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Hot Sauce in Her Bag

Southern Black identity, Beyoncé, Jim Crow, and the pleasure of well-seasoned food


ive days ago, Beyoncé stepped outside of the expected pop-idol box and introduced "Formation," a song rooted in her family's mingling of Alabama and Louisiana heritage to create her, a self-described "Texas bama." The track opens with Messy Mya's distinctive voice, incorporates the iconic Big Freedia, and segues immediately into addressing some of the myths about Beyoncé, her family, and her choices. It's a track where she flips off her critics, and centers herself firmly in her heritage, right down to one of the song's most instantly iconic lines: "I got hot sauce in my bag. Swag."

Cornbread, collard greens, and hot sauce figure prominently in my childhood memories. Chitlins, ham hocks, neck bones and hog maws do too. I'm a Southern Black girl by diet, if not by birth, because the grandparents who raised me were part of the Great Migration, the exodus of millions of Black Americans out of the Jim Crow South, and into the rest of the country where, even though Jim Crow reigned, life was not as restricted as it was in the South.

Even in our food, much of America is still seg­re­gated, especially when it comes to season­ing and expectations.

Like Beyoncé's "Creole mixed with Negro," my family is a product of a journey that started during slavery, and demanded a mixing of customs and cuisines. My grandfather's family is out of Arkansas, my grandmother's roots are in Louisiana and Mississippi. They came to Chicago in search of better opportunities, and on some level they found it — but they never lost their connections to the South. And so, in the way of families passing down more than DNA, neither did I.

One of the essential things my grandparents taught me was to be polite, and politeness in Black Southern culture means that you eat whatever is served to you. You do not reject food. You absolutely do not waste food. And if you have to salt your food? Do so only after you have tasted it. Hot sauce, as essential a condiment to the Black Southern table as salt, is treated in much the same way. If your host has it, great. But it's good practice to have some in your bag just in case. The greens at the church potluck taste like water because someone forgot to make sure the right person made them? Hot sauce could make them palatable. You're visiting a white friend from the Midwest who doesn't season chicken the right way? Hot sauce helps.

I don't keep hot sauce in my bag any more, but for years I always had a little bottle of Tabasco handy. It was part childhood habit — my grandmother always kept a bottle in her cavernous bag —and part the defense against my discovery that even though hot peppers and hot sauce were regular condiments at home, not all of the people who invited me over for meals kept a bottle of hot sauce in their kitchen.

There may be white Beyoncé fans who also carry around their own personal bottles of hot sauce, but hearing her say she has hot sauce in her bag isn't a shout-out to them. She's talking to the Southern and Great Migration Black Americans listening — to them, to us, it hearkens to home. To childhoods spent at fish frys, church picnics, and visiting relatives. It's a reference to a cultural connection, one that spans the diaspora of Black American identity. You might prefer Crystal to Louisiana, you might only use it on greens that your Grandma didn't cook, you might rely on someone else having it, but you definitely used hot sauce. You definitely grew up seeing it used by the people that raised you, the people who gave you a sense of your roots, no matter where you were in America.

It goes deeper than that, though. Before, during and after the Great Migration, it wasn't uncommon for Black families to be splintered by distance, by danger, by the sad reality that it often wasn't safe to travel. Families moving from the South throughout America might not be able to take everything with them, but they could take their culinary traditions. They could have a taste of home on their plates even if they could never go back again.

They could have a taste of home on their plates, even if they could never go back again.

For many, something as mundane as the way a pot of greens was prepared would set the tone for connecting not only with relatives, but also with new neighbors. When my grandparents separately arrived in Chicago, they lived in the city's Black Belt. They met there, raised their children there, and even though they came from two different experiences of being Black in the South, they found a common ground through food. My grandfather's habit of biting into an onion while he ate his greens might have annoyed my grandmother, but they loved the same cornbread recipes. They never did agree on their respective favorite hot sauces, but some was better than none, and it wasn't difficult for them to share the same bottle when they traveled — the one that lived in my grandmother's bag. Swag.

But there's another, much uglier reason that carrying your own condiments became a major part of Black American culture. While Jim Crow laws, extensively documented in print and historical record, are fairly well known, less well known are the unspoken etiquette rules for Black people, largely forgotten by anyone who didn't have to live under them.

During Jim Crow, Black people could pick up food at establishments that served white people, but they often could not eat in them. When custom demanded that Black people be served separately from whites, they were often required to have their own utensils, serving dishes, and condiments. So it was customary for Black families who were traveling to carry everything they might possibly need so that (with the help of the Green Book, the guide that helped Black travelers eat, sleep, and move as safely as possible) they could navigate America in relative comfort.

The lyric is a reference to a cultural con­nec­tion, one that spans the diaspora of Black American identity.

