Journeys in the Upper South: A Photo Essay

As I officially begin to work on The Cooking Gene, I have begun to travel the South again in search of bits and pieces from the world of my Ancestors.  I am ever amazed and grateful for the journey and the people I meet. Pastry chef and foodie Stella Parks of Lexington reminded me the other day that this project, nay–book, is not just about food and family history; its about the family we create, find, and discover through food and the magic of place and connection.  I’ve spent the past few days in Kentucky and Tennessee, the old Southern backcountry that became the heart of the mid-South,  re-learning and discovering; searching for the parts of a larger story of Southern food in the hands of the African American growers, producers, bakers and cooks of the past and the legacy they left for all of us.


Stella Parks giving me a tour of the burley tobacco and horse farms of bluegrass country.



Tobacco farm, Kentucky, 1944


Note the stakes on the ground.


Modernized historic home, the former "big house" of a small Kentucky plantation established before Washington was president, when Kentucky was the Virginia frontier.

Tobacco, corn, rye, and hemp were major crops in Kentucky during slavery time. Much of the rye and corn were transformed into whiskey.  70% of the nation’s burley tobacco crop is grown in Kentucky, with smaller amounts being grown in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.  As I traveled from Virginia into Tennessee and Kentucky,  the late summer fields of brilliant,  blinding golden leaves curing in the sun set themselves apart from the emerald bucolic face of the hills and the pale blue skies above.  The black roofed barns slowly swallowing the harvest swelled with stakes of cut plants, emitting an acridly sweet mustiness each time the breeze gave life to the leaves and pushed it’s way through the open slats used to impregnate the crop with dew.  The leaves go from crumbly to a leathery pliable texture.



The countryside between Louisville and Lexington was one of the heartlands of Kentucky slavery. At the auction spot near the Fayette County courthouse, numerous enslaved cooks were sold including two “likely” women in 1864, both noted as talented cooks. Today, where enslaved people once waited to be sold “down the river,” the Farmer’s Market now stands.


Lexington Farmer's Market


Monterey, Tennessee

The upper Southern midlands preserved much of the heritage brought from the Chesapeake and Maryland, Carolina and Virginia piedmont.  Enslaved people’s dietary and cultural preferences shined through as watermelons, corn, muskmelons, hot peppers, okra and tomatoes joined gourds in the gardens of new plantations and farms west of the mountains.


19th century artist, Lewis Miller's rendering of enslaved people being marched from Staunton to Tennessee.

Riding down modern highways it dawned on me that my journey was infinitely easier than these Ancestors marched into the unknown. Barefoot, subject to the elements, leaving behind the world their African forebears had arrived to from 1619-1778, the enslaved of Kentucky and Tennessee had to build new lives in coal mines, corn fields,  tobacco barns, and in central and western Tennessee, acres of upland cotton pushed down the Mississippi from Memphis. The classic dishes of Maryland and Virginia morphed as they were forced to make do with new landlocked environments.



The varied fish of the rivers, creeks, mill ponds and oxbow lakes gave enslaved people new sources of protein. I visited the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga to learn about the ecosystems and habits of bream, blue catfish, eels, buffalo, chubs, shiners, suckers, bass, trout and other native fish the Ancestors added to their cooking pots.


Loveless Café biscuits…heaven on earth…..they need sorghum.

Sorghum, a grain grass from Africa,  has a sweet, chewable core. The juice was used to make sweets in Northern Nigeria.  A variety of sorghum grown by the Zulu Empire for chewing arrived from the Natal region of South Africa in 1857 and as a result this plant, once crushed, juiced and boiled make a true culinary treat that could cheaply and quickly provide a source of sweetener. It became central in the Appalachians and was known simply as “cane,” although in many places it was erroneously labled “Chinese sugar cane.”





The juice is strained and collected until it goes into a steam heated series of vats where voila,  30 minutes later it thickens into sorghum syrup.


The Mennonites make sorghum in central Tennessee, among the goodies they make with this plant with soul is a magnificent sorghum – butter pouncake. The Guenther family was extremely hospitable to me as I documented sorghum making the way my Grandparents remembered.  It was really special to get multiple “Gd bless you on your journey.”‘s as I took leave of the Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill.  I felt as though I had found a new and unlikely family in a part of the world I never dreamed I would see.


