Exploring Black Culinary Epistemology
In celebration of Black History Month, we sat down with Marilisa Navarro, PhD, an assistant professor of African American studies at Thomas Jefferson University, to talk about her research on the intersection of food studies with race and ethnic studies.
“Race and ethnic studies look at race and how the concept of race is formed, how it is produced through social structures and social institutions, how inequities take place, and also different forms of empowerment that community members use to push back against those inequities,” Dr. Navarro says. “Food studies look at something very similar in relation to food. People have all sorts of connections [and associations] with food. It feels very personal and meaningful to them.”
Though food has become a site for acknowledging when inequalities occur, especially in low-income communities of color, Dr. Navarro recognizes that it’s also much more than that.
“The Black radical tradition is a concept that refers to the idea that Black folks have never thought of themselves as only being in relation to oppression and exclusion,” Dr. Navarro explains. “Certainly, that’s a part of history, and it’s important for us to know that history, but we have to look at other things Black people have done in terms of meaning-making, empowerment, joy, and life.”
Dr. Navarro’s definition of ‘Black culinary epistemologies’ looks at Black culinary spaces and examines how chefs, cooks, and food preparers use that site to both challenge inequities and find other forms of meaning for themselves.
“Black folks have been engaging in alternative food movements for centuries…Black culinary spaces are sites for empowerment, change-making, and producing health, happiness, and joy,” Dr. Navarro says.
A child of Civil Rights activists, Dr. Navarro understood from an early age the importance of community engagement and advocacy. “It was drilled into me that we have a responsibility to those around us who are struggling and are facing inequities, to feel a sense of commitment and a connectedness to producing [a more gracious and equitable world],” Dr. Navarro says, “[One takeaway is that] I hope that people feel motivated, empowered, and connected…that’s the only way we can make change happen. By working together, being collaborative, and hoping for a more promising future than the present or past.”