Apr 9, 2021 • 30M

A Conversation with Dr. Badia Ahad-Legardy

Talking to the English professor and author of 'Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture' about carob, the role of restaurants, and dietary restriction.

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When the opportunity to interview Dr. Badia Ahad-Legardy upon the release of her book Afro-Nostalgia: Feeling Good in Contemporary Black Culture (next Tuesday) landed in my inbox, I couldn’t say no. To discuss food with a literary scholar? Of course.

There is an entire chapter on food in the book, relating current expressions of Black identity in cookbooks and restaurants to past Black power movements. It is illuminating, especially in its discussion of Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan, for making connections that would usually go unstated, because—simply put—we so rarely see literary scholars or critics talking about food. It is vital and necessary.

We discussed the under-sung deliciousness of carob, the “complicated space of food studies,” food and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the cultural role of the restaurant. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Badia. Thank you so much for taking the time out today.

Badia: Thank you for having me. I'm excited.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Badia: Sure. 

So, I grew up in Chicago in the Hyde Park community. So, I think it was made perhaps most famous by Barack Obama. That's where he lived in Chicago. But we were there long before Barack Obama got there. [Laughter.] My grandparents actually migrated to Hyde Park in the 1940s, so it's where I grew up and where my mom grew up and so forth. So yeah, that's where I grew up. 

It's really interesting, because I have actually very few recollections of what I ate between the ages of, I guess, between when I was born and nine years old. And I was thinking about that, like, ‘What did I eat in those years?’ And it's so interesting, because my parents got divorced when I was nine. And I literally cannot remember the foods I ate prior to that. I don't have a recollection of what my mother cooked during that time. But after that, we moved in with my grandmother once they divorced, and I remember so many of those meals. 

And it's, I guess, a cliché, but my grandmother was an amazing cook. And my favorite food was okra. [Laughter.] One of the few people who's really attracted to, I guess, the slimy texture. I really loved okra. She would make these wonderful Parker House rolls that I used to schmear with a ton of butter and grape jelly. And desserts, of course. So I think five-flavored pound cake was my favorite. 

And interestingly, my aunt, who was also living with my grandmother at that time, she was and is a naturopath. And so she would take me to the health food store and buy me all kinds of treats. And my favorite ones were the carob covered raisins and the root beer sodas that were clear because they weren't—they didn't have the artificial coloring, so they tasted just like root beer. So, those were my favorite things to eat growing up. 

Alicia: Wow, I love whenever carob comes up in a conversation. [Laughter.]

Badia: Yeah, I was really—I shouldn't say I, but my aunt was really an early adopter of carob.

Alicia: Yeah, it's always just very, very specific. And it's just a very specific time. And I love that. And yeah, I'm always saying, ‘We should bring carob back.’ I don't think it was as bad as people remember at all. [Laughs.]

Badia: Well, the interesting thing is I actually don't like chocolate. Yeah, I'm not really a chocolate eater. Never have been. But carob was my jam as a kid. So, I don't know.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Amazing.

Well, why was it important for you to include a chapter on food in your new book, Afro—Nostalgia?

Badia: Sure.

I didn't really think that I could write a book about nostalgia and Blackness and get away with not writing a chapter about fo—about food or some reference to food. I think food and music are such key touchdowns of nostalgic memory. So, you hear something and you get transported back to a moment in time, or you eat something and it has the capacity to take you back to a particular kind of memory or a set of memories. So that's a really personal, I think, relationship between food and memory. And nostalgia plays such an important role in that. 

So in the book, I wanted to go a little bit beyond just kind of the personal nostalgic relationship that we have with food and really think about how it plays out in the Black culinary space. So, showing how chefs can play really important roles in evoking memories of this imagined historical past, and how those are really kind of tied to a certain kind of politics but also a sense of the future of Black food. 

Alicia: Right.

And you note in this chapter the “complicated space of food studies.” And I wanted to see if you could elaborate on what you mean—define as food studies and why you see it as a complicated space.

Badia: Sure.

Food studies is very broad, which is one of the reasons I think it's really complicated. And as I understand it at least, it's really about exploring the relationship between food and identity. And you can approach that from so many different angles. So you have public health, or environmental sustainability, or literature and folklore, sociology. I mean, all of those areas can really speak to the relationship or a certain kind of relationship between food and identity. And I think just because it's so vast, and it's so nebulous—and it's also a really, a fairly new field. That's one of the reasons why I think it's really complicated. 

