Father Divine, Conspicuous Consumption, and Racial Harmony

During the Great Depression, “Father Divine” urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking and a shared banquet table.

In American culture, ideals of health and prosperity have long been intertwined with food. At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was the ability to eat what one wanted and when that defined an American family’s assent into the growing middle class. It was no accident that during the 1930s a man appeared offering salvation through the act of eating.

George Baker, Jr., or “Father Divine”, professed himself to be God incarnate. He urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message successfully crossed racial barriers because he appealed to cultural traditions common to all Americans, traditions like conspicuous consumption, Charismatic Christianity, and the Protestant work ethic.

As historian Jill Watts eloquently put it, he “provided a theology that promised a better life and a brighter future to anyone, regardless of economic status. Father Divine personified the Horatio Alger myth, and his success proved that even for blacks, America was a land of opportunity.”[1] Food, a symbol of prosperity, was the unifying commodity he used to actualize that myth.

The ready availability of food, dolled out by his hands, literally demonstrated that he could give his followers a piece of the American pie. He consciously used the act of sharing food between peoples―a long tradition in American history―to realize his dream of racial harmony. “I have a-plenty to eat, to drink and to wear, and I have plenty of automobiles to ride in; comfort and convenience for you and ME!” was a common boast, and promise, from Father Divine.[2]

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Father Divine: The Man Who Called Himself God

At a time when scarcity affected millions, one eccentric preacher offered men and women a taste of the American dream.

During the 1930s, a man appeared in America offering salvation through the simple act of eating. “Father Divine”, professing himself to be God incarnate, urged his followers to transcend race and poverty through the power of positive thinking. His message crossed racial lines because he appealed to shared traditions in American culture. This eccentric preacher offered Americans, both black and white, rich and poor, hope that racial unity and personal perfection could be achieved through the union of religion and the dinner table.

Father Divine began life as George Baker, Jr. in the border state of Maryland less than fifteen years after the Civil War. His mother, Nancy, had been born a slave in the 1840s. Two Catholic masters owned her over the course of her life, Lemuel Clemens and Henry B. Waring. Both required that she attend the Catholic churches they had erected on their respective properties.

In 1864, when Maryland outlawed slavery, Nancy went into service as a maid and already had two daughters by unknown persons. She married a man named George Baker in the 1870s and the two moved into a ghetto outside of Rockville, Maryland known as ‘Monkey Run.’ George Baker, Jr. was born shortly after, in May 1879.[1] Nancy and her family attended Rockville’s Jerusalem Methodist Church, a separatist branch, where, according to historian Jill Watts, “inevitably, the intense spirituality and religious dedication of the African-American community left a deep impression on George.”[2]

His mother died when he was a young man. She was five feet tall and weighed four hundred and eighty pounds. A coffin had to be built inside their house and could only be removed after the doorway had been hastily expanded. Historian R. Marie Griffith theorized that Nancy’s extreme size, acquired after moving to Monkey Run, was a response to the oppressive conditions of slavery she had experienced as a young woman.

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EIU Memories: Jackson Avenue Coffee

Students at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois always had a variety of choices when it came to getting their caffeine fix. I was no stranger to Java B&B in the MLK Student Union (I still can’t find a better scone…). There was Jitters & Bliss, and even Common Grounds for those students adventurous enough to drive to nearby Mattoon. When it came to local coffee shops, however, nothing beat the JAC.

Daily Eastern News hypes the opening of Jackson Ave Coffee in their April 25, 2002 issue.

Jackson Avenue Coffee, at 708 Jackson Avenue just off Charleston’s town square, was the brainchild of EIU alumni Ryan and Dulcy Dawson. They spent several months renovating the space before opening on Friday, April 26, 2002. Their intention was to create a friendly and relaxed environment where students could study and stay as long as they wanted. It was a fixture for students and local residents alike, and for at least one summer, was like my second home.

JAC was divided into two rooms, the front for the main coffee shop, and the back where patrons could play board games and where meetings and live events were held. Local artists displayed their artwork on the walls for sale on a rotational basis, and a few tables even doubled as chess and checkers boards. It was a fun, lively environment that became a showcase for Charleston’s creative community.

