This New African-American Food Exhibit Showcases the Legacy of ‘Ebony’ Magazine

Former food editor Charla Draper shares her memories of the magazine’s test kitchen in the ’80s.

ebony test kitchen
Photo courtesy of MOFAD
Photo courtesy of MOFAD

When Freda DeKnight launched Ebony magazine’s “Date With a Dish” column in 1946, she transformed the Black culinary imagination, featuring recipes that were not just limited to soul food, but rather, representative of a greater African diaspora.

The glossy giving voice to Black food is just one of the stories included in the Museum of Food and Drink’s African/American: Making the Nation’s Table, a new exhibit celebrating the countless contributions of Black chefs, farmers, and food and drink producers who have laid the foundation for American food culture.

The exhibit, presented by The Africa Center in Harlem, opens February 23 after a two-year postponement due to the pandemic. It’s curated by Dr. Jessica B Harris, the acclaimed culinary historian whose book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, inspired the 2021 Netflix documentary series of the same name.

The Legacy Quilt, a 14-foot tall, 28-foot wide textile, is a standout piece. Illustrated by Adrian Franks, written by Osayi Endolyn, and sewn by the quilting collective Harlem Needle Arts, it comprises 406 blocks that represent African-American contributions to the fabric of American cuisine.

Visitors are then carried through four centuries of influence on everything from agriculture to brewing and distilling. You’ll learn about the storied history of Gilliard Farms, the impact Leah Chase had on Creole cooking, and the ways in which Nearest Green helped to create Jack Daniel’s whiskey.

legacy quilt close up
Photo courtesy of MOFAD

But perhaps most notable is the Ebony magazine test kitchen, saved from wreckage in Chicago thanks to preservationists Landmarks Illinois and accessible to the public for the first time. It’s a striking, Afro-modernist step back in time that invites visitors to imagine how food history was made.

Charla Draper, who served as food editor at Ebony in the 1980s, is one of the many innovators featured on the Legacy Quilt. Brought on as director of Home and Furnishings in 1982, she was tasked with strengthening the food section, which, until then, had not been handled in-house.

For the exhibit, Draper shared a few copies of the magazine that she had held onto, one of which was a cover featuring Barbara “B.” Smith, otherwise known as the “Black Martha Stewart.” She remembers her time at Ebony quite fondly, especially the social functions that publishing executive John H. Johnson hosted in Chicago.

“I have to tell you, they always had the best shrimp,” Draper jokes. “I told a friend, who worked in advertising at the time, that I was coming to New York for the exhibit opening, and she said, ‘All I can think about are those shrimp.’”

Draper was the first food editor to work in the test kitchen, even though it had existed for as long as Johnson’s publishing company occupied the building of 820 South Michigan Avenue. She was in charge of equipping it with all the utensils necessary for testing out recipes.

“Previously, I was a home economist at Kraft Foods, and those kitchens were beige,” she says. “So coming over to Ebony, it was a whole new world. The kitchen was vibrant, and it really reflected the creativity and diversity of African Americans.”

exhibit overview
Photo by Clay Williams

Her proudest moment at Ebony was an advertising win. “African Americans have traditionally spent more on food preparation at home than the general market consumer,” Draper says. “But when you looked at the food advertising that Ebony was getting, it was not on par.”

She explains that the disinterest in restaurants might have been a holdover from the Jim Crow era, or simply a result of the multiple jobs African-American families often took on. Without much time to spare, going out was treated as a luxury.

Draper made the food section much more attractive to advertisers. She recalls presenting Johnson with a mockup of an already-existing Ebony article on potatoes. She researched potato trade organizations, sourced fresh photographs, and trimmed them down to fit the page. Under Draper’s guidance, food advertising increased 50% within year one.

The exhibit reveals that the magazine often delivered advertisements from many white-owned corporations to African American consumers for the very first time. In 1951, for example, Hennessey became the first liquor company to advertise in it, enmeshing the French cognac in African American culture.

Continuing the legacy of DeKnight’s “Date With a Dish” column, Draper was careful not to intimidate readers. She wanted them to feel like they, too, could make these recipes, whether they were novice or experienced cooks.

“At the exhibition, there’s a photograph of a traditional baked ham, with the diamond topping of pineapple and cloves—a very traditional dish that you'll find on many African-American family tables,” Draper explains. “And that’s the recipe that I broke down into: how to get the diamond pattern on the ham, how to prepare the pineapple topping, and so on.”

"I'm very pleased that there is more interest in the contribution that African Americans have made to the American table.”

This breaking down by level of expertise is a technique not uncommon in food media today. “One of things that the exhibition shows, very clearly, I think, is how the presentation of food in magazines has changed over the years,” Draper explains. “There are pictures of more complicated dishes, or elaborate tablescapes. But one of the things that I did when I was at Ebony was simplify it. I wanted it to be more contemporary. I wanted to give the readers something from which they could say, ‘Oh, I can do that.’”

As for the future of food media, Draper is optimistic about the direction she sees it going. “I'm very pleased that there is more interest in the contribution that African Americans have made to the American table,” she says. “That’s very important, because you might see a dish like macaroni and cheese and go, ‘Oh, that's traditionally an African-American dish,’ but in reality, it was inspired by the work of Chef James Hemings when he was in France with Thomas Jefferson.”

This story, along with countless others proving that African American food is American food, will be on view at the Museum of Food and Drink until June 19.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram