Patrick Coleman is packing a piece of history into the meals served at his soul food restaurant Beans & Cornbread. Throughout Black History Month, the Detroit-based bistro will offer “shoebox lunches” similar to the boxes African Americans used to store food when traveling in the south during the Jim Crow-era. Because they were banned and refused service in white-owned establishments, they resorted to cooking and packing their own meals in shoeboxes.
“You get on the highway these days and you can stop at any restaurant along the interstate, but back during Jim Crow, [black] folks couldn’t do that,” he told BLACK ENTERPRISE. “You could not go into the dining cars if you were on the train or pull over to a Denny’s or a Cracker Barrel and walk in…you could potentially end up getting killed.”
“Lunch and Learn”
Coleman, who opened Beans & Cornbread in 1997 in Southfield, a northern suburb of Detroit, says the “shoebox lunches” were inspired by the stories his mother and grandmother told him about taking trips in the segregated south. “They would get into this nice train up north in Detroit and once they hit the Mason Dixon [line], they had to get on the old, coal-powered train where soot was coming in the windows,” he said. That’s when “someone would open up a bag and the shoeboxes would come out because they could not go into the dining cars.” He added, “I’m just one generation removed from that.”
Coleman launched his “shoebox lunch” idea last February, which was a hit. “The shoeboxes were extremely popular last year,” said Coleman. The idea was so successful that he added a “shoebox lunch” to the Beans & Cornbread lunch menu back in November, which consists of southern fried wings in a decorative box commemorating black history. The box also pays tribute to African American trailblazers and includes information about Freedom Riders and the Green Book, a guide that instructed black travelers on where to find safe havens throughout the deeply-segregated ’60s South. “It’s a history lesson [that] we call ‘lunch and learn.’”
Starting next month, Coleman will expand the “shoebox lunch” meal to include a variety of traditional soul food dishes like fried chicken and cornbread, southern fried catfish strips, and their signature Harlem burrito. The “History in a Box” meals will run for $11, while the keepsake boxes will be sold for $3 each.
According to Coleman, it’s crucial to keep black history alive. “It’s important that a younger generation understand the strength and determination that their forebears had to persevere through what we now consider normal day-to-day living,” he told BE. “Despite the indignities of the era, black Americans found a way through resourcefulness as well as resolve to ensure that they could travel and sustain themselves.”
A portion of proceeds goes to Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation’s youth education programs.