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EIU Memories: Chubby’s Pizza

As a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, there was only one place to go after coming home from the bar at 2 am. You wanted something cheap and greasy, and Chubby’s had just what the doctor ordered. Though I wasn’t much for the bar scene, I ate my fair share of Chubby’s over the years. It was the largest pizza in Charleston for the best price, and just a short walk from campus.

Leon and Lisa Hall opened a Topper’s Pizza in the Midtown Plaza strip mall at 215 Lincoln Avenue in 1995. Topper’s is a restaurant chain founded by Scott Gittrich in Champaign, Illinois in 1991, but Leon and Lisa found themselves alone after the original location closed. After three years, the couple felt they weren’t benefiting from the franchise, so they decided to go their own way and rebranded as Chubby’s Pizza.

They kept the same menu but were able to lower prices because they were no longer paying franchise fees. “The Topper”, a 20-inch pizza with 12 toppings, became “The Big Chubby.” Why the name Chubby’s? Leon told the Daily Eastern News, “I’ve put on a few pounds since I’ve owned the place.”

Ad for Topper’s in the Daily Eastern News, c. 1998. Topper’s became Chubby’s that year.
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Is Cauliflower Racist?

Culinary partisans can relax; there’s nothing offensive about eating ‘non-native’ foods.

In the latest Bizarro-World controversy, political partisans have taken to the internet to fight over – cauliflower? Yes, really. This bland and ubiquitous vegetable has become the latest front in the Culture Wars, with freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) even claiming ‘people of color’ have a hard time gardening because cauliflower is a colonialist vegetable.

Many people love cauliflower because it’s high in fiber and vitamins and low in calories. I dislike it for the same reason I dislike vanilla ice cream and plain waffles–I need flavor in my life! But because AOC has become clickbait and her name buries every other search result, I haven’t been able to determine where these anti-cauliflower sentiments come from. Is it actually something argued by fringe identitarians, or did AOC just make it up to grab headlines?

In the dumbest video she’s uploaded since pretending to not know what a garbage disposal is, she said:

“But when you really think about it — when someone says that it’s ‘too hard’ to do a green space that grows Yucca instead of, I don’t know, cauliflower or something — what you’re doing is you’re taking a colonial approach to environmentalism. That is why a lot of communities of color get resistant to certain environmentalist movements because they come with the colonial lens on them.”

Essentially, she’s arguing that South and Central Americans living in the Bronx have been brainwashed into growing European foods, rather than something native to hot, dry regions like the Yucca plant. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why it’s easier to grow cauliflower in New York than a desert plant like Yucca. Yucca thrives in a completely different climate.

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Oma’s Beer Soup

After many years of searching, I think I finally duplicated my grandma’s old home recipe.

My paternal grandparents, Albert and Marie Kleen, lived in Park Ridge, Illinois when I was a kid. Both came from German families. My grandma emigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1930s, and my grandpa’s family came here in the late 1890s. We called them ‘Opa’ and ‘Oma’, which is German for ‘grandpa’ and ‘grandma’.

Like many of her generation, Oma often cooked at home, and preferred the food she grew up with. I remember dinners of schnitzel and spaetzle. One item that stands out in my mind, however, was beer soup. I’ve eaten beer cheese soup at restaurants, but none came close to what I remember.

From what I recall, Oma used some kind of cheap beer, milk, sugar, and raisins. Definitely no cheese. The soup was white and frothy, and the raisins would swell up while being cooked.

After years of searching, I finally found a similar recipe. Although Oma was from western Germany (Cologne, specifically), her recipe closely resembles Sorbian Beer Soup. Sorbs are a Slavic people who live in eastern Germany and western Poland. I found this recipe online:

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Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, Home of Chicken Wings

There are a lot of dimly lit bars filled with eclectic knickknacks across the country, but only one can claim to be the birthplace of a wildly popular finger food. The Anchor Bar, 1047 Main Street in Buffalo, New York, is where in 1964 Teressa Bellissimo unwittingly invented Buffalo chicken wings. She whipped them up as a quick snack for her son’s friends, and they caught on.

I’ve loved chicken wings for years, and always wanted to try where they first began. I finally got that opportunity in a recent trip to Buffalo. The wings were dry and well done, great for dipping. They’re served with a wooden bowl to discard the bones. I washed them down with a beer, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. If you’re ever in western New York, I’d recommend checking it out.