Food culture and politics
- Food Equity/ Food Security
- Germantown History Mural: “Notable” Residents
- Marketplace as Metaphor
- Food Emancipation
- Food Folklore
Food Equity/Food Security
After much controversy, and with much fanfare, the Chelten Plaza Save-A-Lot officially opened for business. My mother was looking forward to shopping at the new market and insisted on taking me along. The first thing I noticed is that the old market, formerly a Fresh Grocer, and before that a Shop Rite, was still sitting there in the adjacent lot. Second thing I noticed was the high price of food, which my mother complained about loud enough so that the roving quality control guy (trying to look casual) would overhear. The fact that food is expensive in Northwest Germantown, an inner city neighborhood in Philadelphia, didn’t surprise me. I’ve often heard black folks say: “get it in the white neighborhood; it’s cheaper.”
Nor was I surprised by the endless selection of processed, genetically-modified, make-believe food, what Michael Pollan (Food Inc.) calls notional food, “the idea of food.” imitation processed pasteurized cheese-flavored product doesn’t even melt (see What’s that stuff anyway?). Of course, this trend is not peculiar to Save-a-Lot but is indicative of our food industry as a whole. The issue of high priced, low nutrition goods in inner city supermarkets points to larger issues of food equity and food security.
Food is expensive for everyone, but the poor are always hardest hit. Ever since food became a commodity for speculation on the stock market, high prices, along with other factors, have driven a billion more people into poverty worldwide. I’ve posted some links to resources and articles that explore this topic further at the end of the essay.
“Notable” residents of Historic Germantown
The thing I noticed next was the elephant in the room; a gigantic wall mural depicting “Notable Residents of Historic Germantown” looming over the check-out aisles. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wanted to know whose idea it was to put a lily white representation of Germantown history, including two icons of slavery, on the wall in a predominantly black, and increasingly poor neighborhood? There were no white shoppers in the store (not that this would have made it OK). A cashier summoned the manager to answer my concerns as other shoppers began to mummer and stare up at the wall.
Someone pointed out a small poster with pictures of accomplished Black Women (the ASALH 2012 BHM theme) from more recent U.S. history near the store’s exit. Like Acme putting Kool-Aid and collard greens on sale for Black History Month, this patronizing attempt at outreach amounts to a culturally insensitive gesture at best.
News of the grand opening had vaguely mentioned that “a wall display by the check-out aisles speaks to Germantown’s history.” (NewsWorks) I couldn’t agree more. This mural speaks to the fact that, until very recently, non-whites have been largely missing from the treatment of Germantown’s history. Sure, it’s conceivable that the developer and architect were unaware of the contributions of African Americans in early Philadelphia history. But I find it difficult to believe that no one from the local community group, nor the elected officials, nor anyone involved with this project, thought of at least one “notable” African American to depict on the permanent mural. Suddenly, the supermarket became an ideal venue for an impromptu teach-in on the ‘integral role Philadelphia’s black community played in the growth and development of the city from its earliest days (Dana Dorman 2009).”
African American businessman and philanthropist, John Trower (1849-1911), for instance, moved to Germantown in 1870, saved enough of his earnings from shucking oysters to buy the former Germantown Savings Fund building at 5706 Germantown Avenue and converted it into a first-class catering establishment.
Black men such as Ned Hector fought under General George Washington in the 1777 Battle of Germantown. As I wrote about in an earlier post, Africans fought on both sides of the War for Independence. In fact, two of the gentlemen pictured in the Save-a-Lot mural are further distinguished by the fact that their former property fought on the side of the British; taking up Lord Dunmore’s offer of freedom to “Negroes… willing to bear arms for the Crown.” Harry Washington and Daniel Payne (who escaped from George Washington), and Jacob Bummel and Will (who escaped from Benjamin Chew) (Seitz 2011) are listed in the Book of Negroes as having been evacuated to Nova Scotia after the war. The Battle of Germantown was fought at Cliveden, the estate of Notable Germantown resident, Benjamin Chew, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. Incidentally, Chew was placed under house arrest briefly during the war, when he declined to take a loyalty oath. Documents uncovered in recent decades show that 400 enslaved Africans resided on Chew family estates in Philadelphia, and on a total of nine plantations in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. One of those enslaved by Chew, Richard Allen, purchased his freedom from a subsequent owner and founded, along with Absalom Jones, The Free African Society. Allen and Jones were pressed into service to care for the sick and dispose of the dead during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793. In 1794, Allen founded Mother Bethel AME church.