I had the occasion to meet a celebrity chef I admire,  Chef Ed Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville.  Next year I may be going to Louisville to do a dinner featuring historic foods from Afro-Kentuckians, so as we make plans, stay tuned. His amazing book, Smoke and Pickles speaks to the Newer New South, where chefs of all backgrounds make traditional dishes sing with urgent life based on their ethnic origins, personal journeys and conversation with traditional ingredients. 


Husk Nashville


Knox-Mason, Knoxville

Field peas make great table decor.


I’m learning a lot about this often overlooked part of Southern food culture. I am in the land of country ham, red eye gravy made with coffee, biscuits, fried chicken, hot browns, hot chicken, rib barbecue,  scrapple and panehas, catfish, burgoo, and mutton cue. As I explore and research, I hope the book will reflect the honor I feel visiting the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King shed his blood for the freedom of his people; and the reverence visiting the boyhood home of Alex Haley, where the thirst for roots began.  I had several ancestors enslaved here in Tennessee, and every step brings me closer to them and the world they knew.

I am in the Southern heartland and now it’s beauty, pain and yearning is in my heart. I am off to the Association of Food Journalists conference in Memphis, do please follow my notes on Twitter. Until next post, MWT.



Cotton Field, West Tennessee

Posted in African American Food History, Events and Appearances, Food and Slavery, Food People and Food Places, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sorghum Chicken Wings for Rosh Hoshanah


Sorghum boiling away in Tennessee

Posted in African American Food History, Diaspora Food Culture, Events and Appearances, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, Jewish Stuff, Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Lexington, Kentucky September 8th? Come See Me! Kosher/Soul!


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Blogging While Black: Yeah, It’s a Thing.


From my friend, Rabbi Ruth Adar…an essay of support and solidarity. B’shalom!

Originally posted on Coffee Shop Rabbi:

 :לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Lev. 19:16

Yesterday, I posted a link to a blog post by Michael W. Twitty from He titled it #Ferguson: My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint, and it is a moving piece. It began with an image someone sent via Twitter to him: a racist manipulation of the image of Michael Brown’s dead body lying on the pavement.

I’ve received a share of hate messages via social media. They were nasty bits of Jew-hatred, woman-hatred, or fat-hatred, and occasionally a rancid mix of the three. But none were as violent, as personal, as those sent to my friend. I deleted them and blocked the source, if I could. Then I tried to push the image, or the words out of my head: easier said than done.

But Michael Twitty took this ugly, hateful, personal image and…

View original 640 more words

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#Ferguson : My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint

“…It was the corroboration of their worth and their power that they wanted, and not the corpse, still less the staining blood.”  James Baldwin, “To Be Baptized,” from No Name in the Street, 1972

I have been asked by many people to take a close look at the Michael Brown shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri and offer my opinion.  I felt it best to take a step back and really absorb all the circulating currents of opinion and matters of fact before I made any personal pronouncements.  This is my best attempt to answer that call, hopefully soberly, responsibly and with as much restraint as I can muster in the face of this deeply American tragedy.  This is inherently a blog about food and food culture, but anyone who regularly reads this blog understands that it also is a blog about social and cultural justice.  It is clear to anyone who knows the African American experience and tradition—to speak on it demands the celebration of the best of our cultural and historical legacy, scholarly excellence, and absolute commitment to social and cultural responsibility. This is a raw piece—it’s not meant to be perfect—far from it.  It’s just how I feel.  My condolences to the Brown family.  There is profanity in this blog post. 

I received a nasty tweet last night; a tweet with a food theme in fact.  Michael Brown’s bleeding corpse with pictures of food transposed around it—fried chicken, bananas, watermelon, with Kool-Aid to wash it down.  My chest hurt and then I stared into space and before I knew it, I vomited.  It was not nausea—it was anger mixed with revulsion and memories from lives only my cells know.


I want you to understand something—I’ve been on multiple plantations and urban sites dealing with slavery. I’ve felt the Ancestors in the fields. I’ve seen the auction block and the whipping post and the hanging tree.  I embrace it, I own it, and I live it through food so I can say “Never Again,” with confidence.  I do the work that I do to educate people about the genesis of America’s original sin—I consider myself steeled. This however, was different—this was personal; that body could have been me.

