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Reviews 2019-1

Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, Live and Let Di(n)e. Food and Race in the Texts of the American South

Susana Mª Jiménez-Placer

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1Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, Live and Let Di(n)e. Food and Race in the Texts of the American South

2Lublin: Wydawnictwo KUL, 2017. Pp.329. ISBN: 978-83-8061-441-3

3Susana Mª Jiménez-Placer

4In Live and Let Di(n)e. Food and Race in the Texts of the American South (awarded with the American Studies Network Book Prize for 2018), Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, renowned scholar on food studies and southern culture at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, accepts David Bell and Gill Valentine’s challenging invitation to “think through food” (14) and successfully puts it into practice by addressing “the intertwined issues of race and foodways in the context of the American South” (15). Starting from the premise that food practices around the world are charged with cultural and social meanings, the author analyses the performative acts related to food production and consumption to explore the connection between food and identity in its various facets within the specific context of race relations in the twentieth century American South. In contrast to previous scholarship on this topic, Niewiadomska-Flis resorts to literary and filmic texts as source material, since she contends that “literary writings and films are not simply illustrations/fictional recreations of aspects of social life, but can offer a more nuanced perspective on social concerns, practices and cultural ideals than those offered by historical documentaries and social science research” (15). Thus, without losing sight of the overall objective of her study, she makes an accurately justified selection of nine literary and filmic texts to analyze how foodways and foodscape have illuminated and animated race relations in the US South since the segregation period.

5Recognizing the link between food studies and previous research conducted by structuralist anthropologists and semiologists, historians, sociologists and cultural studies scholars who “share a belief that ... ‘consumption of food has always been culturally constructed’ (Diner 3)” (22-23), in the “Introduction” Niewiadomska-Flis offers a highly informative preliminary approach to this discipline as a relatively recent scholarly field which listens to the “food voices” of different social, ethnic, and cultural groups as reflected both in their foodwaysunderstood as the preparation, consumption and social customs related to food, and in their foodscapesmeaning the places related to food preparation and consumption. Acknowledging the special inspiration provided by Psyche Williams-Forson’s works, and skillfully profiting from research by historians like Grace Elizabeth Hale, Rebecca Sharpless, Elizabeth Abel and Angela Cooley as well as from a careful selection of previous scholarship on African American foodways ranging from “Doris Witt’s pioneering Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (1999)” to more recent studies by John Edge and Frederick Douglass Opie, Niewiadomska-Flis builds a perfectly coherent and comprehensive theoretical frame for her insightful research on how food voices articulate to express racial identities in the southern context.

6In the present volume the literary and filmic source material is diachronically and thematically organized for its study in two main parts: the three chapters that constitute the first part focus on the analysis of different foodscapesfrom domestic spaces and public foodscapes in the Jim Crow South to the symbolical implications of lunch counters during the Civil Rights Movement, while the two chapters that constitute the second part are devoted to the study of foodways and the role of soul food in the making of an African American cultural heritage in the last decades of the twentieth century. Moreover, this two-part division reflects the spatial scope of the study: Niewiadomska-Flis acknowledges the fluidity of the contemporary interpretation of the denomination “South,” but she explains that the present study is mainly circumscribed to the former Confederate States, although in the second part the geographical scope is broadened to encompass what she calls the “cultural South” which originated through the expansion of African American culinary practices across the nation as a side effect of the Great Migration.

7The first part of the volume—“Foodscape”—opens with a chapter devoted to the analysis of domestic “contact zones” between the two races: mainly the kitchen, the pantry and the dining room. In the Jim Crow South, white people adopted racist ideologies rooted in the practices of the antebellum plantation past to render African American domestic workers “invisible” except as a workforce, since as Niewiadomska-Flis argues, this invisibility was the only possible source of relief that whites could find for the tension arising from their advocacy of segregation and their simultaneous dependence on the intimate domestic labor performed by the black help. In this chapter she analyzes how the necessary proximity of the black domestics was somehow countered by segregating the spaces of food consumptionthe dining room for the white people and the kitchen for the black helpto avoid commensality, which would represent a violation of racial etiquette. In her examination of Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman (1966), Niewiadomska-Flis explores the protagonist’s attraction for the pantry and the kitchen as an expression of the role that the contact with the other race represents in the process of identity formation of this character; the pantry, with its central and at the same time marginal position between the kitchen and the dining room represents in Percy’s book a “liminal space for the transcultural interaction to which Will is predisposed” (55), and offers him the opportunity of establishing personal contact with real individuals beyond the established racial types and stereotypes. Similarly, in her analysis of Alfred Uhry’s play Driving Miss Daisy (1986) and its film adaptation by Bruce Beresford (1989), the exploration of foodscape animates the treatment of some of the controverted topics addressed in both works such as the tension between the authority of the white employer and the expertise of the black employee usually articulated in the kitchen. Finally, in Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby (1989) the kitchen is the space where the traditional, racially imbalanced relationship between a patronizing, condescending white employer, Cornelia, and her black domestic, Julia, unfolds until the former suffers a breakdown and the latter a stroke, which leads to a subversion of this asymmetrical relationship. Not till the asymmetrical relationship has been suspended, does the black domestic start verbalizing her antagonism thus making evident her previous adherence to the practice of dissemblance as a means of ideological resistance, and propitiating the white employer’s reciprocation. As a consequence, “they quickly move from racial accommodation to open confrontation” (76), in what constitutes a preliminary step towards racial reconciliation. Quoting Pratt, Niewiadomska-Flis concludes that “mutual dependence, honesty and affection offer a chance to rewrite relationships that have come to life in contact zones ‘involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and intractable conflict’ (Pratt 8)” (78).

