Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Taste in Food Shows Us Who He Was

Sunday suppers at home and simple meals in restaurants give insight into the man behind the speeches.



There’s a photo collection of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his family in 1964 that remains etched into my mind. In one image, a young King family sits at the table for Sunday dinner. Teal wallpaper flecked with bunches of tiny white flowers lines the dining room, while a photo of Mahatma Gandhi placed as an anchor right above King’s head.

Famed photographer Flip Schulke shot the images, some of the more than thousands of photos he took of King during his lifetime. In some frames, we see King reaching across the table, the plates holding chicken and greens teetering among his hands like a fragile trapeze. A gravy boat stands solitary among a maze of plates, clasped hands praying, cups filled with milk, a bread basket and napkins. And in others, King is staring at some unknown fixture in the room, lost in thought, still holding a fork or clinging to a corner of his dinner plate, encircled in hunger.

For all the larger-than-life depictions and stories of an activist, skilled organizer, staunch anti-capitalist and orator who could both make you feel and think, there were some moments of his life away from the noise of the world where he felt free to relax — while eating.

Frederick Douglass Opie, Ph.D, the Baldwin Richardson food chair of Babson College, has dedicated significant parts of his scholarship to understanding King through the lens of food.

“When you hear Dr. King, he has this wonderful mixture of erudite and really well-developed vocabulary,” Opie said. “But he also has the ability to make it plain. I think it’s the same with his cuisine. You could take him to a white tablecloth restaurant. But you could also take him to the around the way restaurant and he would be just as comfortable with the food as the other customers in the restaurant.”

Through the years, in my own sojourns to explore Black memory and Black history in the South, as I’ve heard whispers about King and his food tastes, I’ve thought about all those photos of him. Restaurant owners mention King as an aside to their menu and connections to the Civil Rights Movement — in Memphis, Montgomery, Atlanta, New Orleans, even Chicago.

King was a man who ate as freely and voraciously as he studied, prayed, and hoped for a better world. His tastes, in some respects, reflect where he was from: a preacher from Georgia who was the son of a preacher also from Georgia. A Black Southern man rooted in the Black Southern Baptist church.

His favorites included pig feet, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread with a slight touch of sweetness, pecan pie, peach cobbler, and quilly — a cool, sweet, gelatin-based dessert. He was a traditionalist, you could say. Or someone who reached for familiar foods as a form of nourishment, comfort and replenishment when depleted and weary from the weight of the world.

King “was one of the few Southern African Americans at that time in history that had a doctoral degree,” Opie says. “I guess you could say that he is Southern aristocracy in terms of his pedigree, his preparation and his father. But if you look at his food, he is a child of the South and has a working class palate.”

As I’ve eaten and learned more about the history throughout the South, haphazardly encountering the ghosts of King’s eating habits and practices — as he huddled around a table either surrounded by friends, loved ones, advisors, strategizing or laughing — confirms Opie’s theory.

During a trip to Montgomery years ago, my lingering curiosity prompted me to get to know King through the food he ate during his short life. Chris’ Hotdogs in downtown Montgomery was one of the places King often visited to get a hot dog smothered in their signature chili sauce, mustard, onions and sauerkraut, as he preached at Dexter Avenue (King Memorial) Baptist Church only a few blocks away. Greek immigrant Christopher Anastasios Katechis opened his restaurant in 1917 and prided himself on being kind to Black customers, who could only walk in through the front door to place their orders; they could not dine there due to Jim Crow laws.

In New Orleans, I wanted to visit Dooky Chase’s Restaurant after hearing about Creole chef Leah Chase from a distance and becoming enthralled by the legacy she built while still alive. Her restaurant, located in the historically Black neighborhood of Treme, was often a gathering space for civil rights leaders and organizers during the 1950s and 60s. King could be found tucked upstairs in a private meeting room feasting on ribs or a cup of gumbo while in town either galvanizing local leaders in the fight for economic and racial equality or strategizing with Freedom Riders.

And of course, back in Atlanta, my hometown, Paschal’s was King’s go-to for eating hia favorite Southern dishes while discussing pressing matters. Brothers James and Robert Paschal opened what was originally a lunch counter selling sandwiches and sodas in 1947. A decade later, they opened the first location of their restaurant on Hunter Avenue. King loved the vegetable soup there, among other things.

There’s also the soul food spot The Busy Bee, close enough to where King attended Morehouse and arguably has the best fried chicken in the city. In a front corner booth, on the right side of the restaurant once you enter, is where King used to sit when he dined there.

I found that eating and following his tastes is as central to understanding him as a human and a thinker as his ideologies for the liberation of Black people and the poor. For King, eating was sustenance but also importantly, a time to pause, to take a reprieve, to be still, to connect with the most primal, urgent needs of his body. To experience pleasure while ensconced in the pain of racism’s brutalities.

He was a simple man in some unexpected ways. A Black man from the South who liked what he liked and ate it because he did. And while he remained committed to his roots as his profile grew, it’s clear his version of America is not one thing. It is one where no matter in the world he was, he could reach for his tastes and for a moment, be fulfilled.

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