The “Bee Hive” Germantown PA April 1928. University of Pennsylvania’s rare book room. Retrv’d from: http://freedomsbackyard.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/001.jpg.
Knowledge is the food of the soul
How we remember the past has real stakes for the present. (Sugrue 2007)
In 1928, a group of distinguished Black intellectuals and artists, including Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois assembled at Carnegie, the Old Germantown branch of Free Library in Vernon Park, to celebrate Negro Achievement Week.
Images like the one above languish in the archives of our historical institutions, or in the basements of Germantown mansions, and rarely see the light of day. Historical images and records of black struggle and accomplishment in Philadelphia have been tucked away on the bottom shelves of history.
Certainly, Historic Germantown understands the importance of preserving memory in a community.
It thrives on its reputation as “Freedom’s Backyard.” Thanks, in part, to the oft-cited 1688 Germantown Protest against slavery, the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act of Pennsylvania, and the exaggerated zeal of Quaker abolitionists. But rarely are blacks shown as agents in their own liberation and upliftment.
As Julie Winch (1988) points out, “… [Black] Philadelphians… worked with… white abolitionists, but they hardly needed white reformers to spur them to action, or teach them how to become leaders. Throughout the antebellum era, leadership was rooted in a complex network of autonomous black organizations … able, articulate men and women…”
Today, there is very little public knowledge of the accomplishments of the distinguished or so-called “black elite,” as well as those who “had no wealth or position but were eloquent, skilled organizers devoted to social reform” (Winch 1988).
Sadly, Vernon Park today has fallen into a state of obscurity and decay. Recalling Anderson’s idea of the “decay of public space as metaphor for the whole city in social stratification” (Anderson 1999), Northwest Germantown has become the subject of sociology coursework, and even features in a student documentary about urban blight, drugs, and crime. I wonder, if it would have made a difference in this community, and can it make a difference for future generations to know that Africans–freeborn and enslaved–acted with agency to shape their own destinies, and that of the new nation?
A mural on the wall in the supermarket is actually a great idea. It could be an opportunity to engage in meaningful community outreach and education by making efforts to bring to light a neglected historical record. In recent decades, ground excavations and airing out of archival materials has revealed startling information about African Africans in early Philadelphia. Fortunately, in response to community demands, and the demands of the times, the “traditional historical community” is beginning to explore ways to “expand the memory infrastructure to include examination of the lives of all Germantown’s residents (Young 2009). Recent examples from Philadelphia include: Cliveden, the Johnson House, Queen Lane African Burial Ground, and the President’s House and Slavery Memorial. I have been working on a project with students from Lankenau Magnet High School called the Cliveden Scholar Project: HiStory/MyStory/OurStory, to craft and tell stories about the Africans enslaved by Benjamin Chew.
Let’s include in the story of Germantown, people of all ethnic backgrounds, religions, and socioeconomic status who have resided here.
We can begin with the Susquehanna, the Delaware, the Cherokee, and the “Several Nations” of Native Americans who resided in the Delaware Valley for 10,000 years before William Penn arrived. The Delaware (Lenni Lanape), called Germantown Avenue “The Great Road.” Where are their images in our public memory?
Marketplace as Metaphor
A thriving marketplace, “based on the well-being engendered by food,” is fertile ground for the “flowers of civilization: art, government, religion,” etc. (Rimas, Empires of Food)
It was quite remarkable to see customers, cashiers, even the store manager engaged in discussions about Germantown history. It was evocative of a time when the marketplace was the heart of the community; traditional places of learning, exchange, barter and debate.
Read Paul Coelho’s description of an ancient marketplace in Tangier from The Alchemist: “Everywhere there were stalls with items for sale. We reached the center of a large plaza where the market was held. There were thousands of people there, arguing, selling, and buying; vegetables for sale amongst daggers, and carpets displayed alongside tobacco.”
