For more than 400 years, Africans and their African American descendants sowed seeds, plowed fields, harvested crops, preserved foods and cooked meals for the nation’s tables. As enslaved workers and freed people, Blacks fed presidents, enslavers, commercial giants, wealthy families, their own relatives and friends, and restaurant diners.
They labored, created and innovated, seldom receiving credit for their contributions. The unveiling of African/American: Making the Nation’s Table by the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) will begin a long-overdue celebration of the Black chefs, farmers, food and drink producers and inventors. Their contributions laid the cornerstone and built the core structure of American food culture.
“It’s a kind of foundational moment. It is a time when people think about who actually created this food that we think of as American. They think about who was at work, in one specific term I will use as a theatrical metaphor, behind the scenes,” says Dr. Jessica B. Harris, food historian and lead curator of the exhibition.
A First-Time Exhibition
“It is our firm belief that by presenting a well-researched and beautifully researched exhibition, people will understand the breadth and depth of African American contributions to our shared culinary identity,” says Nazli Parvizi, president of MOFAD.
The museum will open a first-of-its-kind exhibition in the U.S. on February 23 after a two-year delay caused by the COVID pandemic. “I think it’s been a hard couple of years for everybody. One of the things we take a lot of pride in is having an exhibition that is centered on Black voices, Black food and Black lives,” says Parvizi. “And to bring it to The Africa Center and have it be there in Harlem. All of it feels really special and right.”
Museum founder Dave Arnold began discussing ideas for the exhibition with Dr. Harris five years ago. She is the author of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” which is now the basis for a highly-praised Netflix docuseries. Harris describes the MOFAD exhibition as a project covering the American hemisphere’s diaspora North, Central and South.
“I am not, certainly by any stretch of the imagination, the only person working on the show. There was an advisory board of 30 or more people. There’s the staff of MOFAD. Everybody got to work and what has come up is pretty extraordinary,” Harris says.
“It is really wonderful. So many people had a hand in putting this together. So many people have devoted their lives to talking about exploring, researching, sharing and preserving Black culinary history,” says MOFAD’s president. Parvizi calls Making the Nation’s Table a sweeping, multimedia exploration connecting African Americans with the country’s culinary history, many of them untold or unknown stories. “There are stories that have been oppressed, hidden and forgotten. I think that is what we are interested in uncovering. We think those are fascinating stories,” Parvizi says.
Dr. Uzo Chukuka Iweala is the chief executive officer of The Africa Center where the exhibition is housed. He appreciates the partnership that allowed the spirit of the African continent to be woven into the stories told.
“I think this exhibition shows the movement, of not just food itself but of technology, of grains, of plants, of know-how, expertise and knowledge that all come from us as a diaspora of people. That’s something, I think, at The Africa Center, we want to make sure is front and center for everyone in the world to see. I know the Museum of Food and Drink feels the same,” says Dr. Iweala, a physician and best-selling author.
Highlights Over 400 Years
Making the Nation’s Table will take visitors on a 400-year journey that spans African American creativity, innovation and perseverance and their impact on what and how Americans farm, cook and eat. The stories of Black chefs, farmers, entrepreneurs, inventors, distillers and other food and drink producers are told with artifacts, artwork and multisensory activities through these curated experiences:
- The Legacy Quilt is nearly 14-feet by 30-feet. It is a handmade tribute to past and present African Americans who have contributed to the nation’s culinary identity. It greets visitors with a magnificent display of colorful illustrations quilted into a storytelling work of art.
- The Virtual Reality Theater presentation takes visitors to Gilliard Farms in Georgia to hear from chef and farmer Matthew Raiford and herbalist Jovan Sage. They share the organic farm’s history and their knowledge of their connections to the soil and the kitchen. Kansas City pitmasters Deborah and Mary Jones also give insights into their 50-year-old family business, Jones Bar-B-Q.
- The Ebony Test Kitchen displays the original 1970s psychedelic state-of-the-art culinary lab used by Ebony Magazine food editors perfecting recipes for the “A Date with A Dish” column.
- The Shoebox Lunch Tasting is the final stop in the exhibition. Visitors get a to-go taste of the foods African American travelers often took with them during the Great Migration and decades of segregation. Celebrated Black chefs, including Carla Hall, Chris Scott and Kwame Onwuachi, have created recipes inspired by shoebox lunches.
- The Movements exhibit explores how Afro-descended people moved from West Africa and across the Atlantic and from south to north in America. They took their food traditions and contributions to agriculture, brewing and distilling and commerce with them.
