The shoebox lunch is a symbol of Black resilience, and in the Midwest a growing number of chefs are using these meals to keep the stories of Black Americans throughout history alive — even as the telling of that narrative continues to be challenged.
Patrick Coleman, owner of Cornbread Restaurant and Bar in Southfield began producing cardboard boxes about five years ago that prominently highlight in illustrations the many contributions of African Americans. It’s an homage to his mother and great-grandmother, who weren’t allowed to eat in train dining cars during the Jim Crow era. Instead, Coleman heard stories about the shoeboxes that his great-grandmother would fill with homemade food, ready to eat whenever hunger struck.
Coleman started in 2018 with an initial batch of 1,000 boxes that quickly sold out. In early 2020, Good Morning America featured an article about the boxes, and later that year as the nation protested the killing of George Floyd, Coleman launched a second run of boxes that laid bare the many moments in history that Black Americans endured racism and brutality.
“I think it’s really important that we keep those stories front and center. I mean, I know for me, [I] stand on [my grandma’s] shoulders,” says Coleman. “I mean, she couldn’t walk into a restaurant in the South and here I am — I own a restaurant. They are just really, really powerful stories and I just wanted to communicate that.”
The boxes produced by Cornbread have made their way to 38 states across the country and are available to anyone who calls the restaurant to place an order. One repeat customer is the James Beard Award-winning chef Erick Williams at Virtue in Chicago. At his South Side restaurant, the boxes became a fixture over the past three years during Black History Month. Starting Tuesday, February 7 through Wednesday, March 15, Virtue will offer a limited run of shoebox meals for $20 that includes fried chicken, coleslaw, and cornbread. Customers can order online using any of the third-party delivery apps.
Williams says that he was moved by the cultural significance that the boxes carry, that they provided travelers a means of self-sufficiency and dignity. Growing up in Chicago in the decades following the lynching of Chicago native Emmett Till in Mississippi, Williams says that growing up, he was not allowed to take the journey South, as was common among African Americans who’d made their way North during the Great Migration. Learning about the role that these shoeboxes played in so many of his ancestors’ journeys helped Williams feel more connected to that period of history and the sacrifices people made to get around.
The boxes feature stories, such as those detailing the use of Green Books by Black travelers trying to safely navigate the U.S.; they appear in the form of messages scrawled across the interior and exterior of the box, as well as meals prepared using Black recipes. “The boxes mean so much in this little medium,” Williams says. “It’s just a box but once you activate that box, now we’re really talking about something. Now the box has a new weight and I am very moved, inspired, and humbled to work in that space.”
The trio of Detroiters who formed Taste the Diaspora in 2021 is also turning to the shoebox lunch this year to feed the movement for Black liberation.
In years past, Taste the Diaspora sold boxed meals online and customers picked them up from different distribution sites each week throughout the city. This year, Detroiters are invited to attend a brunch on Sunday, February 26, at Freya at 2929 E. Grand Boulevard, where guests can take their meals home or stay and eat and enjoy an art exhibition showcasing local Black artists, DJ sets, and cocktails. Diners can select from two menus for $40. Meals must be purchased online in advance. A percentage of proceeds from sales will be donated to Hospitality Included’s Full Hands In, Full Hands Out — a program created by Freya general manager Thor Jones to provide opportunities and skills training to prepare young Black adults for careers in the hospitality industry.
“One of the items in the shoebox lunches is the akara,” says Taste the Diaspora co-founder Ederique Goudia, describing the West African fritters made with black-eyed peas brought to the Americas by enslaved people. “That tells the story of how some African women use akara to buy their freedom and so we’re going to pay homage to that. Food is nourishing, it’s not just nourishing yourself but really nourishing to the whole community, particularly the Black community as we have faced and continue to face oppressive structures.”
Taste the Diaspora organizers are also selling merch and are partnering with Breadless — the fast-casual, gluten-free spot just east of downtown — to produce a limited-edition sandwich made with blackened chicken and wrapped in collard greens, as well as a grain bowl all through February. As in years past, the group is also distributing meals to hundreds of households that are experiencing food insecurity and is collaborating with the City Institute for a scavenger hunt running Tuesday, February 7 through Tuesday, February 28 that highlights Black-owned food businesses throughout the city.
This year, as Americans continue to grapple with how to teach the basics of African American history in the classroom, the shoeboxes feel like especially relevant tools for educating the next generation.
“I’m one generation removed from Jim Crow, [but] we really didn’t want to present this, ‘woe is our legacy or, or woe is us’ [attitude], this was about resolve and resourcefulness, and sort of the resilience of people. This box was created to inspire the current generation,” says Coleman. “Here was a generation of people who couldn’t travel and walk into a roadside restaurant and they figured it out.”