Investigating the "Church Supper"

On Sunday evenings all across North Carolina, communities come together for their local “church supper.” For decades, people in the church community have been gathering around the same tables with family recipes and food staples passed down from one generation to the next. But church suppers are more than just food—it’s a major part of the African American culinary heritage in North Carolina and one researcher is on a mission to learn more about this food culture.

Valerie Johnson, Mott Professor and Director of Africana Women's Studies at Bennett College for Women, is the latest recipient of a generous grant from the United Negro College Fund/Andrew W. Mellon Programs. The grant, which serves faculty of member institutions of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), enables faculty to conduct and collaborate on research projects at partner universities.

Johnson requested to become a summer visitor at Duke University after meeting Kerry Haynie at an annual conference. Haynie, co-director of the center on Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Social Sciences (REGSS) agreed that Johnson’s research, focusing on African Americans in North Carolina, was a fit for the center and was thrilled to be her host for the summer.

"Not only is Professor Johnson's research a fit with the center's research agenda, the purpose of the UNCF-Mellon Foundation Residency Fellowship is consistent with our core mission of broadening and adding diverse voices and perspectives to academic research. REGSS is always eager to be supportive of this goal,” said Haynie. Johnson will not teach, but rather engage in full time research.

Johnson is investigating the “church supper” as an African American foodway; an aspect of African American culture and heritage in North Carolina. She chose the subject “because it is the site of sacred-secular intersection. Black communities often coalesce around ‘the church’ no matter the denomination.” She is currently traveling to various communities around the state, conducting interviews with church members. Her goal is to identify the specific foods and menus that classify the “church supper”—what are the similarities in recipes from one church community to the next?

The “church supper” brings people together for food and fellowship, but Johnson anticipates it’s much more. She has learned that some communities focus on seniors who do not want to cook for just one person or children who usually receive free or reduced meals at school, needing food when school is out of session. Johnson wants to understand the connection between “church suppers” and the feeding of the less fortunate in the community.

Women seem to take on the main responsibility of organizing and cooking the suppers. Johnson explains that researching these suppers are more than just collecting the heritage of a community; it also relates to the role of gender, race, and socio-economic status.

Johnson is currently focusing on three areas in North Carolina: Winston Salem, Maple Hill and Texana. The communities are all Christian-based and African American with a large focus on the church and its suppers.

When asked about her project, she explained, “It’s bigger than just a summer research project. I anticipate generating numerous data sets.” Johnson predicts this research, and the wealth of data, will continue throughout her career.

During her period of residency, Johnson will present her research at an upcoming REGSS colloquium.