It's easy to think that there's no longer a need to preserve these customs. In theory, American culture has progressed to a place of being, if not post-racial, then at least racially aware. But the impact of "Formation" proves otherwise. Consider the imagery that surrounds Beyoncé's words about her family and her origins. Intermingled with images of little girls playing, a church service, and the day to day fabric of Black life, there are homes sinking under the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. There is a dancing child facing down a line of heavily armed police officers, the words Stop Killing Us spray painted on a wall, and a police car sinking under the flood waters with Beyoncé on top of it.

Jim Crow is over, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was treated shamefully by the very government that was supposed to be there for the residents in case of a disaster. Jim Crow is over, but police negligence and brutality is killing Black children for playing in parks. Is the video overtly political? Absolutely. And Beyoncé is committed to keeping the song political even without the video: at the Super Bowl, her dancers dressed in attire reminiscent of the 1970's Black liberation movement, wearing natural hair and Black Panther berets. In a society where people vocally take offense to the statement that Black Lives Matter, Beyoncé telling us she has hot sauce in her bag isn't just a line about how she likes her food. It's a relic, and a reference, and a reminder. The Jim Crow mindset isn't wholly in the past.

Neither the song nor the video for "Formation" is anti-police or anti-American. They are instead a look at what life is like in this country when your culture — in this case, Black culture — isn't the one considered mainstream. The politics of race in American culture play out in every aspect of life, from bearing the risks of police misconduct and brutality, to the way people eat their dinner. Even in our food, much of America is still segregated, especially when it comes to seasoning and expectations. It's not uncommon for Black Americans to joke that white cuisines here are seasoned with water and not much else.

At a recent weekend-long event, I kicked myself for giving up the habit of carrying hot sauce in my bag. Every meal was provided to our group, but none had seen salt, pepper, or garlic in any meaningful way. The event's organizers had made noises about wanting to increase the diversity of its attendees, but apparently no one involved had considered the diversity of cultural expectations of how food should be treated. Food may just be fuel for some people, but for many marginalized communities, it represents community, connections, a way of expressing your culture in public without care or concern for how it might be received by those who do not share it. And for communities that have struggled to have the right to eat in peace in public or in private, it can mean even more.

Beyoncé telling us she has hot sauce in her bag isn't just a line about how she likes her food. It's a relic, and a reminder.

Although Beyoncé and her family are far from any sort of economic place where access to food is a concern (and it would be a very foolish restaurant that would turn Mr. and Mrs. Carter away), she's still a product of her family and her history. The flavor profiles of her youth are likely very different from those she might encounter as she travels. Her cultural heritage as a Southern Black woman dictates both that she eat what she is served, and that she be prepared for anything.

Some of the less favorable reactions to her hot sauce lyric have hinged on the idea that she's playing to stereotypes, instead of presenting a nuanced reality. Because our food culture is frequently presented negatively, it's easy to think that a racist overlay has erased the very real joy we find in our cuisine, or to assume that we reject our roots because they have been rejected by outsiders. Hot sauce in your bag may not be part of a culinary history shared by all her fans, but it is absolutely woven into the fabric of America.

This country likes to paint itself as a melting pot, a nation of immigrants that have come together into a shared culture. In reality, we are more a flawed tapestry: a nation of indigenous, enslaved, and immigrant populations, intersecting and interweaving but still retaining the integrity of our origins. That is never clearer than in our culinary customs. Yes, derogatory stereotypes have been built around the traditional foods of Black American cultures, but that doesn't mean we should give them up. Our traditions may have been forged in the wake of crimes against humanity, may reflect norms developed when American culture was less racially aware, but that does not mean that they have no value, or that we should attempt to do away with them to fit into the narratives of the American dream.

We have crafted our own traditions on a bedrock that may not resemble the stories of other communities, but they are no less valuable, no less important to making up the identity of this society. Assimilation isn't necessarily something to aspire to in general, much less so when the price of it includes going without the comfort of well-seasoned food. There's nothing wrong with a diet that spans watermelon, cornbread, collards, or hot sauce — kept on the table, or carried in a bag.

So too can Beyoncé's fans find common ground in their love of her music, even though they may not share her experience or heritage. Her hot sauce might be your mustard, your salsa, your sofrito, your soy sauce, or something else entirely. Either way, hot sauce is as integral to her cultural heritage as your traditions are to yours, even if it isn't something that you've had to carry with you in the same way. Beyoncé celebrates a very specific aspect of Black American culture with her references to soul food, to hot sauce, to the idea that now, fifty years after Jim Crow, we still need Black liberation movements to save Black Lives.

Mikki Kendall is a writer, wife, mother, and wielder of baked goods as bribes. She has written for the Guardian, Washington Post, Ebony, Essence, Time, Salon, Islamic Monthly, and others. She lives in Chicago and believes in the power of butter, bourbon, and bacon.
Header illustration: Patrick Thicklin
Gifs and stills: Beyoncé via YouTube
Editor: Helen Rosner

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