Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity
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In this publication, Eating in the Side Room: Food, Archaeology, and African American Identity, Mark S. Warner uses a faunal collection as a starting point to explore how the Maynard and Burgess family expressed their African American identity in a meaningful but expedient fashion. He demonstrates how the remains of pork, chicken, and fish bone speak to an intersection of racism, community, and identity in black Annapolis. These data informed Warner about African American food choices and how a conscious preference for pork, for example, set the family apart from their white neighbors.
In the first section of the book, the Maynard and Burgess family is humanized through old letters, censuses, and maps. Warner follows this discussion with a succinct introduction on Maryland’s roots in the racialization of slavery and how it compared to other slave-owning states. This is a necessary section that provides the reader a context to posit a black family in a newly emancipated city struggling with their own identity and place in the nation.
After the historic context, Warner shares the archaeological discoveries and describes how the artifacts were distributed across the site. This chapter also thoroughly explains the formation, use, and abandonment of archaeological features as well as the challenges of dating yard debris and disturbed contexts.
Following the methods of discovery is the interpretation of the faunal remains. Through descriptions, counts, and bar charts, Warner explains when findings are typical and when there are interesting comparisons to be made in the data. One significant observation is the variety of cuts of meat, illustrating the family had the economic means to occasionally purchase expensive food. Warner sees this as the Maynard and Burgess family possessing some economic freedom of choice, but not necessarily freedom from intimidation and prejudice. To underscore his point, the racial demographics of store keepers are provided to demonstrate how the paucity of African American businesses made it impossible for black Annapolitans to completely avoid interaction with white storekeepers and butchers.
Some of the more important observations about the family come during the analysis of fish and bird remains. By digging into old advertisements and archaeological site reports, and comparing the fish species recovered from the Annapolis site with these documents, Warner concludes the Maynard and Burgess family, by choice and opportunity, appear to have consumed primarily locally caught and sold fish. The absence of cod and other deep sea fish, he argues, suggests avoidance of commercially caught and sold varieties altogether. The same type of detailed research and application against the number and type of bird bone is also followed to deduce how the family acquired chickens to avoid potential racialized transactions in Annapolis.
Although solid interpretations are realized from the artifact assemblage, Warner takes his study further. Acknowledging the differences between urban and rural diets, he studies several faunal assemblages from various cities across the Chesapeake region and compares them against the Annapolis material (the details of these comparative studies can be found in the book’s appendix). Conclusions on pork and beef consumption preferences continued to hold true across most of the sites, while the comparative data on chicken and fish proved problematic due to limited analysis of the collections. In addition to looking for answers in other faunal assemblages, Warner also uses oral histories from African Americans who lived in Annapolis during the first half of the 20th century. In their stories, he found the black community relied heavily on a barter system to obtain goods and services.
After an in-depth conversation on the interpretation of the archaeology, the author has the reader consider double-consciousness in the African American community—the desire for inclusion yet a deep need to reject a community. Here, Warner also dives into the history and culture of the meat butchering/packaging business as well as etiquette and cookbooks. This digression is necessary for Warner to explain how and why white America began to favor beef and why African Americans did not follow suit. Next, Warner looks for these answers on African American story quilts and within song lyrics. All of these investigations support the archaeological findings and interpretation that food, specifically pork, was chosen to reinforce black identity and preserve community.
Throughout this publication, Warner demonstrates the intrinsic value of a faunal collection and the wealth of data that even a cursory examination of such material can produce. Instead of just asking the archaeological data what it is, he asks the assemblage what it is not and, most importantly, why it is different. When more questions arise, he moves beyond the archaeology and seeks out the answers from oral histories, comparative resources, and museum collections. The book begins by dissecting one African American family’s preference for pork, and ends with an explanation of the importance of food in the African American community and its relationship to identity, racism, and community.
Although thoroughly researched, some of his discussions may have benefited from a review of more recent publications, particularly those studies that continue to come out of the anthropology department at the University of Maryland and focus on postemancipation sites in Annapolis. The introductory chapters could have been enhanced with a brief discussion on the different socioeconomic statuses of African American families and the distinct advantages the Maynard and Burgess family had over those who were less skilled and/or newly emancipated. I also wondered how John Maynard, who worked as a waiter for a high class establishment for 30 years, may have contributed to the presence of higher end cuts of meat on the site. Aside from these minor criticisms, the publication is a well-researched book that uses the archaeology to say something important.
Any work that attempts to revise the narrative of historic Annapolis will prove to be a timeless publication and significant contribution to the discipline. As archaeologists and historians continue to provide an alternative and inclusive history for its state capital, students of African America will find Warner’s book an illuminating study, and a strong example to follow. Writing with an inviting style, he patiently provides the reader the reasons behind his decisions to follow out specific avenues of inquiry and then explains his conclusions with professorial integrity. In sum, this publication demonstrates the intrinsic value of faunal collections, and how material culture, when interpreted alongside of written and oral testimony, can reveal significant information about how people in the past negotiated a racialized society to simultaneously meet their economic, physical, and psychological needs.