It's funny. I was listening to Eve Ewing, and I'm not sure if you're familiar with her, but she's—yeah, amazing sociologist, writer, speaker, poet. I mean, just a brilliant individual. And she did a little Instagram Live mini-talk. And it was so fascinating, because she talked about the notion of pre-existing health conditions and how that's being played out right now in the trial of Derek Chauvin, and—being used as an attempt to prove that George Floyd's body was already broken, that there were kind of pre-existing health conditions at play. And we've also heard a lot of that around Covid, especially when it comes to communities of color. 

But when we think about something like pre-existing health conditions, so much of that is tied to issues like poverty and food access and food deserts and food justice. And these aren't natural conditions, but they're the product of a myriad of social injustices. And I think food plays a really important role in that. So there are many reasons why I think it's a conversation—complicated space. There's so many conversations happening about food and food waste. There's so much to say. 

And I think for me, at least when I was writing the book and just doing some reading around this, it was really hard to try to find a way in, actually, as someone who's coming to this work from a very different vantage point. And that's probably why this chapter on food was the most personal for me, because I actually used my own food memories as a way to participate in what I saw was a really kind of expansive conversation.

Alicia: Right. 

I mean, it's funny, because I started reading a book this morning, published in 2003. And the writer, who I think is a philosophy professor named Lisa Heldke, she was saying, ‘It's in the last ten years that food studies has emerged a little bit.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, boy.’ And it is still such a fractured area of study. 

And I think part of it is that nostalgia connection that it is—you have to come into it from a personal perspective. And you're talking about you using your memories. She begins this book as well with her own memories. And I'm like, ‘I don't think you can get into food without connecting it to nostalgia, connecting it back to your own identity, which is such a fascinating—’ Yeah, that's why it's so wonderful when other people write about food. I'm a food writer, so I only write about food, really. [Laughter.] That’s why I love reading other people write about it.

Badia: My background, obviously, is as a literary scholar, right? And I write about a lot of things, but I usually write about books. [Laughs.] But I do eat a lot. And I read about eating, and I read a lot about food. Again, I could not really figure out how to situate myself in this conversation without delving into the personal. But I think that's one of the reasons why that chapter for me, at least, was one of the most rewarding to write as well.

Alicia: Of course.

And the lack of pork in your home growing up is part of that, as well as the focus on Dick Gregory and Bryant Terry, who are big parts of this chapter. So, I wanted to ask ’cause I—I always ask people about this—but what is your relationship to meat as an omnivore? And I know you don't eat fast food. That seems like an interesting kind of relationship to food, as a conscious omnivore. [Laughter.]

Badia: Well, again, I guess going back to thinking about how your memories or food or your relationship to food is really formed, I think, at such a young age—or at least for me, it's formed at such a young age. And until you posed that question, I have to say, I had actually never really thought about my relationship to meat. Do me and meat really have a relationship? But I guess we do, because I do consume it. What's really interesting is that in high school, my mom and my stepdad stopped eating red meat. But I didn't. I still eat red meat. [Laughter.] My husband does not eat red meat at all. But I do and our kids do. 

So if I'm honest, I'd have to say that I think my relationship to meat really is the result of having had such a restrictive diet as a child. So growing up in the Nation of Islam, and then also on top of that, I had a lot of food allergies, which I have now outgrown thankfully. So if I'm honest, maybe my unwillingness to not eat meat is pushing back on what I perceive to be a really confining way to live for a good part of my kind of growing up. 

And honestly, you know, I don't know if I reject ‘fast food.’ I definitely preach the gospel of moderation. And I think if you want a fast food meal every now and then, get after it. 

But I'll share with you a really striking memory. When I took my kids to this art fair in Chicago, and—they were about ages around 8 and 11 at the time. And I got them popsicles. And the popsicles were made from fresh fruit, but they weren't unsweetened or anything and there was still obviously sugar present. And both of them said that their popsicles didn't taste right. And I was like, ‘What’s going on with these popsicles?’ 

I tasted the popsicles. And they tasted like the fruit that they were labeled as. So, the strawberry popsicle tasted like strawberries. The mango popsicle tasted like mango. But they were so used to that kind of artificial strawberry flavor, and an artificial citrus flavor, that the recognition, or the kind of expectation of having a popsicle that was the flavor of the actual fruit was something so foreign to them. And that was, quite frankly, heartbreaking for me, right? And I was like, ‘Ok, yeah, we're gonna do some things differently here.’

So, I think when I'm thinking about the kind of choices that we make as a family, I don't want them to feel as though or understand that natural foods in their natural form are something that's foreign. I want them to at least be able to recognize the foreign thing is the actual foreign, artificial thing that you're eating. I think that's why, at least for us, fast food isn’t a—we don't do that on a regular basis, I'll say.

Alicia: Right.

