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Black Catholic writer Marcia Chatelain wins James Beard Award for "Franchise" book

A scholar of race and religion from Georgetown University has won a top award for writing on food, following a Pulitzer win for the same book last year.

(Marcia Chatelain)

Professor Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown University has been awarded the James Beard Award for Writing, the latest in a slew of honors for her 2020 book “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America”. A Haitian American, she is the first Black woman to win in the category’s history.

The news of the award was announced by the James Beard Foundation during its annual livestreamed ceremony on June 11th.

“I’m incredibly honored and privileged to receive such recognition,” Chatelain said in a university statement.

“My goal with Franchise was to add nuance and history to our current conversations about race, health and injustice, and to add a new dimension to civil rights history by thinking about the role of business in imagining a racially just future.”

The book covers the history of McDonald’s restaurants in the Black community since the mid-1960s, tracing a history of protest, collaboration, wealth-building, and entrepreneurship.

“Part of what I was most interested in was the social aspect of the fast-food restaurant as a place where people gather, as a source of underwriting for youth sports, for different activities, for the community, a place for people to access wifi and for senior citizens to hang out,” Chatelain said.

“Franchise” won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2021 and was named one of the New York Times’ Top Books of 2020. The James Beard Foundation, best known for honoring restaurants and chefs, announced its nomination of the book in April of this year.

The James Beard Awards are voted on by culinary professionals from around the country, including previous winners, and were originally established in 1990 as a continuation of honors previously given by the now-defunct magazine Cook.

The foundation announced in 2018 that nominees would thereafter include a focus on race and injustice, including in the Writing category. Two of the three nominees this year reflected that focus, including Chatelain’s work.

“When we talk about fast food, we have to understand that the relationships people form with it are much bigger than the food that they provide,” she said.

“I love the way that food can bring people together, and how it can be used as a lens to explore so many dimensions of the human experience.”

An alumna of Brown University and a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, Chatelain serves as a professor of history and African-American studies and first gained national fame in 2014 for her creation of the digital #FergusonSyllabus in response to the killing of Michael Brown that year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Her first book, “South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration” was published the next year, focusing on early 20th century Chicago from the perspective of Black girls. A Catholic, Chatelain has also been featured in America magazine and as a speaker for Catholic Women Preach.

She is just the second Black woman to ever win a James Beard book award for a category outside of cookbooks, following Toni Tipton-Martin’s win for Reference and Scholarship in 2016.

Following the news of her latest honor, Chatelain revealed on social media that she is under contract with Pantheon Books to produce three more history books in the coming years.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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