8Since the beginning of the twentieth century the growing popularity of eating out made the need to regulate public eating spaces especially urgent for whites: for most of them sharing a meal with a black person implied a threat for both health concerns and social reasons. Thus segregation rules, which pervaded most areas of public life as a means to express white supremacy and prevent African Americans’ upward social mobility, also applied in the public commercial spaces of food consumption. Segregation in dining cars “by curtaining off two tables near the kitchen” (in Elizabeth Abel’s terms, Niewiadomska-Flis 101), with the curtain as “a defensive mechanism against what White Southerners feared mostagainst African Americans’ demand to be perceived as human” (102), is one of the situations that Niewiadomska-Flis analyzes in her reading of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” (1971). The author concludes that the taboo about commensality functioned not only as a means to assert racial superiority, but also as a “defensive mechanism against what sociologist Dollard calls ‘the shock of sameness’ (92-93)” described in Abel’s words as “a reaction not to a difference in manners but to sameness in status” (106). In Ernest Gaines’s “The Sky is Gray” (1963) a hardware shop, a café and a grocery store function as the spaces where Octavia, an African American mother, puts into practice her skill to work “within but against racial etiquette” in front of her son James. Resorting to Robin Kelley’s approach to the concept of infrapolitics in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Niewiadomska-Flis interprets Octavia’s survival tactics and her simultaneous determination to protect her pride and dignity in the story as a lesson for her son about how to work the racist system “to their minimum disadvantage” (110). Negotiation makes possible the atmosphere of empathy and affection that pervades Idgie and Ruth’s café in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987). In the first decades of the twentieth century the “widening spectrum of public eating facilities” and the growing diversity of their customers began to represent a challenge to the white middle-class ideals of domesticity and racial order. Making public the traditionally home-centered activity of eating, cafés, restaurants and diners became what Ray Oldenburg calls “third places” in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (121): third to home and the workplace, these spaces provided their customers with a respite from duty and a strong sense of community. Such a “third place” is the Whistle Stop Café. The café becomes a site of bonding across both color and gender lines against the race and gender oppression embodied by Frank Bennett, who is literally and symbolically killed in the café, and then cooked and consumed in a barbeque fest. Niewiadomska-Flis interprets this fest as a moment of biracial cooperation and commensality built on the destruction of the ideology of white male supremacy.