Yeah, no. And it's always interesting to talk to parents about this, because you have to negotiate food in a whole new way and figure out how to pass on your relationship to it without making that the whole thing and that sort of thing. I asked because you mentioned your kids asking for fast food in that chapter, and I was—it's always interesting to understand how people, yeah, make and negotiate those aspects of life because—yeah. [Laughs.] 

Badia: And I think that what I've tried to do also is not make them feel guilty about having it because then that is a whole other thing. And I talk a little bit about this in the book, but I had a lot of shame around food growing up. And that's never a healthy relationship to anything. So, I don't want them to feel if they're out with their friends, and the choice is to—they're both teenagers now, so—and the choice is to go to McDonald's or whatever, that they have to feel bad about doing it, or they lie and tell me that they went somewhere else or something like that. But I do want them to be able to strike a balance. 

Alicia: Of course.

Yeah, in the chapter you also write that Bryant Terry's Afro-Vegan is about making tangible and accessible the relationship between food and emancipatory politics. In what kind of ways and venues do you see this relationship being made nowadays in culture broadly, if you do? I mean, I think that's such an important intersection, of food and emancipatory politics. And I've talked to Bryant Terry about this before. As you are a literary scholar, how do you see that manifesting? Because I also want to understand how food for non-food-focused people, where you see it and where you see it as important?

Badia: Yeah. 

Well, interestingly, I just think that, right now, we see it kind of everywhere, right? So in the aftermath of the summer of 2020, where we saw national racial unrest and second wave of Black Lives Matter, the notion of Black radicalism and imagining Black freedom, I don't know if it's been more visible to me. [Laughs.] So, it certainly is more visible now then even when I was writing the book. 

So if I'm thinking about even renewed attention to Black cultural creators, and I—I'd be remiss not to mention folks like Thérèse Nelson and her Black Culinary History project. Also, the work of Cynthia Greenlee at The Counter, anti-racist projects happening everywhere, even popular culture. 

Oddly enough, I just saw the first episode of the new season of Top Chef last week. [Laughs.] And something that I was immediately struck by was, I don’t know if I want to call it an eagerness, but it kind of felt like an eagerness to really put West African cuisine on display. And that was something that was really fascinating to me. And I think it would be easy to kind of critique that as like, ‘Oh, this is empty symbolism,’ and ‘What does this really mean?’ But I also think the restaurant industry, like so many different industries, faced a racial reckoning in that moment. And it's clear that a lot of folks, at least to my mind, are—seem to be trying to do things a little differently. 

So I see this relationship between food and kind of a politics of liberation honestly operating in so many different spaces. Musically, in terms of literature, in terms of obviously food. But certainly, I think in a kind of popular cultural sphere we're seeing a little bit more of that conversation come to the fore. And I think it's a direct result of, again, the events of summer 2020. 

And I think it can be really easy to see these endeavors as merely historical. But in the book, I talk a lot about this notion of nostalgic reclamation, or nostalgia as an act of reclamation. So, what are you reclaiming? What are you trying to kind of get back to? And I think it's really a way to imagine the past. It’s a particular kind of memory. But it also does a lot of work for us in the present and provides a good deal of inspiration for the future, which I think is really at the heart of nostalgic projects. 

So, I see that—see it all over the place. It’s interesting. I was talking about Hyde Park earlier where I grew up, and there's a new-ish restaurant there, Virtue. And the chef is Erick Williams. And even if you go on the site, he has these kind of archival images of the American Black South on the website, and really kind of pointing to that space and that time as a mode of inspiration for what he's doing in the restaurant now. But I would say that it's not just kind of trying to recapture that very moment or the cuisine from that very moment in that space, but it's about kind of using that as a starting point to create something anew but also, really not forgetting the foundation of where all this came from.

Alicia: And in the chapter as well, I mean, to talk about restaurants, you discuss Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster and specifically Sam Sifton’s review of it. And you bring up the difficult role that a restaurant has in changing its neighborhood, especially—this is a Black restaurant in a historically Black neighborhood in Harlem. 

Do you see the restaurant as having a duty to occupy a role that is not simply about gastronomy, a role that actually kind of is in service to the neighborhood and in kind of anti-service to gentrification? [Laughter.] We've been talking a lot about what is the role of the restaurant, especially because in the pandemic they've been laying people off. It's been a site of transmission. Line cooks have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. So we're talking about, ‘What is the restaurant?’ And so do you think the restaurant has a cultural function beyond being kind of just a business, that's a showcase for a chef, especially kind of in that context of Red Rooster?

Badia: That's a great question. 

I mean, I have to say, normally I get really nervous when I hear words like ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility,’ especially attached to roles that Black people are supposed to play. [Laughs.] And I am definitely, just by the way, anti-gentrification, just to let everyone know. 

