UNT professor explores historical and societal connections with food

UNT professor explores historical and societal connections with food

UNT professor explores historical and societal connections with food
February 04
17:43 2019

Professor Jennifer Jensen Wallach remembers reading Myrlie Evers-Williams’ memoir of her husband and civil rights activist Medgar Evers being murdered in the driveway of their home. In her book, “Watch Me Fly,” she details how she and her children were in their home when Medgar was killed. The assassin’s bullets traveled into the house and landed on a watermelon on the kitchen counter.

In the book, Myrlie writes that even on that horrific day, she thought about the white policemen who would come into her house and the things they would say about the watermelon and the racial stereotypes associated with it.

“These stereotypes about food and eating are so deep and so hurtful that you [have to] think about them,” Wallach said. “Food is meaningful to people and the relationship they have with it.”

Wallach is an associate professor of history and teaches a food history course at UNT. Her research, much of which is in her book, “Every Nation Has Its Dish: Black Bodies and Black Food in Twentieth-Century America,” examines the history of black foodways across the 20th century, ranging from prominent black activists and the relationships they carry with food after slavery to the 1960s concept of “soul food.”

“For black Americans, foodways became a mechanism that could be used to define their relationship both to a nation-state that offered them only second-class citizenship and to their fellow Americans of African descent,” Wallach said in “Every Nation Has Its Dish.”

Wallach’s food history class discusses topics such as food Europeans came into contact with in the new world and the present food system of the standard American diet. Beginning this Maymester, Wallach will also be teaching a specific class on African American food studies for the first time. 

“What I discovered was that for all these people, food is political,” Wallach said. “To eat pork could be a sign of race pride, race consciousness, racial solidarity. To not eat it could also be a symbol of the same thing. People are having these arguments and using food at the center of it.”

Advertising sophomore Jessica Thwing is currently taking Wallach’s food history course.

“I absolutely love history,” Thwing said. “I’m also taking health and nutrition this semester because I wanted to take courses where information could relate. I wanted to learn the history, while also learning what we are eating nowadays.”  

Edith Ritt-Coulter, a history doctoral student focusing on body, place and identity in African American studies, is writing a thesis on the late ’50s and ‘60s Oklahoma sit-in movements, focusing on the role food plays in identity and culture. Ritt-Coulter took food history with Wallach in the fall of 2018, when she first began taking courses for her doctoral degree. 

“I originally was not going to write about food for my thesis,” Ritt-Coulter said. “I never thought of food history until taking Dr. Wallach’s course. It opened up new doors for me.”

A big dream for Wallach and her colleague Michael Wise, a UNT associate history professor, is to build a food studies institute, where food history classes can have a connected lab for students to cook along with the material they are learning in class.

“It’s a dream and something we would like to do in the future, but we are not quite there yet,” Wallach said. “Hopefully, one day we will get there.”

Wallach has a new book coming out in the summer of 2019 and is working on a project about the American West, train travel, food and race.  

“History allows us to look at stories we thought we knew and look at other dimensions,” Wallach said. “We get to look at the everyday lives of people.”

Featured Image: Professor Jennifer Jensen Wallach is an associate history professor at UNT. Her new book, “Every Nation Has Its Dish,” is focused around the history of black foodways across the 20th century. Image by: Paige Bruneman. 

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Mia Estrada

Mia Estrada

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