fried chicken as a source of pride in the African-American experience. It was one of several festive foods not forced upon the slaves by the plantation master. After Emancipation, the Sunday fried chicken dinner became an important and enduring social tradition. African-American cooks garnered international acclaim for their fried chicken. In the late 1800s, many were purged from high-end restaurant and hotel kitchens in favor of French chefs, but were soon rehired because the French chefs couldn’t make fried chicken nearly as well. The dish also sustained civil rights activists, including King, during their strategy sessions.

For all the drama and sensitivity surrounding the relationship of fried chicken and African-Americans, countless other cultures are celebrating the dish (and cashing in) without a thought to hidden agendas or racial stereotyping. Thomas Keller, considered one of the best chefs in the U.S., serves a reportedly knockout version at Ad Hoc in Napa, Calif. Ludo Lefebvre, an award-winning French chef in L.A. with a rabid groupie following, has a food truck that stars fried chicken. Korean-style and Latin American-style fried chicken joints are springing up around the country faster than you can say “KFC.” And so the obvious emerges: A lot of people love fried chicken, and the stereotype should no longer hold anyone back.

Hopefully, future protests will happen only when the dish tastes bad, not because it’s on the menu.

This week’s Zester soapbox contributor Adrian E. Miller is a former special assistant to President Clinton. During the Clinton Administration, he was deputy director of the President’s Initiative for One America, which worked toward racial reconciliation on a variety of issues. He is the author of a forthcoming history of soul food that will be published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Photo: Adrian E. Miller. Credit: Bernard Grant

Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Adrian Miller is a former deputy director of President Bill Clinton's Initiative for One America, which focused on ethnic, racial and religious reconciliation. Miller's latest book, "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time" has just been published (August 2013) by the University of North Carolina Press.