Now, I’m not advocating the sale of daggers and tobacco, and it has occurred to me that there were other unsavory uses for the conventional marketplace—public whippings, prison stockade, and auctioning of human chattel. I am suggesting that we take advantage of supermarkets and other public spaces, as forums for education about food and arenas for discussion of local history and culture.
In a lecture on “Empires of Food: Feast, famine and the fall of civilizations,” Andrew Rimas (2011), asks us to examine the relationships between food systems and the decline and fall of human societies. What does the current state of our food system say about our society? In the United States we have relinquished most all control over our food supply systems from production, to storage and transport, to the means of exchange.
Rimas (2011) also asks us to think about–how we would feed ourselves if our food supply system failed. Many of us don’t know (and don’t care to know) where our food comes from, or what’s in it. As long as it magically appears on store shelves, we only concern ourselves with its consumption.
I pray we never come to the Hollywood version–The Hunger Games.
Food rebel Joel Salatin proposes, in his talk on “Food Emancipation,” that we gwon bach to the past and “look to indigenous knowledge and heritage-based food practices that worked.” Recover theknowledge of cultivation, and restore the concepts of community harvest and reciprocity.
Recently, I attended a symposium in Philadelphia entitled: “Bringing Wider Perspectives to Museum Interpretation.” Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) recounted a conversation he had with Mr. Johnson, a 90 year old man he’d met while doing research on a former rice plantation in Waccamaw Neck, just outside Georgetown, South Carolina. There were ten slave cabins still standing since the 1850s. Mr. Johnson had lived in one of these cabins as a boy, along with his grandmother who was born enslaved. Johnson talked to Bunch about “how important it had been for the [enslaved] to be able to grow food in the back of the cabin; not only to supplement the diet the master gave them, but also to be able to sell it to earn money, and in some way, to have more control over their lives.”
Bunch gained insight from Mr. Johnson that would subsequently guide his career as a historian. I was particularly struck by these words Mr. Johnson spoke to him:
“Everybody used to remember; people seem to have forgotten….”
We seem to have forgotten… “the seminal role of female African entrepreneurs in colonial America” (Opie 2011). In an article featuring the Pepper-Pot Woman, Frederick Douglass Opie (2011) says that “African women came from a tradition in which they controlled local markets and the sale of produce, grains, and herbs as well as prepared foods.”
In her book, Black Rice, Judith Carney asserts that African American [enslaved peoples ] brought rice seeds and cultivation techniques with them to the Americas (qtd. in Myers 1987).
“One hundred thousand slaves, Black or mulatto, work in sugar mills, indigo and cocoa plantations, sacrificing their lives to gratify our newly acquired appetites for sugar, cocoa, coffee, and tobacco–things unknown to our ancestors.”–Voltaire, Essay on Morals and Customs, 1756
Pepper-Pot Woman Food As A Lens
A negro-woman selling pepper-pot soup, Philadelphia, circa 1803. The recipe for pepper pot called for herbs, onions, potatoes, and okra seasoned with smoked meat.”
Hollers were sung by street vendors in the city calling out their wares. In a Philadelphia marketplace the Pepper Pot lady sang:
Pepper Pot, All hot.
Makee Back Strong. Makee Live Long!
Come n’ buy my Pepper Pot.
During enslavement, plantation owners forbid certain customs and traditions. Nevertheless, enslaved peoples found many ways to express what they could not say or do outright. Stories, music, and song and dance served as a way to pass on forbidden cultural practices. Coded messages were sung in spirituals and sewn on quilts. Others were disguised in the doubletalk and wit of trickster tales, tall tales and riddles.
A group of archaeologists and historians did extensive research at the Levi Jordan Plantation site in Brazoria, Texas. Cheryl Wright (1994) conducted oral history interviews in Brazoria’s African-American descendant community. She concluded “that reciprocity… has been the most influential part of the survival of this community.
“In them days… People would all work together. Even the farmers would help one another. Plowing, chopping, picking cotton … they’d help one another. One’s through and the other one ain’t through, you go help them. Everybody trying to get through before it rains.”
Remember the saying: “Everything we need to know, we learned in Kindergarten?
Little Red Hen
Once upon a time there was a little red hen.
“Who will help me plant this grain of corn?” she asked.
“Not I,” grunted the pig.”
