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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

James Weldon Johnson’s foodie life

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Tom Kates
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Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie sheds light on the role food played in the life of another Harlem Renaissance-era Floridian, James Weldon Johnson.

Dr. Opie sheds light on the role food played in the life of another Harlem Renaissance-era Floridian, James Weldon Johnson.

Listen to the episode

In season 3 of The Zest, we spoke with Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie about his book Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food. In this week’s episode, Dr. Opie is back to shed light on the role food played in the life of another Harlem Renaissance-era Floridian, James Weldon Johnson.

The Jacksonville native lived from 1871 to 1938. Johnson was a lawyer (the first African-American to pass the Florida bar exam), diplomat, civil rights activist and writer. Among his best-known works are the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man and the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” for which his brother John Rosamond Johnson composed music. Today the song is regarded as known as the Black National Anthem. Dr. Opie chatted with The Zest about what food can teach us about the life and times of the late James Weldon Johnson.

The first mention of food comes in Johnson’s nonfiction autobiography. After graduating from an elite prep school in Jacksonville, Johnson took a train to Atlanta University, where he furthered his studies. For the journey, his mother, Helen Louise Dillet, packed Johnson’s lunch in a shoebox, as was customary at the time. The fixin’s would have included fried chicken, a hard-boiled egg, a slice of cake and celery or carrot sticks.

“You did that so your child would eat without having to endure the indignities” of buying food at the train depot,” Opie says of the Jim Crow South. “It would’ve been humiliating the way they treated you. So to avoid that, people who loved you would pack these shoeboxes.”

Food remained a theme throughout Johnson’s life. His palate expanded during his tenure as a diplomat in Central America, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

To honor Johnson’s memory, Opie suggests enjoying a meal based on Johnson’s time in Panama: tamales, rice and beans, Caribbean-style patties, a coconut guava smoothie and a slice of pecan pie.

“Now, if that doesn’t make you salivate,” Opie says, “you need to go talk to your doctor.”

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