In The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899, W. E. B. Du Bois examined the problem African American workers faced in finding meaningful work. As the following essay and primary documents demonstrate, work with food was central to black labor. Du Bois lauded the success of a small class of black caterers even as he decried the confinement of the vast majority of African Americans to domestic work, which Du Bois viewed as menial labor. But Du Bois's view of African American food work was grounded in middle-class Progressive understandings of labor, skill, and the gendered value of work. Systemic racism confined African American women to poorly paid and often exploitive domestic work, but cooking in private homes was hardly menial labor. Even in domestic work, which placed its workers on the margins of respectable and remunerative labor, food expertise gave workers relative power.

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