- Mapping the Nation’s Table: The African American Legacy Foodways Project highlights Black-owned food and drink businesses across the U.S. Special attention is given to farms, restaurants and stores that have operated 50 years or more.
- The Dynamic Digital Interactive Project replicates a dinner table. Visitors follow stories about migration, cultural evolution and the feeling of sharing a meal through iconic dishes, animated maps, and the silverware, cups and food that move around the digital display.
As a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Dr. Harris is excited about seeing the entire exhibition. She also expects African Americans’ culinary and agricultural accomplishments through four centuries will surprise some people who see Making the Nation’s Table.
“The idea of Hercules and James Hemings being honored chefs of the founding fathers of the country is something people may know more about when they leave the exhibit,” says Dr. Harris. “We have a beautiful rice mortar that is part of the exhibit. And they will have seen a piece of table setting that is contemporary to the things that Hemings might have used.”
Executive chef Pierre Thiam, an exhibition advisor and co-owner of Teranga, a fast-casual restaurant located at The Africa Center, is elated to witness the celebration of Black people’s culinary contributions.
The Senegalese author and restaurateur noticed that recognition was missing during the three decades he has lived in New York City. “This was very emotional for me and quite unique. It puts a mirror up and makes Americans realize our contributions to American food. If you take out the African American, that table is quite empty,” Thiam says.
“One of the things that is so incredible for me to see is how these food traditions align and how they differ. I see how things have transformed over time and how cultures around food are very similar.”
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Dr. Iweala was born in the U.S. and grew up experiencing the connections between African foods and Black foodways in America. “For me personally, that’s the celebration of Africa, as somebody who has lived between these two spaces.”
The Africa Center’s CEO anticipates spending time sampling the culinary creativity of some celebrated contemporary Black chefs at the Shoebox Lunch Tasting. “What I’m waiting for and excited for is the lunch portion. I’ll probably be in line multiple times,” says Dr. Iweala.
Quilting Glorious Contributions
As ticket holders enter the MOFAD exhibition, the majesty of The Legacy Quilt will grab their attention. The 406 hand-stitched panels each illustrate an African American who deserves recognition for culinary contributions, a number that is immense and still being counted.
“Quilts have an important role in African American history. To have 400 quilt panels commemorating various events, people and ideas of African Americans in food over 400 years is pretty astonishing. If the Ebony Test Kitchen were not there, the quilt would be worth the trip,” Dr. Harris says.
The quilting collective, Harlem Needle Arts, used period-appropriate fabric to construct the individual blocks illustrated by Adrian Franks. The panels connect people and places across space and time, bringing to life stories about African American food and drink producers along with culinary and agricultural innovators.
Some visitors will find out for the first time that Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings, introduced French cuisine to early Americans. They will learn that Edna Lewis started the farm-to-table movement, and Nathan Nearest Green taught Jack Daniel how to distill whiskey.
Dr. Harris and Chef Thiam are represented on two quilt panels. The breathtaking immensity of the display’s impact makes it a highlight for the Museum of Food and Drink’s president. “I love the quilt. The quilt gave us an opportunity to go in-depth. We went for breadth with the exhibition, but the quilt allowed us to go in-depth in ways that I think are really great for people,” Parvizi.
People unable to travel to New York for the exhibition can explore a digitized version of The Legacy Quilt, square by square, on MOFAD’s website. The museum also plans to create a community quilt for the exhibition. It will allow school children and others to have drawings and writings about their culinary heroes projected onto a blank quilt.
Exploring a Touchstone
The Ebony Test Kitchen will usher visitors into a 1970s project designed by Arthur Elrod and William Raiser. It was part of the empire John H. Johnson created when he published the first Ebony Magazine in 1945.
Ebony influenced African American thinking on lifestyles, entertainment, fashion and food. Dr. Harris explains the magazine’s significance. “It was a touchstone for many African Americans. There is a thing in the magazine world that we call pass along. One copy was read by 10 or 20 people. It’s a magazine that had a very, very, very wide reach. Its recipe pages were a part of that wide reach.”
When Freda DeKnight joined the magazine in the 1940s, she became the first Black food editor of a major U.S. publication. Her column, A Date with A Dish,” guided readers to new food adventures and introduced the world to African American cooking. DeKnight’s 1948 “A Date With A Dish: A Cookbook of American Negro Recipes” is a trailblazing introduction to popular dishes prepared and eaten by Blacks who read her column.
Decades later, other Ebony food editors used the test kitchen on the 10th floor of Johnson Publishing Company headquarters to perfect recipes shared in the magazine. The all-electric kitchen featured a microwave oven, toaster and dishwasher surrounded by bright colors and bold patterns.
