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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.

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

Did Feasting Promote Cooperation in the Ancient Andes?

The author excavating a camelid jaw. Photo by Jordan Farfan.

The author excavating a camelid jaw. Photo by Jordan Farfan.

post by Kasia Szremski
Vanderbilt University

Since 2008, I have been studying the relationship between intergroup interaction and agricultural production on the Western slopes of the Peruvian Andes. One of the areas that my research highlights is the way in which food was key to political maneuvering that took place during this time period.  The search for food was one of the driving forces behind pre-contact Andean geo-political maneuvering, particularly during the Late Intermediate Period (1100-1472 CE).  The steepness of the Andean slopes creates stacked microclimates and each of these microclimates is suited to growing a different suite of crops.  As such, Andean farmers had to maintain fields at various different elevations in order to add variety to their diets as well as to mitigate the risk of crop failure (see Murra 2002 for a complete explanation of this system).  This movement up and down the Andean slopes in search of agricultural space led to a great deal of interaction between different cultural groups in different regions and the outcomes of these interactions sometimes often wide reaching impacts on regional geo-politics (c.f. Dillehay 1979; Rostworowski 1973; 1988).

My research takes place in the Huanangue Valley, which runs through an ecotone known locally as the chaupiyunga.

Research area.

Research area.

The chaupiyunga serves as the cultural and ecological boundary between the coast and the highlands.  My data shows that the Huanangue Valley was the setting for intense sets of interaction between the coastal Chancay, highland Atavillos and local chaupiyungino  groups, all of whom wanted access to the very limited, but very rich, agricultural lands which were ideal for growing highly valued crops such as  maize, coca, chili peppers and fruit.  In contrast to other regions of the Andes, where coastal and highland groups tended to come into violent conflict with each other over access to agricultural land, the different groups in the Huanangue Valley seem to coexist peacefully with each other.

Based on preliminary excavation data, I am beginning to understand why.  We know that the local chaupiyunginos controlled the uptakes for the irrigation canals which also allowed them to indirectly control agricultural production in the valley.  As such, when the Chancay moved into chaupiyungino territory from the coast, they would have had to find a way to convince the local people to give them access to water so that they could water their fields.  As the Huanangue Valley was relatively far away from the Chancay heartland, Chancay settlers did not have the support they needed in order to forcibly take the irrigation uptakes.  However, the Chancay did have access to highly valued coastal foods such as shellfish and peanuts.  During excavation, we found ample evidence of feasting at the Chancay site of Salitre.  My hypothesis is that the Chancay held feasts at Salitre and invited their local chaupiyungino neighbors to these feasts.  At these feasts chaupiyunginos were provided with shellfish, camelid meat and other delicacies as part of a strategy of alliance building, through which the Chancay hoped to ensure their access to water.  Thus, not only did the desire for food bring the Chancay into chaupiyungino territory, forcing the two groups to face each other, but the sharing of food helped alleviate tensions between the groups, allowing them to share water and land peacefully.

DSC06505I am working to prove my hypothesis through analyzing soil samples taken from Chancay and chaupiyungino sites in order to better understand where crops were being grown and consumed.  More information about my efforts can be found at  https://www.microryza.com/projects/feasting-interaction-and-the-middle-ground-understanding-local-geopolitics-through-agricultural-production.

References Cited

Dillehay, Tom. 1979. Pre-Hispanic Resource Sharing in the Central Andes. Science 204(6):24-31.

Murra, John. 2002. El Mundo Andino: Población, Medio Ambiente, y Economía. Fondo Editorial PUCP, Lima, Perú.

Rostworowski, María. 1973. Las Etnias de Valle del Chillón. Revista del Museo Nacional. 38:250-314.

Rostworowski, María. 1988. Conflicts Over Coca Fields in XVIth-Century Perú. Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology. no 21. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Note from the editor: Readers will notice that the author of this post has provided a link to a Microryza web site. This is a crowdfunding web site for science research. It seems that at least some graduate students in anthropology are using this as a way to fund their research. SAFN welcomes blog postings from graduate students whose work is related to the anthropology of food and nutrition that follow this model. Such postings must, of course, follow our other guidelines (see the Blog Contributors page for more details) for contributions to the blog.

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Filed under agriculture, Andes, anthropology, archaeology, economics, farming, feasting, food security, Food Studies, history, Peru, war