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What a few chefs really think about Black History Month menus

Last month, in one of my blog posts, I suggested that it might be time to put an end to the special dinners and other culinary events that many institutions stage in February to celebrate Black History Month.

I suggested this after reading several news articles during February where foodservice programs were castigated over menus that, in the eyes of critics, were insulting to African-Americans. In almost every case, the “offensive” menus featured items such as fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread and watermelon.

In my 30 years of covering the foodservice industry, little has changed. Every year, there are bound to be at least a few schools, colleges, hospitals or corporations that are pilloried for honoring African-American history with a less-than-politically-correct menu.

That’s why I advocated for the elimination of Black History Month events that revolve around food. But I also asked readers to tell me what they thought of the idea, as well as to share what changes they may have made at their institutions to make Black History Month events work.

Several chefs responded with potential solutions.

For example, one college chef suggested offering African-inspired dishes such as Senegalese Peanut Soup or Ethiopian Cabbage and Potatoes. Another said that her solution is to honor a different famous African-American each day, featuring his or her favorite food.

But two of the emails I received went a little deeper. Each was thoughtful in its own way.

The first came from Carrie Anderson, executive chef at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The other came from Andrew Johnson, dining services director for Ackert Park Skilled Nursing Community in University City, Mo. Although both are African-American, neither advocated jettisoning the fried chicken and collard greens in favor of other dishes. Instead, they argued for inclusion—and tolerance.

Here’s what they had to say:

“We think it is very important to recognize the traditional items that come to mind when you think soul food, but it is also important to be forward thinking and inclusive with regards to the foods that the African-American community eats,” Anderson said in her email. “There are many African-American chefs [who] are doing innovative things in the industry—we highlighted six during the month of February. There are the cuisines of the Caribbean, Africa, Creole/Cajun, just to name a few, that we highlight here at the U of I as part of our celebration of Black History Month.”

Anderson also shared her department’s partnership with the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Culture Center on campus.

“Through [that and] other non-dining programs on campus, I have been able to form relationships that allowed me to suggest collaborations with their resource centers and dining services. Through these partnerships, we can lend authenticity, educational materials and activities that take our events from being a celebration of a specific culture’s food to an overall experience that not only celebrates the food, but also [the] history and life. These collaborations help us to pay homage to a specific culture while at the same time inviting the entire campus community to learn more in depth about that culture through their participation.”

Andrew Johnson was a little more direct in his response.

“The idea of this being such a big issue is crazy,” Johnson emailed. “I'm an African American chef and I have no idea what is so offensive about putting together a cultural menu for any holiday or celebration linked to it. People need to stop being so sensitive and focus on way bigger issues in our society. . . than a menu to celebrate the history of an ethnic group. If we're going to ‘86’ that menu, then we should do the same about a Spanish-inspired meal on Cinco de Mayo or even serving corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. People need to use [their] platforms as a way to be heard to solve the real issues in our communities such as fair wages and excessive force by police officers instead of degrading a menu.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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