A Problematic Blend of Flavor?

By Sundiata Addison

At Stronghearts Café, seemingly innocuous or quirky flavors can send out the wrong message.

Stronghearts Café is located within Marshall Square Mall. Photo by Saniya More.

About a month ago, I decided to take up the exciting change in lifestyle that is veganism. It was not for any moral or ethical reason; I made the choice simply because my self-proclaimed vegan friend told me I wouldn’t be able to do it. Naturally, I took her up on this challenge.

Through my food journey, I discovered that there aren’t many truly delicious vegan options on campus or in the city at all. So my go-to vegan restaurant became Stronghearts on The Hill Cafe. Stronghearts is located in Marshall Square Mall, and they also have a location in downtown Syracuse. They offer a wide assortment of vegan options which are surprisingly appetizing. They make tofu taste like chicken, something I never thought I would say.

I strolled into Stronghearts one evening between classes and ordered my usual: the Texas Tofu wrap. As I waited for my meal, I noticed their milkshake selection. To someone who is lactose-intolerant, nothing sounded better than a cold milkless shake on a hot Syracuse day.

 Milkshake menu at the Stronghearts Café. Photo by Saniya More.

Milkshake menu at the Stronghearts Café. Photo by Saniya More.

I looked more closely at this list of shakes, trying to decide which one I wanted to order. The first one that stood out to me was the “Martin Luther King” milkshake, which was mocha-flavored. This struck me as somewhat odd, but I figured it was just an homage to a great Civil Rights leader, and the flavor just happened to be in the chocolate family. The next one that stood out to me was the “Malcolm X” shake, which was made of chocolate and cherry flavoring. “Odd”, I thought to myself as yet another black Civil Rights leader was represented in a chocolate-flavored drink. There was also the Nelson Mandela shake, which was just straight up chocolate flavored.

As I looked through the list, I kept seeing more chocolate-based drinks named after black people. There was Fred Hampton, another prominent Civil Rights leader and chairman of the Black Panthers; chocolate and oreo. Nat Turner, who led one of the biggest slave rebellions in 1831; chocolate and banana flavored. Muhammad Ali; coffee espresso.  

One could say these are just coincidences and there are simply many chocolate-based flavors on their menu. However, they have milkshakes named after many non-black figures whose flavors are extremely “diverse”: such as Edward Abbey; pineapple, Carl Sagan; raspberry, Bobby Sands; mint chocolate chip. This chocolate flavor to black skin color correlation was much too consistent for me not to question the intent behind it. Why couldn’t a Martin Luther King drink be vanilla or raspberry-flavored?

It is evident to me that there is a race to flavor correlation and although the intent to highlight important historical figures is clear, in many ways this tribute is problematic. In attempts to gain other perspectives on the matter, I asked several of my black and non-black friends what their thoughts were. They all shared a similar perspective and found it quite strange.

With both of Stronghearts owners being white men, it is important to evaluate the accuracy and intent behind these representations of several icons of black history. Black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, from racial objectification and dehumanization centered around the color of their skin. Comparing someone’s skin color to a flavor, can often be quite offensive, especially when many refer to black people as “dark chocolate” and “caramel” depending on the person’s skin tone they’re addressing. I reached out to the owners in an attempt to find out more information on their thought process behind naming these drinks, but they did not respond.

As a child I experienced this type of name calling at a very young age, when children did not understand the racial implications of their words. I remember my third grade classmates saying if they ate chocolate ice cream they would look like me, so they stuck to vanilla. I remember being called “burnt toast” and “brownie”, and feeling like an outcast in my class of all white children. This name calling due to the color of my skin, stuck to my self-conscious for years and people of color continue to face similar microaggressions that can have a severe impact on one’s self-esteem.

Yes, naming milkshakes after important historical figures is fun and educational to some extent, but the use of skin color and flavor dilutes the achievements of these individuals by essentially objectifying them.

If Malcolm X were alive today, I highly doubt he would want a chocolate vegan milkshake named after him.

 The Malcom X milkshake. Photo by Sundiata Addison.

The Malcom X milkshake. Photo by Sundiata Addison.


Sundiata Addison is a senior studying Communication & Rhetorical Studies and African American studies at Syracuse University.