I would say that honestly when a restaurant or any business for that matter occupies a space within a neighborhood, especially neighborhoods that have been neglected, that have been forgotten, marginalized, there really has to be—to my mind, at least—some sense of responsibility for how your presence in that community is going to affect the lives of the people who existed there long before you. So, I do feel like there is some responsibility there. 

And the reason why I even talk about Red Rooster in the book is because it's—it really does exemplify how complicated nostalgic projects are, right? So, on the one hand, nostalgia is a feel-good emotion, which is really what the book is about, right? So it has the capacity to be energizing. It can be life-giving; it could be comforting. And even in the name, Red Rooster, is obviously an homage to the Red Rooster of the Harlem Renaissance era. So you kind of think about that moment, and the kind of images that it evokes of this vibrant Black Harlem. But nostalgia also has a really dark underbelly. And it's one that is often informed by historical erasure and violence. 

So with Red Rooster, we see a little bit of both sides of nostalgia at play. And I see it as a space that's really grappling with that. So, that's one of the reasons why I really wanted to kind of focus on it, because it obviously—even in its name, invokes this kind of historical relationship. But we have to think about the work that it's actually doing in that, their community right now. 

In terms of whether restaurants have a cultural function? I would obviously say yes. I'm not sure if restaurants, though, always know that they have that function and they're aware of what that function is and what role that they play in it. So when I think about a restaurant, I think about things—again, not as a person entrenched in the food space, but location, menu items, price points, waitstaff, seating arrangements, decor, music. I mean, I think about all the things that go into the making of a restaurant. And it is such an overtly political space.

I was thinking about a time when a few friends and I went to brunch in this neighborhood, Wicker Park, which is a bit of a tony, predominantly white neighborhood in Chicago. And my friends and I were the only Black patrons in the restaurant. And if anyone knows Chicago, we are a deeply segregated city, right? So you go to the North side, it's mostly white. Southside, mostly black. 

So, we're in Wicker Park. We're having brunch at this restaurant, only Black people there. And this Biggie song comes on the loudspeaker. And it's a restaurant, so it's still somewhat muted. But you know Biggie, you hear the song, that must be the explicit version. And the N-word is all over the place in the song, right? So, here we are in this space. The patrons are mostly white, the waitstaff is mostly white, the cooks look to be mostly Black and Latinx. And I was thinking in that moment about how our experience of the space in that moment was very, very different. 

So, restaurants are not neutral spaces. I think that some of them seem to intend to operate from a place of neutrality without recognizing that for many people, whiteness functions as a neutral. So I think that restaurants would do well to think more deeply about the cultural functions that they serve, and the roles that they play in the communities in which they exist, right? 

Alicia: Yeah, no, I think I asked that question, of course, out of interest. But also I'm writing a list of restaurants in San Juan for a food website, the essential restaurants of San Juan. And thinking about that, these questions of these areas that have been so deeply gentrified. And here in San Juan, gentrification is tied to Airbnbs. It's not necessarily tied to actual residents, because the economy is so based on tourism. And so thinking about, ‘Who is this restaurant for? Who is this serving? And how is it changing the neighborhood?’ is just such an important consideration. 

And yeah, that idea of like, ‘Who is comfortable in these spaces?’ is such a big one when it comes to food that I don't think people think about enough. From farmers’ markets to restaurants, who is comfortable and who is being served?

Badia: Yeah, exactly. 

And also, you kind of think about—I'm not a restaurant owner, I don't aspire to be one. But I imagine though that you do have a vision of the space. And I honestly don't think that, especially in many of the spaces that I've been to, there is a good deal of consideration for the kind of diversity of people who potentially could occupy that space. And I think when you're coming into, especially, again, particular kinds of neighborhoods, you really have to be mindful of the power that you wield within those spaces, and also how your mere presence, again, can really alter not just the lived experiences of the people who are there, but really the future of those communities in irreparable ways.

Alicia: Right.

And for you, is cooking a political act?

Badia: Ok, so I'm going to be the consummate academic here. [Laughter.] Nothing that we do or say escapes the realm of the political, so I would have to obviously put cooking in there. 

And can I just tell you how much I love this question? Because I thought about this, and I'm like, ‘It's cooking. It's not just food. It's not just eating. It’s the act of cooking.’ And so yes, I would say that food is—I mean, that cooking is definitely a political act, and—as much as our politics are reflected in the choices that we make on a day to day basis. So, ‘Am I going to get takeout, or am I going to cook in my kitchen? Am I going to fry, or am I going to bake? Am I doing the cooking, or is my husband doing the cooking?’ And how these decisions get made, I think, are inherently political. So, I would have to say that cooking is very much a political act.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much again for taking the time to chat today.

Badia: Thank you for having me.