The test kitchen itself was almost destroyed in 2017 and replaced by apartments. Landmarks Illinois rescued the room, dismantling the avant-garde interior over a weekend. MOFAD won a competitive bid for the test kitchen before refurbishing and reassembling the history-making symbol of African American cooking for public viewing. The tour includes music provided by musical artist, chef and farmer Kelis and videos that tell the story of Ebony’s importance to generations of African Americans.
Dr. Iweala had heard of Ebony, but learning about the reassembled test kitchen was a new experience. “Being able to get involved and see that happening has been a real joy,” he says. “We’re excited to introduce other people of my generation and have them go to the test kitchen itself and also learn the profound impact that the magazine had.”
Delight of Discovery
Even people as knowledgeable about African American culinary history as Dr. Harris learned new things from the MOFAD exhibition. That aspect delighted her most. “I think it is discovery. The thing about African American food history, if you will, is there is so much to discover every day,” she says. Working on the show made her aware of Fred McKinley Jones. He was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology for the volume and variety of his inventions, including the Thermo King refrigeration unit, given a patent in 1939. His company’s mechanical cooling units revolutionized the transport of perishable products on trucks, tractor-trailers, trains and ships.
Dr. Harris believes making this discovery and others like it at the exhibition will make people think differently about America’s innovators. “The whole idea of refrigerated trucks being the result of an African American inventor is extraordinary,” says the food historian. “That not only transformed African American food but everything that comes to market even today is in refrigerated trucks around the world.”
“There are so many high-end, technological inventions to consider when we talk about the contributions of African Americans to our nation’s food history and our shared culinary identity,” says MOFAD President Parvizi. “It was a subject that let us explore all the angles that were interesting to talk about, from commerce to agriculture to distilling to innovation to technology.”
African/American: Making the Nation’s Table puts many overlooked and often ignored inventions of Black scientists and entrepreneurs in the spotlight. One of America’s most respected food scientists, George Washington Carver, might still be unknown to some visitors. The information shared about the speed planter invented by Henry Blair or the ice cream scoop designed by Alfred L. Cralle could awaken a lot of minds to the unsung Black heroes of American food culture.
It makes Parvizi consider how many African American innovators must have struggled to get patents, only to have petitions denied or ideas stolen. “There is not a thing you eat, there is no restaurant you eat in, how you eat it or how you are served that hasn’t been touched by an African American contribution or innovation. The story starts in tragedy in the original American sin of slavery and enslavement. But it triumphantly shows how much on your plate has to do with the fortitude, genius, engineering skills, chemistry skills and agricultural skills of African Americans,” says Parvizi.
Connecting Cultures and Communities
Following the threads of African American contributions through the fabric of this country’s culinary identity could help connect people of different colors and cultures. That is Dr. Iweala’s hope for the exhibition. “I want people to leave this exhibition feeling a strong sense of connectivity between the African continent and the diaspora here in the United States. Not just in the present but also with the historical connection and the strong ties that have helped to shape the world as we know it,” he says.
The head of The Africa Center also wants people to have fun touring Making the Nation’s Table. He would like their trip to include a stop at the Center’s critically-acclaimed restaurant. “Of course, I will say that the food that we have at Teranga has been really amazing. It is West African fusion delivered in a fast-casual fashion,” Dr. Iweala adds.
As an author, social activist and co-owner of Teranga, Chef Thiam has additional objectives. He would like more support for Black food producers as a result of the increased exposure the exhibition will bring, including attention focused on small organic farmers leading the way in sustainable agriculture.
“Now that we have a seat at that table, we’re not going to leave. There is so much that we have to bring to the table,” says Thiam. “We have to credit Cuisine Noir Magazine. They were alone in telling our stories when no one else was interested. Now people are listening.”
Dr. Harris has other thoughts about what visitors should take with them when they leave the exhibition. “In a word, wonder. It will be great if they have that sense of wonder and discovery. I think what I would like people to go away with is the desire to learn and know more,” says Dr. Harris. “Every day, new things are being found, and that is important because it tells us, first of all, history is not nor has it ever been static. But it also tells us there is so much out there about African Americans and food that we just need to keep on working to discover.”
MOFAD’s Parvizi agrees that African/American: Making the Nation’s Table is not the end of the story. “We’re not just stopping and saying this is the history of it. What we are saying is it continues. It’s everlasting. It’s infinite, and it’s being pushed forward every day by African Americans.”
The exhibition runs from February 23 through June 19 (Juneteenth). Tickets can be purchased on MOFAD’s website. Follow the Museum of Food and Drink on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for updates on Making the Nation’s Table.