When we sit down in a restaurant today, we give little thought to any social impact or ramifications. That’s because we live in a world where we don’t HAVE to give it much thought. Most of us sit and eat with people of different races and cultures and the only thing we consider is the menu. We have that luxury today but it wasn’t always so.

liveanddinebThere was a time in this country’s history when eating a meal at a restaurant could be a statement of defiance, or a statement of deep-seated bias. That’s why Angela Jill Cooley’s new book, To Live and Dine in Dixie: The Evolution of Urban Food Culture in the Jim Crow South (University of Georgia Press, May 15, 2015) is so important.

Focusing on the period of the 1900s to the 1960s, Cooley tackles the concept of restaurants as “sites of political participation.” It wasn’t merely about getting a bite to eat during the Civil Rights movement; it was about a pitched battle between white supremacists and those who advocated racial equality.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 required desegregation of restaurants but leading up to that decision, the South was often at a boiling point. Cooley even traces the issue back to domestic eating practices in white southern homes, and how the historically private activity of eating and drinking launched into the public sphere.

The author, trained as a historian and lawyer, sees the issue from both sides and gives us a deep, various look at how living and dining was a catalyst for change. It’s interesting to think about, primarily because many today aren’t old enough to remember a time when restaurants were any source of social strife or conflict. You go there to order food; what difference does it make who’s sitting next to you? When we’re lighting our grills on Memorial Day, will we give any thought to who’s eating our burgers and dogs?

Probably not. Hopefully not. But it’s imperative that we never forget history, and books like Cooley’s give us a sobering glance at the battles waged in the name of equality and tolerance. The idea of a restaurant only catering to one particular type of person today is ludicrous. Do we know WHY it’s ludicrous, though?

Recommended Reading:

billofcenturybThe Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act by Clay Risen (Bloomsbury Press, 2015)

Called “the single most important piece of legislation passed by Congress in American history,” the Civil Rights Act was a turning point for our country. However, it wasn’t attained without an elongated fight and Clay Risen’s book dives into the back story. As he says, even though everyone knows that President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. are at the core of the event, there’s a much larger story behind these two men.