Nervous Kitchens: Critical Readings of Black Women's Food Practices in The Soul Food Imaginary

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Nervous Kitchens intervenes in the story of soul food by treating the kitchen as a central site of instability. These kitchens reveal and critique their importance to constructions of Black womanhood. Utilizing close readings of Black women’s culinary practices in popular televisual kitchens and archival analysis of USDA domestic reforms, the project locates sites that challenge how we oversimplify soul food as a Black cultural product. These oversimplifications come through what I term the soul food imaginary. This term underscores how the cuisine is tangible (i.e., how dishes are made) but also the ways that histories of enslavement, migration, and domesticity are disseminated through fictionalized representations of Black women in the kitchen offering comfort through food. The project explores how images of these kitchens adhere to and diverge from the imaginary's four conventions: (1) Soul food originates in enslavement where master’s scraps became mama’s meal time; (2) Soul food is not healthy food; (3) Soul food moves South to North uninterrupted during the Great Migration and is evidence of and fuel for struggle, survival, and transformation; and 4) Black women cook it the best, naturally, and alone in the kitchen.