In Every Nation Has Its Dish: Black Bodies & Black Food in Twentieth-Century America, Jennifer Jensen Wallach thoughtfully links Black bodies and Black food consumption as a means of national inclusion and distancing. Bridging the gap between activism and consumption, while taking into account community and personal health, she demonstrates that ingestion is not only a physical act but a symbolic embodiment of national identity. Wallach’s claims are evidenced through documents, literature, and media from the Progressive Era through the Civil Rights Movement.
Wallach begins by historically situating food as a means of embodying American identity by examining the ideologies of Black food reformers, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois. She uncovers how both reformers believed that it was necessary to demonstrate citizenship through proper food preparation, consumption, and digestion. Each reformer provoked others to not only seek inclusion through acting respectably, but through respectable ingestion: the ingestion of red meat, vegetables, and flour would “uplift” the Black community out of the legacy of slavery. Booker T. Washington was a proponent of “uplift eating” and respectability politics. Simultaneously, he was intent on establishing a self-sustaining Black, agricultural economy in case national inclusion were never to happen. Wallach successfully fosters these ideas by noting Washington’s Tuskegee Institute curriculum, along with correspondences between Du Bois and other reformers.
Using Du Bois and his own pursuit for thinness as an example, Wallach powerfully argues that Black food reformers deliberately used rationing during World War I as a tool to perform their national identity. Thereby, food shortages allowed Black food reformers to wilt down their bodies to more accepting symbols of the national. Wallach asserts that by intentionally performing this national act of rationing, they hoped for national inclusion.
Later, the goal of national inclusion is temporarily overshadowed by class, status, and regional identity. Wallach takes the era of the Great Migration to address the debate between southern food versus Black food. Previously, uplift eaters and food reformers dispelled any ideas of a Black style of eating. However, through the Great Migration, many African Americans sought to migrate north while keeping their southern culinary traditions intact. Their culinary habits began to unravel the discourse created by Du Bois in his children’s magazine, The Brownies’ Book. To combat the impending idea of a Black diet, Du Bois and other members of the black intelligentsia began to play on the idea of regionalism, stating that the southern diet was in need of reform. Wallach’s attention to the usage of regionalism as a tool to “other” is neither notable nor complete. Wallach focuses on Du Bois’s use of regional discourse in the context of his own rhetorical aims, but she does not adequately examine the use of this discourse as a strategy for “othering” the southern, Black community. However, her ideas on regionalism and Black eating habits did effectively demonstrate the mounting tensions within the Black community. This fracture from within the community ultimately culminates in the development of the Black national identity, thereby leading to Black Nationalists embracing the idea of a Black diet and the formation of a Black cultural nation.
Every Nation Has Its Dish concludes with a thorough examination of America’s relationship with soul food. Wallach effectively documents the rise of the iconic food genre by looking at the religious doctrine of the Nation of Islam, along with the social commentary of the era. Wallach maintains its rise was not without conflict within the Black community. Black Nationalists argued that reclaiming soul food was necessary to the formation of the Black nation, while others such as the Nation of Islam contended that soul food was another means of soiling Black bodies. Therefore, the Nation of Islam deemed it necessary for the Black community to avoid dishes associated with soul food and adhere to strict vegetarian and vegan diets. Alternative diets, such as veganism, were a means of bolstering not only Black bodies, but also the Black nation itself.
Overall, Wallach offers a distinct perspective by connecting American nationalism and racial politics to ingestion. She has purposefully addressed a literary gap. While others in the discipline have placed nationalism in conjunction with political activism, Wallach has added to the definition of nationalism by linking nationalism as embodied practice as well as a political act, a perspective that has lacked thorough exploration by others in the African American food studies genre. Every Nation Has Its Dish is not for the casual reader. However, it is an insightful text for those with an interest in African American foodways, food history, or nationalism in food studies. Wallach’s usage of chronology in re-telling the history of Black foodways is helpful in situating the reader within the historical context of her claims. Although the inclusion of all eras was an effective means of order-keeping, it potentially detracted from the expansion of some of her more substantial arguments. However, she does extensively support her position with a myriad of primary and secondary sources. This support gives the novice reader access to a plethora of secondary sources. Her connections between embodiment, nationalism, inclusion, and consumption are not only refreshing, but contemporarily relevant. Wallach’s connections could easily be inserted in the current political dialogue on either immigration or nationalism and still prove strong. Overall, Wallach successfully adds to the conversation of African American foodways not only as a system of sustenance but also as a means of inclusion in the American national identity.
Olivia Love-Dembovsky is completing her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She holds a BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her current research interests are within intersections of food, identity, and home. She is particularly interested in African American women in kitchen spaces. Currently, she is researching food memories and the recreation of home for immigrants. Olivia plans to pursue a Ph.D. in food studies. She can be found on Instagram @thestarvingscholar.