“Not I,” quacked the duck.”
“Not I,” purred the cat.”
Well, … you know the rest of the story. My point is…
Reciprocity is not charity, or a socialist-like “entitlement” program. Everyone sows, everyone reaps.
We would do well to gwon bach to remember, recover, and restore the concepts of resourcefulness and reciprocity in our communities.
Be Epicureans [ep.i.cu.rious def.] of food, culture, knowledge, life.
At the Save-a-Lot grand opening Rinner stated his intention to be responsive to customers’ needs: “If someone requests we bring something in, we’ll try to bring it in. …”. So, community, the onus in on us, to move toward conscious cultural competence, toward health and earth-sustaining food practices, and then, to communicate this in the strongest possible terms to store owners wherever we buy food.
There are some really great examples of sustainable food practices and community initiatives in Germantown, the Greater Philadelphia area, and beyond. Also, some cool examples of marketplaces as public forums for education and entertainment. Check them out:
Restaurant Shows Hope for A Revitalized Historic Germantown. Friday, February 10, 2012. Philly Food For Thought (blog) by Takia McClendon
Historic Reading Terminal Market
Reading Terminal photostream
8 Ways To Strengthen the Local Food System. Are You In? Philly Food For Thought (blog) by Takia McClendon 12/26/2011
Cooperative Grocer a trade magazine for food cooperatives in North America, offers a resource directory to find organizations and vendors who support food co-ops.
Kitchens of Africa, delectable recipes and beautifully packaged food products. Founder, Jainaba Jeng is from Gambia
—GREENHORNS connects young farmers with farms
Live music from a block party hosted by Whole Foods Jun 18, 2011.
Liberate your pantry. Know your food, join a co-op, start a neighbor-to-neighbor food exchange, support local farmers markets, grow a vegetable.
Note: I may add more resources as i find them. Feel free to suggest one!
Disclaimer: I did not report my concerns about the mural, the prices or quality of the food directly to Mr. Rinner, operator of the Chelten Plaza Save-a-Lot. I made my complaint to the store manager, in person. To be fair, if Rinner, or any other food industry representative would like to respond, I will gladly add those comments to my post.
Save-a-Lot Stores: savephillystores.com
Timeline of the Chelten Plaza saga — NewsWorks December 7, 2011 Kristen Mosbrucker
The Chelten Plaza Save-A-Lot is officially open for business. December 9, 2011, By Brian Hickey. NewsWorks.
Newsworks Photos captions:
Slide 1 Save-A-Lot operator Shawn Rinnier ceremonially cut a ribbon to mark the opening of Germantown’s newest supermarket Friday morning. City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller and Chelten Plaza developer Patrick Burns — fourth and third from the right — were among those flanking Rinnier. (Bas)
Slide 15: A wall display by the check-out aisles speaks to Germantown’s history. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks) Slideshow
Wall Mural Picture captions
Louisa May Alcott, author of the novel Little Women; Benjamin Chew, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania; David Rittenhouse, paper maker; George Washington, as first president of the United States, lived in Germantown briefly at the Deshler-Morris House during the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.
Pictures from Old-Germantown. Pastorius family top two houses (left 1683) (right 1715) ; house and printing business of the Caurs family (Center 1735). Market place (bottom 1820).
Food Equity/ Food Security
Do the Poor Pay More for Food? Item Selection and Price Differences Affect Low-Income Household Food Costs. By Phillip R. Kaufman, James M. MacDonald, Steve M. Lutz, and David M. Smallwood. Food and Rural Economics Division. Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural, Economic Report No. 759. In suburban locations where food prices are typically lower; supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods may charge higher prices than those in nearby higher income neighborhoods…
Healthy Foods Harder to Find in Poor Neighborhoods. FRIDAY, March 6 (HealthDay News)
Healthy Foods Scarce in Poor Neighborhoods, Yale Researchers Find. Yale News. Health Affairs, Sept. 10, 2008
Child Poverty Jumps In Poor Areas By A Quarter Over Last Decade. 2/23/2012 Huffington Post
Healthy food is oftentimes not feasible for the bulk of poor, working class, and increasingly middle class Americans having to choose between… Healthy Food Hard to Access for Poor Neighborhoods. Bené Viera May 2, 2011.
