Cream of Wheat (2)

image

62. In our last post, we focused on the Cream of Wheat chef as “Rastus,” and all that name embodies in American social history. But there’s another dimension we left untouched.

In the advertising artwork of the 1910s and 1920s, sometimes the Chef was presented as a hotel chef, working in the “Cream of Wheat Inn.” But more often, the Chef was presented not as a “chef” per se, but as a combination of household cook and waiter, sometimes preposterously so, as in this 1911 ad:

image

Why are these people dressed like that? Those costumes look more 1811 than 1911.

On at least one occasion, as seen in the 1909 ad below, the Chef was not only the cook but also the railroad dining car porter, so that two classic stereotypes are fused into one. Of course, stereotypes are usually rooted in some grain of truth, and in 1909, cooking and railroad work were two of the comparatively few non-farming occupations that were generally open to African American men. We’re still struck, of course, by the clumsiness of trying to jam both stereotypes into the same scene:

image

Frequently, the Chef was shown serving children. And do we even need to say it: serving the white children, such as in this 1918 ad:

image

In general, such ads convey the idea that Cream of Wheat, via its Chef, should be part of your family’s daily routine. In a number of ads, the Chef is feeding the children, or interacting with the children playing in his kitchen.

At times, the Chef seems to be not just the family cook but something of a male nanny as well.

image

In this 1908 ad, the Chef stands side by side with a white child’s “mammy.”

Sometimes, Cream of Wheat’s artists crossed a line from benign to the malicious, and dipped into blatantly offensive “Rastus” stereotypes, as we saw in part 1. But for the most part, the stereotypes were milder: the Chef is part of your family, and, gosh darnit, the kids just love him. One of the good ones.

Yet in terms of representation, the milder stereotypes are just as devastating. For many years, the product’s social message was clear: black America exists to serve white America. Slavery may have officially ended with the Civil War, but in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were still seen as the servant class: the cooks, the waiters, the porters, the nannies. In the south by law and in the north by custom, that was the status quo that white America fought to maintain through segregation, restriction, and marketplace manipulation: This is where you may live, work, eat, drink water, go to the bathroom, and sleep when you travel. This is where you may send your kids to school, and here are the low-paying jobs they may inherit when they grow up….

At least Cream of Wheat gave their Chef a genuinely human face, and so I suppose we should view this as a baby-step forward in representation. They didn’t dip into the Zip-Coon, half-man half-ape grotesquery that permeated so much advertising, and persisted in some areas into the 1950s. The Chef may be your personal servant, but at least he’s a man and not a cartoon.

The Cream of Wheat guy was modeled on a real chef. The company has always said that in about 1900, it paid $5 for a photo of a real chef in Chicago.

It is believed that the real-life chef was Frank L. White, who lived the latter part of his life in Leslie, Michigan. A few years ago, a researcher, Jesse Lasorda, put the story together. White was born in 1867 in Barbados, and came to the U.S. as a child, in 1875. He was later naturalized as a citizen. This is reflected in the 1930 Census and the Michigan record of his second marriage, late in life.

It appears that White, like many chefs, moved around a lot. But after World War I, he settled in central Michigan, working as a chef at the Holly House in nearby Mason, south of Lansing. It is said that he was famous in the area for his “Maryland” chicken. By the time of the 1930 Census, he had retired from cooking. Nonetheless, when he died in 1938, the local newspaper identified him as the Cream of Wheat guy. A few years ago, a public campaign raised enough money to put a marker on his grave, which bears his famous image.

image

So what’s the moral of the story? Whether White was the real Cream of Wheat guy or not, when we see that face in the cereal aisle, his story is the one we ought to remember and celebrate: A Bajan comes to America, works hard, is respected by the community for that work, and is remembered in the local paper when he dies. Aristotle would call that a good life.

Advertisements

Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s