It’s been a while. My dissertation has been keeping me from blogging. Or blogging has been keeping me from my dissertation. Not sure. Either way. Here I am.
A few weeks ago some friends of mine were on a road trip to Myrtle Beach when they came upon Mammy’s Kitchen. Today it looks like this.
But when it was founded in 1953, a visit to Mammy’s would have looked something like this:
I hope you realize by now that I cannot possibly make any of this up. I can also not make up the fact that Mammy’s Kitchen is wildly popular.
The restaurant’s website explains that the original image was of Aunt Jemima, but this was, of course, a violation of copyright laws so they were forced to change it. Side note: I will never get used to the idea that you can copyright a person. An actual person. Without having to pay her anything.
But, as usual, I digress. I cannot imagine calling up my friend and saying, “Hey girl! Are you hungry? Let’s go over to Mammy’s and get something to eat.” In 2015.
This is supposed to be some kind of historical relic. The kind historians like me collect. Like this one:
This is an original Jolly Nigger Bank. Made in the 19th century. The kind that they stopped making in the 1950s, about the same time that Mammy’s was opened. Notice how curiously I am looking at it. It is something to be remembered, placed in its proper historical context, and studied.
No one should be eating at a place called Mammy’s Kitchen in 2015. Well no one should eat at a place called Mammy’s ever…but now it sticks out like some clever metaphor for illustrating absurdity that I am not witty enough to know.
Unsurprisingly the restaurant’s web designer or public relations person or underpaid intern seems unfazed by the restaurant’s bizarre and overtly racist history and present. They even boast that couples have met and married at Mammy’s Kitchen. Um…what?
What baffles me is that there is no conceivable reason why this restaurant should be called Mammy’s Kitchen. It is an unremarkable menu of run of the mill southern staples. It’s almost as though the idea of mammy preparing the food automatically makes it taste better. I will never be as good a cook as my mother but maybe a headscarf and blackface could change all that.
But seriously, what lies behind this ridiculous restaurant is the assumed natural servitude of black women. Many restaurants market themselves as a replacement for home cooking, exemplified by both the menu and the ambiance. Think Cracker Barrel. A place that has managed to capitalize on kitschy Americana without the blatant racism. (At least in their imagery. Not so much as far as their politics are concerned.)
At mammy’s kitchen, however, “just like home” means a happy darky making those soul food specialties for white consumption. I can assure you, I have read hundreds of interviews with domestic workers, and talked to dozens more in person, and not a single one has ever expressed joy when describing the laborious process of cooking for a family that is not their own. In fact, most of their descriptions were far more…colorful.
If my dissertation were a more creative piece of ambitious prose I would dare to say that there is nothing more American than mammy. She is the center of Americana, right alongside racism, capitalism, baseball, and apple pie. But I promised myself that mammy would never grace the pages of my academic writing. That space is reserved for the real women who labored in America’s kitchens; women like my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. So mammy (and her kitchen) remain here, on the cutting room floor.
Note: One half of the aforementioned road trip that brought Mammy’s Kitchen to my attention is a long time friend from college who also blogs over at evolvingfatshionista.com. If you like comic books, or beauty, or fashion, or witty writing about the woes of retail and happen to be the size of of a human being instead of an American Apparel model, check her out!