Dining with Zora: Writer, Food Sociologist, Anthropologist

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Anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston spent time in the Caribbean in the 1930s doing field work on voodoo. She returned to Florida during the Great Depression and signed on with the “America Eats” project documenting food and folklore.

“I’ve been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots,” says author Zora Neale Hurston in a rare audio recording. As one of 200 Florida writers during the Great Depression, she wrote about American folklore and food as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Even though she had a college degree and two books under her belt, she took a pauper’s oath and signed on as a “junior editor” for the America Eats Project. She earned $37.50 every two weeks by following food to find America, but she had to sleep in her car on assignment – no hotel rooms for blacks.

Two years earlier she’d been in the Caribbean researching voodoo and writing her now-acclaimed novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In it, the main character Janie Crawford is welcomed home to Florida with a heaping plate of mulatto rice. Zora, like Janie, grew up in Florida where eating chicken and fish was all too common, according to her memoir Dust Tracks on a Road. Beef stew and apples were rare while tangerines, grapefruit, oranges and fruit preserves were abundant. Maybe that’s why Zora learned to love Caribbean flavors. In Haiti in 1937 when doing anthropology field work, she acquired a taste for jerk beef and Caribbean spicy flavors. Some scholars, however, think a serious illness resulted from her voodoo research.

Dr. Fred Opie, Professor of History and Foodways at Wellesley, Massachusetts’ Babson Zora bookCollege, argues that Zora should be remembered as a food sociologist and champion of African-American food ways. His book about Zora and food includes food stories, folklore and remedies. In a delightful Taste of the Past interview with Linda Palaccio Dr. Opie discusses Zora’s writing about food, just no hints to gumbo preferences.

So what gumbo would complement Zora’s tastes? Because Zora liked barbecue, jerk sauce, tangy fruits and relished life I know she wouldn’t let one bad taste of voodoo  get her down. Nope. She had a “jump at ‘de sun” attitude. So, a bowl of spicy beef Creole gumbo flavored with cloves, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, nutmeg and jerk sauce would create the perfect bowl to serve this American writer at my gumbo table.

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Lovers of folklore, literature and Zora Neale Hurston flock to Florida annually for a week long Zora! Festival each January in Eatonville. The event, which is in its 28th year, includes music, dance, song, literature and plenty of Caribbean food. Photo from ZoraFestival.org

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About thegumbodiaries

On the search for the perfect gumbo!
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