How much does it cost to be middle-class? D’Vera Cohn The Middle Class Blues, Pricey Neighborhoods, High Stress Estimates of State Price Levels for Consumption Goods and Services: a first brush, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Nov. 2, 2007. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2008/05/29/the-middle-class-blues/ There are some demographic differences between the self-described middle class in high- and low-cost areas. High-cost areas have a larger share of immigrants and racial or ethnic minorities than do low-cost regions, reflecting.
Building Healthy Communities Through Equitable Food Access. Judith Bell, PolicyLink; Marion Standish, The California Endowment.
The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters. /community/review/vol5_issue3/bell_standish.pdf. 23.5 million: The number of Americans who don’t have access to a supermarket within a mile of their home.
PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity by Lifting Up What Works.
Food, Inc. Script – transcript
WHAT’S THAT STUFF? Feb 7, 2000 Processed Cheese
Speculating with Lives. How Global Investors Make Money Out of Hunger. Horand Knaup, Michaela Schiessl and Anne Seith 09/01/2011
Andrew Rimas: Empires of Food: Feast, famine and the fall of civilizations. Cambridge forum: Co-authored with University of Leeds’ agricultural expert Dr. Evan D.G. Fraser. April 13, 2011. How fragile is the 21st Century food system? If food supplies failed, as has happened to every other human civilization in the past, how would the U.S. feed its 300+ millions? What can be done to avoid this possible calamity?
Ode to Monsanto – by Maimouna Youssef (music video)
Save-a-Lot Mural: “Notable” Residents of Historic Germantown
Thomas Sugrue – Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Off Camera. A review by Scott Saul
Down Germantown Avenue
Student film illustrating Elijah Anderson’s book, Code of the Street. Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City
A Quaint Colonial Custom: “Ears Cut Off & Nailed to the Pillory!” The pillory was generally composed of a vertical post with two horizontal pieces of wood attached to the top, containing holes for a person’s hands and head to be placed within while he or she stood or knelt. Such punishments were meant to encourage public humiliation and were thus usually erected in a public square or at a market-place, since passers-by were
In 1765, about 100 free blacks and 1,400 slaves lived in the city. By 1783, the ratio was reversed, with about 1,000 free blacks and 400 slaves. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840, 38.
Barbara. 19th Century American Women. A look at women & gardens in early America. The History of Food Traditions, Culture, And Systems and The History of Campaigns and Movements For, About, And Involving Food
Frederick Douglass Opie. Hog and Hominy. His grassroots approach to writing about foodways reveals the global origins of American food, the forces that shaped its development, and the distinctive cultural collaborations that occurred among Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Americans throughout history. Opie shows how food can be an indicator of social position, a site of community building and cultural identity, and a juncture at which different cultural traditions can develop and impact the collective health of a community.
Oscar Brown jr. Bid Em In 1960 album Sin & Soul… A sobering look at a slave auction held in 19th century America, Director, neal sopata, written by Oscar Brown jr.
culture unplugged: film media and consciousness – focuses on the democracy of the resources: earth and water as common assets worth defending.
Newsworks has published a version of my essay in their Speak Easy community section: Taking issue with Save-A-Lot’s ‘Notable Residents of Historic Germantown’ display
Today, I was informed by a friend that Save-A-Lot has affixed a picture of David P. Richardson, Jr. (April 23, 1948 – August 18, 1995) former Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (to the bottom left corner of the mural, on top of the picture of Benjamin Chew). No text to accompany his image. Just the photo. Obviously, they still don’t get it. Went to see it for myself. Here it is:
- Afroculinaria: An Open Letter to Paula Deen
- How women can help solve the global food security problem (one.org)
- USB: Out and About with the Industry at IFT – The Soy Connection – Food Manufacturing – United Soybean Board (soyconnection.com)
- Expensive food basket (dawn.com)
- Germantown’s Deshler-Morris House, Oldest Surviving ‘White House,’ Reopens Saturday (philadelphia.cbslocal.com)
- Had a Talk with George (storymama01.wordpress.com)
- Celebrating the Pillars of African Agriculture (africanfeminism.com)
- Atiya Ola’s Spirit First Foods