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What Did They Eat? Mrs. Amie Long's Menu
In her essay, Psyche Williams-Forson explores food as a material artifact that "enables us to see how gender and race oppression can be racialized as a source of female empowerment.” In this way, food selection offered nineteenth-century Black women the opportunity to combine work in domestic spaces with social activism. During the nineteenth century, African American catering businesses, restaurants, and bakeries in the Northeast were often quite successful.
In particular, Black-owned restaurant and catering businesses in Philadelphia reached significant economic achievement between the 1810s and late 1870s. Some well-known black business owners in Philadelphia included Robert Bogle, Euguene and Tillie Baptiste, Clara and Peter Augustine, Thomas Dorsey, Henry Jones, Henry Minton, and Albert and Peter Dutieuille. W.E.B. DuBois referred to Dorsey, Minton, and Jones as the “triumvirate” of African American catering. Dorsey’s story and rise to prominence is especially interesting. Dorsey was born into slavery in Maryland in 1810. He and his family eventually escaped slavery in the 1850s with the assistance of William Still and settled in Philadelphia. Dorsey’s master attempted to recapture him, however, a group of Philadelphia abolitionists raised nearly $1,000 to purchase his freedom. Despite having little formal education, Dorsey possessed a refined pallet for fine dining and entertainment and eventually rose to prominence as one of the most successful restaurant owners in nineteenth-century Philadelphia.
Food played an important role in the Colored Conventions movement. Records like committee reports provide important information about the types of food provided during and after convention meetings. Likewise, advertisements for boarding houses often featured announcements describing food served to guests. Regardless of the setting, the decision to serve guests certain dishes allowed Black women to express agency. In her essay, Psyche Williams-Forson explains that boardinghouse owners “were very cognizant of the relationship between commensality and politics.” Food selection offered black women an indirect means to express their political viewpoints.
Mrs. Amie Long is an example of one woman involved in food preparation during the Colored Conventions. Long operated a refreshment room in her home near one of the Convention halls. The Delaware County American advertised:“Mrs. Amie Long has fitted up refreshment rooms in South Avenue, near the Court House, which will prove a great public convenience, especially during the session of the Court. She dispenses hot cakes and coffee, ham, soups, eggs, and a variety of admirably prepared edibles, and those suggestors of Christmas times, mince pies, which were so hugely appreciated by hands, are to be considered as specimens of her culinary abilities, commend us say we, to her proficiency to this especial department.”
Refreshment rooms allowed Convention attendees to continue their discussions during breaks as they enjoyed meals. These locations not only facilitated conversation among Convention participants, but also allowed black women the opportunity to engage in political discourse. It is hard to imagine that women like Mrs. Long, along with women attendees, did not engage in conversations with her customers and helped to shape their opinions on different matters.
At the same time, women such as Mrs. Long also expressed their political stances through food selection. Boardinghouse owners conscientiously crafted menus making deliberate decisions about what types of food to serve and how to serve these items. For instance, a hostess’ decision to serve regional foods to guests could communicate a message of affinity and shared political stances. At the same time, refusing to fulfill certain gastronomic requests also conveyed clear messages to customers. Williams-Forson reminds us that “food and conviviality bring people together, yet food is also a powerful means to distinguish people and communities from one another.”
Researched and written by Anna Lacy. Edited by Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman.
- Psyche Williams-Forson, "What Did They Eat? Where Did They Stay?: Interpreting the Material Culture of Black Women’s Domestic Work and Labor in the Context of the Colored Conventions" forthcoming in The Colored Conventions in the Nineteenth Century and the Digital Age, P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey and Sarah Patterson, editors.
- Barney Launcelot Ford, “Food Service Industry,” in Encyclopedia of African American Businesses Volume 1, edited by Jessie Carney Smith (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2006), 304-308.
- “Albert and Peter Dutrieuille,” in African American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by John N. Ingham and Lynne B. Feldman (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1993), 225-233.