Swirling around us are accusations, whispers and rumors about a “gentle giant,” named Michael Brown.  Michael Brown cannot be defined by the politics of respectability or the politics of backlash.  He cannot be dismissed with smirks and allegations he was just a “thug.”  Michel Brown is dead.  He was on his knees, with his hands up in a gesture of surrender and he was shot six times and then left in the street, his blood merging with asphalt, his life draining out with his future, the dreams of his parents and the hope of his ancestors.  That’s what surrounded him—not racialized food icons.

This is evil.  This is evidence that some people have no heart. We have to be better, we have to have light. We have to be the love G-d expects of us.

This is evil. This is evidence that some people have no heart. We have to be better, we have to have light. We have to be the love G-d expects of us.

I cannot convey to you how debasing it is to be expected, by convention of racialized submissive behavior to offer conciliatory pardons and excuses for Michael Brown’s less savory choices and behavior (or those of disaffected youth looting in his community for that matter).  What is clear is that he will not be tried by me or anyone else for alleged misdeeds prior to his death.  What is further clear is that he was not worthy of death for the activities behind said allegations nor for walking in the street.  The same country where some white folk are celebrating their “right,” to bear firearms in Targets and Starbucks and pointing rifles at Federal agents (a la Cliven Bundy) without reproach, dares lecture Black America about the legalized lynchings of its sons for petty theft or perceived slights against police and governmental authority.  The same country where people are thrilled by movies about white collar crime on Wall Street and the theft of millions on the same, has robbed people of their savings is the same country where “stop and frisk” jukes the stats uptown while the real crooks downtown go wild and unrestrained after their rape of the American dream.

But I digress.  Michael Brown is not alone—Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, so many others—all of these humans–as Rep. Steven King of Iowa unfortunately put it—“of a single continental origin,” were my brothers.  In the spirit of the Torah, “my brother’s blood cries out from the earth.” I’m here to tell you what their blood is saying to me…

A Declaration of War

Several weeks ago Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, the very state that held my maternal ancestors in slavery and from which my grandparents left under the duress of legalized terrorism and inequality (and swore to never return), declared that there was a “war on whites.” This tremendously irresponsible and inflammatory statement was followed up by typical platitudes: “It doesn’t make any difference what your skin pigmentation is,” Brooks said. “In America this is the land of opportunity. You can excel provided you’re willing to study hard, work hard, take advantage of the opportunities that are presented in our country. And there are plenty of people who have been able to establish that this race issue should be way behind us.”  Mo Brooks, I’ll put my Alabama Confederate ancestor against yours and ask the question, “Is the race issue behind us?”  I’m the good black, so that means I’m okay right? Rep. Brooks, perhaps if you wanted a repeat of Red Summer, baby I think you got it.

Few in the national media connected the dots between the heated, racialized rhetoric of what civil rights activist Rev. William Barber of North Carolina has called , “the third Reconstruction,” with the recent spate of confrontations between police and African American men, women and children.  My maternal grandfather of blessed memory, not the most militant man in the world, recalled to me how he often witnessed the police come and brag about “how many niggers they killed,” in the streets of his neighborhood in Birmingham.  “They harassed us in blue by day and in white by night.”

What this post is not—is an indictment of all law enforcement—of any ethnicity.  That’s as ridiculous as indicting every Black male as a criminal.  I don’t think that most people feel that way, we well understand the social contract.  They want to be able to trust law enforcement, they want to be able to support and depend on them.  We have witnessed the militarization of law enforcement in convergence with a reverse, alleged declaration of war on whites.  What’s wrong with this picture?  And, why is the 24 hour news cycle media not calling this for what it is—a recipe for social dissolution built on 7 years of sustained, celebrated, financially rewarded hate speech churned out against you-know-who and all those that look like you-know-who.

We are paying a horrible consequence for silencing the leader of the Free World on matters of racial justice with deep importance to the world, our country and our people.  We have turned the other cheek in such a way as to invite shots rather than slaps.  When POTUS said that cops acted “stupidly” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for resisting arrest on the steps of his own home, he was right; so right that it was a moment more thrilling to me than his oath of office.  Hope! Change! Vindication!

