When food media organizations first started talking up diversity, their leaders didn’t necessarily envision fully integrated staffs, says Toni Tipton Martin, who in 1991 became the first African-American woman to serve as food editor of a major daily paper. They often made room for just one black writer.
“I was a box check,” says Martin, who was a nutrition writer at the Los Angeles Times before joining the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The dynamic fostered ruthless competition among African-American cookbook authors and food journalists, who appreciated the scarcity of desirable slots. Rather than boost one another’s careers, they guarded contacts and refused to swap secrets for overcoming workplace challenges.
Now, Martin says, successful African-American food writers who felt neglected or held back by their predecessors are coming together to cultivate a culture of mentorship. On June 19, scholars, restaurateurs, journalists, farmers, students and chefs will gather in Austin for Soul Summit: A Conversation About Race, Identity, Power and Food, the first-ever conference dedicated exclusively to African-American foodways.
“They all recognize that no one reached for them,” says Martin, the author of two forthcoming books. “We understand we have a responsibility to bring along the next generation. We’re all secure enough.”
Martin used the $5000 that accompanied her John Egerton Prize, annually awarded by the Southern Foodways Alliance in recognition of work addressing issues of race, class and gender through food, as seed money for the three-day conference.
Symposia sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance, which Martin co-founded, inspired the shape of the Summit. Whenever Martin attends a Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, she’s struck by how much fun everyone’s having in the hours between learning. “I always ask myself, ‘why can’t black people participate in this?’”
To be clear, people of all races can and do attend Southern Foodways Alliance events. But Martin says the organization has traditionally struggled to attract and retain young food professionals of color.
“It doesn’t sell out with black people,” Martin says of the symposium’s reputation for exhausting its ticket supply within minutes. “I don’t know if my conference will be any more successful, but I’ve lowered the price.”
Priced at $275, the event includes a food concept pitch session; a deep dive into how Louisiana institutions have prioritized and celebrated African-American food culture; a meal prepared by Bryant Terry, author of Afro Vegan, and a session with food historian Michael Twitty, who’s scheduled to speak from the porch of a home that belonged to East Austin’s first free black homeowner.
Other speakers include Jessica Harris, Lolis Eric Elie, Adrian Miller and Psyche Williams-Forson. Charleston’s Kevin Mitchell is on the chef roster, along with Hoover Alexander, Tiffanie Barriere, Tanya Holland, Marvin Woods, Duane Nutter and Todd Richards.
“I have everybody coming,” Martin says.
Initially, Martin says, she dreamed of buying a building which would serve as a kind of kitchen-centric clubhouse to uplift the African-American food community. She gradually decided she could reach more people through an event – including people who aren’t able to travel to Texas.
“We’re no longer limited to the audience that comes through the door,” she says, alluding to social media. “We no longer need one or two (people) to control or manage the message.”
To learn more about the Summit, visit thesandeyouthproject.org/soul-summit.