9The Civil Rights Movement was the African American reaction to the “separate but equal” doctrine which in the South had ultimately originated a society in which everybody “knew” his/her place. According to Michael Klarman in From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, the proliferation of public spaces of food consumption had required the passing of segregation ordinances “in order to preserve social peace and protect racial purity” (149), but this ideological demand designed to protect white supremacy had a negative economic impact on the catering business. To solve this tension between ideological and economic imperatives eating facilities were partitioned and marked with “For Whites” and “For Colored” signs. Resorting to Julia Kristeva’s concept of “the Abject,” Niewiadomska-Flis observes that spaces of interracial public consumption were invested with a subversive potential, and elaborating on Cooley’s ideas in To Live and Dine in Dixie, she observes a connection between the southern fear of interracial eating and interracial sex. Taking into account that within this cultural context the southern woman represented what Mary Douglas defines in Natural Symbols as the physical body and the social body, and elaborating on Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock’s tripartite distinction between the individual body, the social body and the body politic in “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology,” Niewiadomska-Flis concludes that in the segregation period eating practices “function[ed] as mechanisms of social control,” that is, as constituents of the Jim Crow laws designed by the body politic to control the social and individual bodies, since collective public eating represented one of the “points where outside threats may infiltrate and pollute the inside” (153). Niewiadomska-Flis elaborates a parallel distinction between the “individual” food, symbolic food and the food politic (154) to analyze Anthony Groom’s “Food that Pleases, Food to Take Home” (1995). After contextualizing the story in relation to the famous historical sit-ins staged in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, as part of the Civil Rights Movement, Niewiadomska-Flis applies Victor Turner’s identification of the four-part structure of social drama (breach, crisis, redressive action, resolution) in From Ritual to Theater (161-162) to the analysis of the fictional protest staged by Annie and Mary at the lunch counter of a local store in Groom’s story. The two African American women are agents of “anti-structure” and threats to the established order in front of Sally, the counter waitress, who functions as guardian of the social order and structure, but Annie and Mary illustrate two different attitudes and reactions. From Niewiadomska-Flis’s perspective, Mary’s growing aggressiveness violates the nonviolent ideal of the Civil Rights Movement and makes her reaction reminiscent of Malcolm X’s proposals, while Annie behaves as a true advocate of nonviolence and peaceful desegregation, which brings her closer to Martin Luther King’s ideals. Niewiadomska-Flis’s detailed analysis of those aspects more immediately connected to the topic of food are remarkably insightful: her reasoned explanation of the different connotations of the title and the neon sign at the lunch counter for the two races is especially illuminating, as well as her interpretation of Sally’s offer of commensality by sharing a pie as a “liminoid phenomenon” (182), “a transient unity in communitas” (using Turner’s term) when normative roles and role-playing are temporarily suspended (183).

10In the second part of her study, Niewiadomska-Flis focuses on “Foodways,” understood as the “traditions, choices and behaviors connected with the preparation and consumption of food” (205), in order to offer a perspective of black southern culinary culture within its socio-historical context. Soul food is defined as a “carrier of collective memories of the historical past and cultural identity for African Americans” (206), a manifestation of the African Americans’ capacity to adapt their indigenous African foods and techniques to their historical circumstances in America since the slave period. Inspired by Psyche Williams-Forson’s and Frederick Douglass Opie’s works among others, Niewiadomska-Flis carefully analyzes soul food as a source of physical and spiritual comfort for the African American community avoiding its idealization through the recognition of the pernicious effects of its “lack of nutritional sophistication” (208). She distinguishes three different attitudes towards this kind of food: for many white southerners, soul food is simply a branch of southern food; for some African Americans, it is an expression of their unique culture; and for some others, it is an unhealthy and for this reason dangerous effect of the slave past of which they cannot be proud. From a historical perspective soul food represented an essential ingredient in the experience of the millions of African Americans who participated in the Great Migration, a means to resist the experience of acculturation in the urban North by “adhering to the eating habits of the rural South” (218) and thus keep their connection with their rural southern roots. As a consequence, a new black urban culture developed in the North around soul food.

11George Tillman Jr.’s film Soul Food (1997) illustrates this celebration of black cuisine as cultural heritage and as a manifestation of the survival skills of the African American people in adverse historical circumstances: in the film, soul food is mainly a medium for conveying love and caring. At Mama Joe’s Sunday dinners, soul food provides the Joseph family with spiritual and physical nourishment, contributes to their cohesion and keeps them linked to their southern roots. But as Niewiadomska-Flis argues, Tillman’s film is not attentive enough to the voices warning against the negative effects of the unhealthy dietary habits resulting from the consumption of traditional soul food. Big Mama’s illness represents a threat for the family cohesion which is overcome when the family is again brought together by reviving the Sunday dinner tradition. Thus, Niewiadomska-Flis concludes that “while the potential and positive power of soul food to unite families and overcome adversity will be established beyond any doubt as the film’s story unfolds, its negative, destructive impact on the family’s health is effaced from the narrative” (236). In contrast, several examples of fruitful attempts to overcome the unhealthy dietary effects of soul food in restaurants and cookbooks are mentioned in this chapter and in the final coda, where the author also suggests further lines of research on the intersections between food and race in the South of the United States.

12Deeply respectful to the established tradition of food studies which she explores skillfully and with critical rigor, Niewiadomska-Flis offers in this book an innovative approach by focusing on the significance of food in the development of race relations in the Jim Crow South and especially by bringing literary and filmic texts into her scope of interest. Following the models posited by previous scholars on this field of study, Niewiadomska-Flis provides thoughtful insights into her source material, which moreover prove inspiring and thought provoking for scholars interested in southern culture and food studies.

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Electronic reference

Susana Mª Jiménez-Placer, “Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, Live and Let Di(n)e. Food and Race in the Texts of the American SouthEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Book reviews, Online since 02 April 2019, connection on 10 December 2023. URL:

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