And then he had to back up off of that power.  At the mercy of his party, backlash politics and law enforcement lobbying, he had to retract his gut reaction and put a beer in the hand of a man who humiliated the world’s foremost scholar of African American history and culture.  (You should at this point re-read Mo Brooks’ statement about how to succeed in America–hint–double standard…) Glenn Beck famously said of the incident; “(here is) a guy (President Obama) who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture. I don’t know what it is…” Dr. Gates said, “I’m sorry,” the President said, “I’m sorry,” Glenn Beck just got another million for offering up more red meat.  From that moment on, I knew the stage was set for a long season of disappointment and dishonest dialogue about healing America’s oldest wound.  If there is one thing I know to be true—it is this—and I have lived my life with blunt honesty about this—Black people do not benefit from lying to white people about how they really feel about injustice.  We missed an incredible opportunity at the beginning of the Obama presidency to confront head on overreach by law enforcement vis-a-vis people of color!!! You can count the minutes from that incident to the afternoon of August 9th on Canfield Ave. in Ferguson, Missouri.  

B(l)ack to the future.

Rep. Brooks declares that there is a “war on whites” and remains uncensored for his inflammatory rhetoric, and yet there seems to be a pursuit of an offensive war on people of color in the streets of America—women dragged naked from their apartments, women beaten to a pulp on the LA freeway, men cornered like hunted lions in Staten Island, young men shot dead for perceived slights against what some like Glenn Beck, believe to be the last bastion of white power.  Geopolitics and the global economy are not on the side of white America, neither are demographics or the unifying principles of language, faith, social issues politics or aesthetics.  I’m not telling you anything you don’t know or feel—this is what he really means by the “war on whites,” the eclipse of white heterosexual cis-male hegemony in the face of a New American Order where obfuscation of competing narratives is obsolete and we are more multigrain than white bread.

“Give Me your tired rhetoric, your poor attempts at pacification, your yearning to yell logical fallacies…”

Give it to me.  Or what did the uncouth Ferguson cop say on CNN to the African American protesters, “Bring it you f—g animals!” Tell me all about “absentee fathers” Joseph Epstein—because you’re an expert on Black people if I ever saw one (shandeh!).  Please say, “What you (people) need to do…” (Thanks for the paternalism) and “What you need to tell your people is to stop…….”  Tell me all about how Black men are far more likely to commit this crime or that crime…and hold a mirror to my face about Black on Black crime vs. white on Black crime.  Tell me about myths of low IQ’s, poor academic performance, a failed attempt at instilling pride through Black history and Afrocentric culture; please tell me everything about what you might feel to be the “real” root cause.  Rap music, the “n” word, drugs, liquor—give me your tired rhetoric, your poor attempts at pacification, your yearning to yell logical fallacies. You might well be Black, or white, or brown or “yellow” but it is all nonsense and distraction because let’s put it in terms you can understand, Michael Brown is dead and he could be any of us –even me.

The Good Black

If you really believe in “the good Black,” let me offer you a cautionary personal tale.  A few years ago, a friend of mine was taking to me to synagogue on the commemoration of Tisha B’Av.  He’s white, I am obviously of a certain “continental origin” and a car almost hit us on the passenger side of the vehicle.  I was the passenger; the person in the car was driving erratically.  I said nothing—but I grimaced and frowned. My friend got agitated, but did not drive in an aggressive fashion.

The unmarked car suddenly put on a siren and we the driver began to glare at me—through me—with a look of absolute disdain.  He was ready for reprisal. We were pulled over—not on the side of the road, but into a parking lot.  He got out of the car, pulled his gun and told my white friend, “TELL YOUR PASSENGER TO PUT HIS F—G HANDS UP ON THE DASHBOARD AND NOT TO MOVE THEM! YEAH MOTH–KER YOU’RE SO G–DAMNED BAD! WHAT’S THAT MOTH—KER, A GUN?”

