Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity

Eating in the Side Room Cover

Review of: Warner, Mark S. 2015. Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Ashanté Reese
Spelman College

Mark S. Warner’s Eating in the Side Room reconstructs the foodways of two African-American families—the Maynards and Burgesses—who occupied the same house in Annapolis, Maryland from the 1850s until 1990.  Using archaeological data, archival research, and previously conducted oral history interviews, Warner crafts a narrative of food as a central site of resistance for African Americans. He illustrates this within several contexts: shifts in consumer culture, anti-black sentiments in the Chesapeake region and broader United States, the politics of freedom for African Americans (particularly those who were free during the early nineteenth century), and the racialization of food consumption.

The book is organized into eight chapters. Chapter one briefly lays out the central focus of the book, which is to: “explore how these families’ daily food choices within a newly emergent mass consumer society served as a relatively safe way to express a unique outlook and history, as well as offer a subtle, yet persistent, commentary of the racist stereotypes and violence that surrounded them (2015:2). Warner centers African American agency as salient to understanding communal and individual identities. Chapter two contextualizes the Maynard and Burgess families, detailing their economic lives within the context of Maryland’s growing and diverse African-American community. Chapter three explains the methods used to excavate the Maynard-Burgess house, detailing some of the politics of excavations in Annapolis, a city with a strong investment in colonial history. Chapter four presents the food assemblages discovered and offers analysis on how the Maynard and Burgess families acquired the pork, fowl, and fish that comprised the majority of the assemblages. Chapters five and six zoom out to contextualize the food choices made by the Maynards and Burgesses, demonstrating how their choices connected to broader trends in African-American consumerism and how they were contrary to choices made by whites. The final two chapters return to the Maynards and Burgesses, examining the legacies of food consumption and what those legacies reveal about sociocultural dynamics.

Warner argues that the Maynard and Burgess’ (and other African Americans’) consumption of pork was not due to economic constraints but was instead a form of resistance to shifts in mass consumer culture in which beef was becoming the meat of choice for whites: “while some might argue that a preference for pork is attributable to economic factors, a detailed examination of the archaeological, oral, and documentary record indicates that this was patently not the case. African American’s consumption of pork within this region was a profound expression of an identity as separate from white society. One need only survey forms of African American self-expression as distinct as quilts, blues lyrics, orally transmitted recipes, and folk poems to see the prominence of pork in the collective black consciousness” (2015:3).

This argument, a critical one, is one of the most ambitious and fascinating arguments made in the book. The archaeological and consumer data support the claim that African Americans consumed pork in greater quantities than beef and in greater quantities compared to whites.  Warner also presents an array of examples ranging from quilts to music lyrics to illustrate pork’s central role in African-American expressions. However, I was left wondering if, in fact, the resistance to beef could have been multifaceted? As he carefully shows in Chapter two, the Maynard and Burgess families were not wealthy, but they were economically stable (2015:7). While their reasons for eating pork may not have been economic, is it possible that—given the diversity in economic means among African Americans—it could have been an economic choice for others? This illustrates one of the challenges of writing about African-American foodways and one of the reasons why this book is timely and important. African-American foodways are woefully understudied and are often uncritically examined. In that way, Warner challenges the essentialization of African-American foodways by providing an alternative view of how and why pork was important in African-American foodways. At the same time, the argument rests on a binary: important because of economic constraints or not. Because no assemblages as detailed as that from the Maynard-Burgess house existed, Warner notes it was difficult to compare his findings with other sites (2015:74).  Even with the compelling evidence Warner presents—both archaeological and otherwise—I wonder about the economics of pork consumption for those who were not as economically stable as the Maynards and Burgesses. Is there room for multifaceted forms and interpretations of resistance?

Eating in the Side Room raises critical, important questions concerning African-American food consumption.  The writing style, range of data, and carefully crafted narratives that contextualize the Maynard and Burgess families make it suitable for a variety of courses on food and culture, African American histories and daily life, or courses that focus on the Chesapeake region or the south more broadly. For courses on African-American foodways in particular, an instructor should consider pairing Eating in the Side Room with the newly released Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama (2015, University of Arkansas Press), which is a collection of fifteen essays that examine forms of resistance in African-American foodways.

It also has contemporary relevance. As food studies scholars and practitioners continue to grapple with how food consumption reflects economic, social, and health disparities between African Americans and whites, Eating in the Side Room asks readers to step back to think about the roots of such inequalities and consider the ways African-American families have exhibited agency even when alleviation of inequalities seemed nearly impossible. More than just an examination of food remains, Eating in the Side Room places the Maynard and Burgesses’s food consumption in ideological, historical, and contemporary perspective to illuminate power dynamics and resistance.

1 Comment

Filed under African American Foodways, anthropology, anthropology of food, archaeology, book reviews, foodways, history

One response to “Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity

  1. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of October 11 | Savage Minds

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