It’s hard to whittle down the substance of last weekend’s Smithsonian Food History Weekend into an easy-to-grasp takeaway because the series of conversations on the theme of “Regions Reimagined” wasn’t black-and-white. In fact, if there was any single message that the 18 speakers voiced, it was exactly that.
“One of the biggest stereotypes is food was black and white, erasing all the other colors,” food writer Sandra Guttierez said, calling on the audience to consider the longstanding Latin influences on Southern food. “We’re so tied together: There is an intertwining of cultures.”
Guttierez appeared on a panel titled “Remixing the South,” but panels devoted to cooking traditions in Appalachia and Pacific Northwest also touched on the idea that eaters have overly simplified notions of the cultural exchanges responsible for the foods on their plates. Speakers, including chef Sean Sherman, food writer Jessica Harris, chef Edouardo Jordan and food writer Michael Twitty, sought to complicate the conversation by stressing the diversity of immigrant and indigenous groups.
For example, Guttierez said, the Latin American community she encountered when she moved to North Carolina in 1996 was multidimensional.
“Latin Americans from all 21 countries had started ascending into the South, and we came from all different economic and social strata,” she said. What they had in common was a kitchen grammar: Most of the recent arrivals cooked with pork, corn and beans, same as the Southerners who already lived in the region.
“We meet on the plate faster than we do in the mind,” Guttierez said, noting that white Southerners in some cases developed a taste for chipotle mayonnaise before they got to know their new neighbors.
Although the Hispanic population of the Southeast surged by 68 percent between 2000 and 2010, Guttierez pointed out that Latin America’s culinary contributions to the Southern diet long predate the latest immigration wave.
Speaking about barbecue, which she characterized as “one of the most beautiful African-American art forms,” she said, “Enslavement did not start in the South: It started in Latin America. It was the sugar. … We will always have the sweetest palate in the U.S. Sugar is super important in every culture coming into the South.”
Sherman, author of "The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen," said he was stunned by the number of different traditions he uncovered when he started researching the food history of Wisconsin. Sherman grew up at a time when indigenous people across the country ate out of government-issued “black-and-white cans that said ‘meat with juices.’”
In earlier generations, though, “Every 100 miles, you’re in a micro-region with different religions, different foods. Americans have to accept people lived here before Laura Ingalls.”
His fellow panelist, food writer Ronni Lundy added that the oft-raised Southern debate over whether white or black cooks perfected cornbread makes her laugh for the same reason. She pictures a European ship landing on American shores, “and the Native Americans waving their corn dogs, saying, ‘Thank God you’re here: What do I do with this?’ It has to stop.”
Now in its fourth year, the Smithsonian Food History Weekend in Washington, D.C., is an annual event; in addition to roundtable discussions, it features cooking demonstrations and hand-on activities. For more information, visit s.si.edu/FoodHistoryWknd.