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May 25, 2022, 15:01
Teaching About Racism in Food Culture
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Teaching About Racism in Food Culture

06 December 2021

How sugar became salty in the South and building a unit for Black history month.

By Elise Chonko
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After the death of George Floyd, I took a good hard look at myself as an instructor and determined I wasn’t doing enough. I was teaching French-based cuisine, just as I had been taught, just as we were all taught. But this only represented the cultural heritage of my white students, and I wasn’t including or celebrating the cultural heritage of my studencts of color. I needed to do better.

While food can be a source of comfort, it can also be a vehicle for division and we can’t ignore that. It's no surprise we can find instances of division in our food culture and history as we are a nation formed on racial division. I realized it is my duty to discuss these uncomfortable topics with my students. And, more importantly, how they, as culinary professionals, can recognize these issues and enact change through their food service careers.

In preparation for Black History Month, I’d like to share with you my lesson about sugar preferences in cornbread. I will end with my future plans for expanding it into a Black History Unit.

Let’s talk about lesson prep. The first thing is to prepare yourself and your students that things may get awkward. That is ok, expected, and part of growth. I have a couple of tools to combat this. One of my favorites is inviting a school counselor to help facilitate. They are often thrilled to get away from their desks and can help start conversations with a shy class or calm a heated discussion. The second prep area to know is that I use Desmos. Yes, the Math app. In addition to equations, it has the functionality to have students type answers to hard-hitting questions so that I, as the teacher, can see their responses and guide the conversation without students having to say anything out loud that could inadvertently rub another student the wrong way.

Now let's dive into the meat of the lesson (pun intended). Cornbread is a staple in the South (I teach in Virginia), but everyone has a different opinion on whether or not it should be sweet. Our lesson begins with students reading an article, “Why does sugar in cornbread divide races in the South?

This article details the rich history of this humble quick bread and why most Black southerners prefer sweet cornbread while white southerners prefer unsweet. While the theories vary, most believe the racial divide comes from the cornmeal itself. In the 20th century, cornmeal production changed and two types were produced; white and yellow. White cornmeal was naturally sweeter so it needed no additional sugar. However, it was more expensive and was therefore used in wealthier white homes. Meanwhile, yellow cornmeal was younger, less sweet, but cheaper. Poorer Black homes using yellow cornmeal needed to add sugar to achieve a similar result, and with time more and more sugar was added. While the sweetness preferences have changed since then, the story is profound and is a direct reflection of our nation's racial wealth disparities.

After reading the article, students are tasked with developing their own questions for the class to talk about. Discussion topics typically include determining whether or not our preferences followed the racial stereotypes detailed in the article, what other racial stereotypes exist in foods, why there are more stereotypes for minority foods than for white foods, and ideas for how culinary professionals can help bridge the gap between white and Black preferences in cornbread.

Students usually talk about people’s expectations of cornbread. How some people will even be offended by being served the “wrong” type of cornbread saying, “This is cake not bread,” or “You forgot to add the sugar!” Students discuss what cooks and chefs can do to make everyone feel welcome at the table. Students offer suggestions such as changing the name of each version, offering both types, or producing a lightly sweetened version (which they lovingly call “Half and Half” like the lightly sweetened tea).

I hope this lesson has inspired you to talk about racism in food culture with your future culinarians. I had so much success with this lesson, I am dedicating the entire month of February to this topic! In this unit I plan to explore the full circle of African American cuisine.

We will start by studying aspects of traditional African cuisine. Honestly, this is an area of the unit I need to research more, but I’m hoping to choose dishes from West Africa that influenced Southern American cuisine through the slave trade.

Next, we will highlight the massive impact African Americans have made on the culinary scene in America. We will learn about the first French-trained Chef, James Hemmings who cooked the meal immortalized by Hamilton’s “The Room Where It Happened” and make one of his iconic dishes--creme brulee.  We will also use this time to cover the cornbread lesson outlined above.

Finally, we will talk about modern Black chefs and where Black chefs are taking cuisine now. In this section, I will be following Marcus Samuelson’s “The Rise,” which highlights Black chefs who are working in all types of roles in hospitality from the fermentation specialist of Noma David Zilber to BBQ pitmaster Rodney Scott.

Extra Credit: If you have a class library, here are some great books to add to it and discuss with your students.

“The Rise” by Marcus Samuelsson
“The President’s Kitchen Cabinet” by Adrian Miller
“Southern Food and Civil Rights” by Frederick Douglass Opie
“And Still I Cook” by Leah Chase
“Soul” by Todd Richards
“The Cooking Gene” by Michael Twitty


Elise Chonko is a baking and pastry arts instructor at the Chesterfield Career and Technical Center in Midlothian, Va. She is also the national 2021 Sysco Corporation Secondary Educator of the Year award recipient. Chonko is contributing a two-part series on racism in food culture.