Story and photos by QUINCY WANSEL
The University of Utah celebrated Black History Month in 2018 in a variety of ways. For example, the Office of Equity and Diversity hosted the Blackout, an event at the Peterson Heritage Center featuring hundreds of Black faces and a celebration of Black excellence.
Others though, renounced Black History Month by hanging a White supremacist banner over the side of the George S. Eccles Legacy Bridge and posting hateful White supremacist posters around the campus. This is not the first time that racist posters have been found around the U, but campus police and students were quick to tear them down.
Meanwhile, Miller Cafe, located inside the Lassonde Studios residence hall at the U, celebrated the month by serving an interpretation of Soul food: chicken and waffles.
Chicken and waffles is not entirely Soul food, but more a product of different regional cuisines.
Chicken and waffles is a product of Pennsylvania-Dutch cuisine and Soul food, according to renowned chef Tori Avey. Fried chicken was already popular in the US, but waffles were brought over by the Pilgrims during their time in Holland. The Pennsylvania-Dutch were the first documented people to experiment with chicken and waffles.
The question then becomes — what is Soul food?
According to a popular source in the culinary community, Soul food is a staple in the African American community, and has been for decades. Soul food can typically include fried or smothered chicken, fried catfish, collard greens, candied yams, okra, cornbread, and so on.
This proves that Soul food and chicken and waffles are not the same.
The stereotype is wrong — not all Black people like fried chicken. But, fried chicken is an integral part of what Soul food is.
Miller Cafe received an anonymous complaint about the dish. According to Mark Jacson, former chef at Miller Cafe, the people who complained said they were “offended” by the food.
In 2018, Jacson said he was upset, and that if Mexican food and Italian food can be served, then why not historically Black food? Jacson felt that because of low Black enrollment and racist media at the U, this was another attempt from someone not in agreement with Black History Month.
About a year elapsed without further discussion until a reporter investigated the situation. Cha McNeil, a social justice advocate at the U, said Black students living in Lassonde were the ones who filed the complaint. McNeil said the students believed Miller Cafe was “promoting a stereotype.”
By serving chicken and waffles as Soul food for Black History Month, the meal choice highlighted the stereotype that all Black people like fried chicken. After the complaint, housing at the U told Miller Cafe that “they had to take it down,” McNeil said. After the complaint, Soul food was not served at the cafe again.
The sign above the food did not say “Soul food,” it said “chicken and waffles.” The cafe meant to advertise Soul food, but did it inaccurately.
The students who complained then brought another issue to light — cultural awareness for chefs at the U.
By getting rid of Soul food, with the assumption that chicken and waffles is a part of that, Miller Cafe missed the opportunity to correct the misunderstanding and celebrate Black History Month.
Meligha Garfield, the director of the Black Cultural Center at the U, said diversity is a “cross-cultural collaboration including various entities to accomplish a goal.” But how can there be diversity if the goal was never accomplished?
Jatara Smith, the Black Cultural Center’s coordinator, said the U is “outshined in the diversity sector. The university should compete and model after other institutions.”
Many colleges in this nation serve Soul food on campus regularly. For example, Howard University in Washington, D.C., has Soul Food Thursdays at its cafe, serving fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread, and more. University of Hawaii-Hilo has Soul Food for Thought Cafe, where Hawai’ian and Black cultural food share the plate.
However, in 2015, Wright State University in Ohio served Soul food for Black History Month through its dining service vendor, Chartwells — the same vendor at the University of Utah. The menu depicted photographs of historical Black figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth, in the background of the menu. Black students at Wright were offended because “the vendor and school had juxtaposed Black History Month with foods associated with offensive racial stereotypes,” said Alan Yuhas with The Guardian.
Fried chicken may be a staple in Soul food, but ever since the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” fried chicken has been tied to the Black stereotype — along with watermelon. In an NPR interview, race and folklore professor Claire Schmidt, at the University of Missouri, said, “It’s a food you eat with your hands, and therefore it’s dirty. Table manners are a way of determining who is worthy of respect or not.” With “The Birth of a Nation” being arguably the most racist film ever made, this stereotype took off without hesitation. “[It’s] the way people eat it,” she said.
There is no dedicated restaurant on campus that regularly offers Soul food options, but Tawanda Owens, the executive director of Diverse Student Advocacy at the U, has plans for that. Owens suggested bringing Black culturally-aware chefs to the U for Black History Month in 2020. She hopes there will be an appropriate celebration of Black excellence at the U in collaboration with the Black Cultural Center.
The recovery of Soul food at the U is underway, along with cultural awareness and the diminishment of a stereotype that has made Black History Month a challenge in the kitchen.