When Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was made a federal holiday in 1983, scholar and activist Toni Tipton-Martin - then a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times - suggested to her editor that the paper run a Southern-themed menu for readers wondering how to commemorate the civil rights leader. Her editor waved off the idea, saying it was premature to assign food to a holiday when its mood was in flux.
Nearly three decades later, Americans are still struggling with what to eat on MLK Day. Various efforts to honor King by serving fried chicken and collard greens have been attacked as culturally insensitive - even when the menus were planned by African-American chefs.
"It's an indication of how far we still are from a post-racial society that people are confused about creating a Southern menu for a man from the South," says Tipton-Martin, whose commitment to linking a dish with the holiday hasn't wavered since she first pitched the concept to her editor.
Without an associated food, celebrations have a tendency to slip off the annual calendar: St. Patrick's Day would likely have far fewer followers if bars didn't pour green beer and boil corned beef. "The idea of celebrating a holiday with food is a no-brainer," Tipton-Martin says. And the perfect food for MLK Day, according to Tipton-Martin and collaborator Luanne Stovall, is pie.
Pie, Tipton-Martin points out, is the symbol of inclusivity in the pastry case. It's round, made of diverse ingredients and common to every cooking tradition. "Every culture folds ingredients in a crust," she says.
Tipton-Martin and Stovall are now spearheading Peace Through Pie, a national movement to instigate social change by serving pie on MLK Day. They're encouraging Americans everywhere to pay tribute to King's legacy by sharing a pie and conversation with a friend or stranger.
"Most people haven't thought about using food to break down barriers to have even more challenging conversations," Tipton-Martin says. But when eaters are gathered around a table, "that's when people's hearts are open."
Pie - an homage to generations of unsung women in the kitchen --can provoke more productive conversations about race than pop culture representations of the African-American experience, such as those included in The Help, Tipton-Martin says. She strongly believes The Help, which is likely to be the subject of renewed media attention when the Oscar nominations are released later this month, perverts the meaning of pie to perpetuate tired stereotypes.
"The lasting message of The Help was the woman retaliated with pie that had poop in it," Tipton-Martin says of a popular scene that harkens back to plantation fears of slave rebellion. "That's the last thing we want people thinking about African-Americans in the kitchen."
People might instead think about Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, who in 1904 sold sweet potato pies to keep Bethune Cookman College afloat. Tipton-Martin is using Bethune's recipe for the pie she's preparing for MLK Day. She'll be participating in a Pie Social, one of more than two dozen nationwide. Tipton-Martin's also appealed to the White House pastry chef to include a pie made with vegetables from the Obamas' garden on Monday's menu.
But Tipton-Martin stresses that the celebration isn't restricted to official event attendees.
"Put a pie together with your love and take it to your neighbor," she says. "With the election and the economy, it's going to be an adversarial, hard year. We're hoping to inspire people to come back to the table and know one another."