Food for Thought

Atlanta Food Walks highlight the role of food in Southern history

If anyone had tried to use her undergraduate degrees in accounting and philosophy as a kind of tea leaf reading to predict the future for Akila McConnell 01B, it’s unlikely they would have come up with lawyer-turned-food and travel blogger-turned founder of a walking tour company. 

McConnell herself certainly wouldn’t have imagined the trajectory. 

After graduating from Emory and earning her law degree, she was a practicing attorney for five years before quitting to travel around the world with her husband, Patrick McConnell 01C. “I didn’t really have a plan as to what I would do once we came back to the US,” she says. 

While on the road, McConnell started a blog, The Road Forks, to share her travel food stories. It turned out people were hungry for the kind of posts she was serving, and the blog generated a loyal following. Meanwhile, McConnell was getting a glimpse of her future.

“I did dozens of food tours and cooking classes across the world, and I particularly loved the tours that focused on the history and anthropology of food while introducing guests to unexpected locations and neighborhoods,” she says. “Every time I came back to Atlanta, I wished somebody here was developing a food tour like that.” 

McConnell and her husband traveled full time for more than three years before they returned to Atlanta. In 2013, McConnell started to get serious about the idea of developing her own food tour. “I realized nobody was focusing on Southern foodways or exploring historic downtown Atlanta,” she says. She threw herself into intense research after a Facebook debate erupted among friends about differences among soul food, Southern food, and down-home cooking. The incident led McConnell to think more about Southern foodways and history and, she says, about the fact that “while there are a lot of scholars and researchers writing and talking about Southern food history, there aren’t any food tours—which reach people on the ground—talking about this history.” 

She knew she could fill that void, and in May 2015 she launched Atlanta Food Walks. 

“I look at my food tours as an opportunity to celebrate Southern food, which has a long and proud history. It’s more than greasy, butter-laden, fried fare; it’s an amalgamation of West African, Native American, and British cuisines, influenced by the history of the South from slavery to the civil rights movement,” she says.

As McConnell researched, she was struck by how much there was to learn, and became excited to share it. The tour has a special focus on the civil rights movement. 

“Dr. King was a serious foodie,” McConnell says. “His first childhood memory was watching men standing on the breadlines during the Great Depression. He chose Paschal’s Restaurant as the meeting place for civil rights leaders. The last long conversation he had was about what they were going to eat for dinner on that spring night in Memphis. He loved food and wrote about it in his letters and his diaries.”

She shares these stories and many more in her tours, which are held Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in downtown Atlanta.

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