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The Gospel Bird

The Gospel Bird

Review by MATT LEE and TED LEE
Published: August 13, 2006
IN the misty, coffee-table histories of the American roadside dining experience, the Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain, founded in Salt Lake City in 1925, rarely makes an appearance, though it flourished for almost 20 years. It merits a look, if you can bear to: the restaurant’s formula was unequivocally racist. A staff of black waiters served fried chicken to a predominantly white clientele in a room filled with the restaurant’s hallmark logo, a grotesque cartoon of a smiling black man wearing a bellhop’s hat. Menus, toothpicks and napkins all bore the caricature, and customers entered by walking through the red lips of a gigantic plaster version of the Sambo-like logo.

Illustration from "Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs"
A Dixie Chicken Fryer label, circa 1930.
BUILDING HOUSES OUT OF CHICKEN LEGS
Black Women, Food, and Power.
By Psyche A. Williams-Forson.
Illustrated. 317 pp. The University of North Carolina Press. Cloth, $55; paper, $19.95.
Related
First Chapter: ‘Building Houses out of Chicken Legs’ (August 13, 2006)

Readers’ Opinions
Forum: Book News and Reviews
The idea that such a restaurant lurked around the next bend in the American landscape is horrifying, and the bitter sting of such denigrating imagery and words is palpable in Psyche Williams-Forson’s book “Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs,” which examines the ties between African-American food culture, entrepreneurship, travel and racism. One of the book’s more generous sources is Roy Hawkins, a former head waiter at the Coon Chicken Inn, who offers a rare look inside the workings of the restaurant and in the process exposes some of the complexities and paradoxes associated with this cultural territory. We learn that though the insult of the place and its customers hurt Hawkins, the money, $100 to $200 a night in tips, was irresistible. The chicken was good, and he divulges the recipe. Blacks weren’t permitted to work in the kitchen, an inversion of the postwar racial dynamic between kitchen and floor staff. Among the patrons of Salt Lake City’s Coon Chicken Inn were many Mormons, themselves victims of discrimination.

Though chicken, and African-Americans’ relationship to chicken, is discussed throughout the book, the subtitle, “Black Women, Food, and Power,” better indicates the author’s focus. Williams-Forson, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, analyzes postcards, W.P.A. photos, literature, advertisements (drawing from her own collection of racist ephemera), stand-up comedy, television and movies. She finds plenty of evidence of both racial subjugation and also a reaffirming language of sorts in African-American women’s culinary talents, allowing their stories to emerge despite any prevailing white propaganda. At its best, “Building Houses” parallels this brave course of self-definition.

In one interview, taken from a local newspaper in 1970, a woman named Bella Winston who was once a “waiter-carrier,” or freelance chicken, pie and coffee vendor, at the Gordonsville, Va., train station, describes how a tight-knit community of black women fashioned a foothold in the post-emancipation South by selling home-cooked treats. Winston’s children “never knew there were other parts of the chicken besides wings, backs and feet until they were big enough to move away.” The discussion of the waiter-carriers ends too soon, unfortunately, because of a dearth of source material on the topic.

With little oral history from the period, Williams-Forson is compelled to seek clues in images and fragments intended for other purposes, and she is mostly up to the task. Large sections are given to deconstructing the chicken-related scenes in Alex Haley’s 1976 book and 1977 television miniseries “Roots” and in the 1997 film “Soul Food.” Though these are among the best passages in “Building Houses,” it feels as though the author gives a historical drama and a Hollywood screenplay too much of the burden in carrying her argument forward.

Williams-Forson shuttles easily between the language of the feminist academy and that of the personal confession, according the latter a value that, in the context of a scholarly work, may make some readers cringe: “By my own witness, too much acknowledgement and praise of one ‘sista’s’ fried chicken over another’s can suggest that the pastor is enjoying something at that sista’s house other than just the ‘gospel bird.’”

She deftly examines the tight space between degrading stereotype and cultural touchstone, and her footing is surest when she’s prevailing against a homogeneous view of African-American cultural life. And yet in other instances — “The art of verbal play has always been a vehicle of self-expression for black men” — she appears to endorse such a view.

Williams-Forson rightly decries the lack of attention to African-American cooking, and its devaluation by some as “scraps” and “leftovers,” yet the book seems to skirt the food history that would have proved her point. Legumes, okra, rice, sesame seeds and fish are never discussed in any depth (for a terrific treatment of rice, see Karen Hess, “The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection,” or Judith Carney, “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas”).

Worse, though, is that the chicken itself seems to be held at arm’s length — the passages discussing the bird feel rushed, and raise more questions than they answer. Why chicken (native to Asia) and not guinea hen (native to West Africa)? Is there anything about the chicken that made it fit for American life — anything in the animal’s anatomy, behavior or rhythms that might have suited it to the American yard?

In starting from the assumption that chicken is — and always has been — a low form of sustenance, classing it as inferior in several instances (while proclaiming that “no longer eating chicken is a very deliberate, health-conscious act”), Williams-Forson unnecessarily grounds her study with a subjectivity that works against a fuller account of the complex nature of the chicken’s role in African-American life.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee write the Times Magazine column The Industry. “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook” will be published in October.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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