Having grown up in Virginia in what would probably be considered a plantation (though we called it a farm!), it is always risky for a white former Virginian to talk about these issues. But what is even risker is not talking about them.
We are thankful they have survived for a number of reasons, including the obvious fact that if these products were taken off the shelves, there would be even fewer people of color used in advertising, which is not a good thing. In addition, the images relating to them have been de-plantation-ized. Lastly, two of the three are genuine artifacts of African-American history, as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were real. Perhaps the sting was taken out of Aunt Jemima when the late Murry DePillars, drew his Aunt Jemima in 1968. The pen and ink drawing depicted Jemima busting out of a pancake box wielding a knife. She was free!
Want to read more about the history of the genre? Alice Deck’s essay called “Black Cook as Fetish in American Advertising,” appears in the book Kitchen Culture in America. The book was edited by Sherrie A. Inness and published in 2001 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. It provides a history of African American images and cooking culture.
Today, African American culture has had the last laugh. Working in the kitchen is esteemed, indeed fashionable, and not looked down upon. Air conditioning and appliances have turned what was once a tedious job into a celebrated career choice. African American women like Edna Lewis turned these silly stereotypes into culinary greatness; white Southern women like Paula Deen have even given the Southern Mama Cook a white-bread makeover. In fact, our only wish is that we could see a few African American celeb chefs on Food Network. Thankfully, there is the show Turn Up the Heat with G. Garvin on TV One.
Who are our surviving aunts and uncles on the grocery shelves?
- Most famous is Aunt Jemima. She is a trademark owned by Quaker Oats, which has made the pancake mix (and now syrup) since 1921. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, Aunt Jemima mix was a product of the R.T. Davis Mill & Manufacturing Company. The company gained national prominence at the 1893 Chicago Exposition, where a real black woman named Nancy Green promoted the product. Green, from Montgomery County, Kentucky, apparently cooked more than a million pancakes at the World’s Fair. Now that’s a Spike Lee movie, eh? Apparently, Aunt Jemima was also played by a woman named Rosa Washington Wiles. Of course, Aunt Jemima is a different “aunt” than she was decades ago. She no longer has a red kerchief. Instead, she looks more the home economist teacher than mammy. You can read the official history at auntjemima.com.
- Then, there is Uncle Ben, whose trademark reads “Perfect Every Time.” Uncle Ben’s is made by Masterfoods, a subsidiary of Mars, Inc. Uncle Ben was actually a real person, a Chicago maitre d’ named Frank C. Brown. Find out more about him at unclebens.com.
- Lastly, there is the Cream of Wheat man. Today, he looks more a chef than a plantation butler, though the bow tie puts him more in the butler camp. But that’s fine. At least he is still around. Cream of Wheat was founded in 1893 in Grand Forks, South Dakota. The cereal is really a top of the wheat plant; the logo, according to the company’s website, apparently came from an old printing plate. The seminal book Symbols of America by Hal Morgan says that the image was based on a waiter at Kohlsaat’s Restaurant in Chicago. For decades, Cream of Wheat was made by Nabisco. In 2007, Nabisco sold it to B&G Foods of Parsippany, New Jersey. B&G owns some interesting legacy brands, including Accent, Polaner and Vermont Maid.
- New versions of this genre include products actually made and sold by black folks, including Sylvia’s Soul Food.
Want to look for missing brands? Visit the website mybrands.com. They have all sorts of odd brands, including Brer Rabbit Molasses. Another great resource for soul food is the Atlanta site www.AtlantaSoulFoods.com