It was my prayerbook.  It had G-d’s name on it, beautiful gold Hebrew letters gleaming at me on a sunless day.  In kippa, dress clothes and non-leather shoes, headed to synagogue, I had a gun at my head by a police officer calling for backup…which curiously never came.  He never asked my friend to put his hands up.  Said friend got out of the car, handed over his ID.  I was far from trembling, afraid or submissive when he returned—gun drawn—to my side of the vehicle—I was Nat Turner mad.  He patted me down and even threw my kippa on the ground.  No reason, no cause.  He loudly pronounced my name over the radio, confident he was going to turn a glare—a reckless eyeballing– into an arrest.

Surprise!  No moving violations on the part of my friend, the driver, no weapons on me, no rap sheet, nothing.  Jack shit.  The policeman got nervous.  I was not a good catch.  He softened his approach with awkward verbal retreats until the tense conversation ended in “Have a nice day.”  No apologies, no attempt at breaking down his wall.

I was not appeased.  But I was too scared to say anything or file a complaint.  I knew the man’s name for all of seven days.  Then I forgot it.  I had heard stories about the Blue line.  I didn’t want any further harassment; I put it away—I didn’t speak about it—until now.

I do the work that I do because I am well aware of the power food can have in telling human stories and reaching people with uncomfortable or powerful truths they might otherwise not be amenable to.  I have a multicultural faith, a multicultural family, a multicultural life, and I come from a multicultural blood line. I will not allow this or any other flashpoint to tear my family apart–so we will come together for the good.  I feel I have a mission in this world, much like Michael Brown might well have felt as he contemplated who he would be once he graduated technical college.  I use food and this history behind the food to tell us how we got here and to encourage us to never find our way back to the places that derailed the dream we as the American people offer so proudly to the world.

Afraid in My Own Skin

Michael Brown, I am so heartbroken because I know how some of these idiotic people see you.  I’m Michael too.  I’ve been big, fat, scary, black and worthless too.  I know that you were not, and I am not–really big fat, scary, black and worthless—but the social media commentary—scary, fat, big black guy…keeps coming up and it outrages me that we feel like big game in the eyes of people who hide behind screen names and Twitter handles.  (Too bad the fact you will always see me with a book in my hand makes me scarier than if I had a football.)

I am afraid that had that cop been turned up one more notch I would not be writing this—I’d have been big fat, scary, Black, worthless and dead.  Oh, and by the way, this is one of six negative encounters with law enforcement I have had where I was in no way held in the commission of a crime, arrested, or held until being tried for a crime.  I was the passenger with a white friend, and it was alleged I was a drug dealer because we were at a gas station, “a little bit too long.”  I was on a bus and every Black male was asked to present his ID and had his bag searched.  I have been stopped for walking while Black and pressed up against a wall.

Wanna know the worst part?  When the people passing you on the sidewalk look at you with a presumptive glance that they believe you wouldn’t have gotten in trouble if you hadn’t done something wrong.  You are guilty until proven innocent, and even then you ain’t so damn innocent.  You are the good black, the good boy, and by god you might just get your reward in heaven if you just suppress your jungle anger and just suck it up and forget that this moment has a dark past and that 2014 and 1619 have just been linked together in an ignoble chain.  This is the moment Mama and Daddy gave you “the talk” about; and nothing prepared you for that look you get from the onlookers as you, the consummate “Other,” get a hand in the crack of your ass.

Beyond Race, Toward Hope

I hate the word “race,” it is inept and woefully inadequate.   Its usage—and I freely admit having to rely on it here at times—is completely out of pace with science, our collective ethical spirit, and intellectual truth.  Ethnicity—a far better term in my opinion speaking to a deeper lexicon means that we have our self-described niches based on ancestry.   Ethnicities have their histories, patterns of experience and cultural cues.  We have been here before, and we will continue to be here as the African American people until we break the wheel—by voting, by lobbying, by economic boycotts and by learning the law as good if not better than those that are tasked with enforcing it.  With our books, with our ballots, with our boycotts, we can cut the hanging tree down and use its wood to make a coffin for “racial” injustice.

I am trying to be hopeful. I see Americans of all colors putting their hands up saying “Don’t shoot.”  Solidarity is spreading from rally to rally; there are new kids on the block—and they don’t want the bitter fruit of the past. The old canards that this is a race war a la Mo Brooks have no truth here—we are embracing anyone who will embrace us, loving anyone who will love us, respecting anyone who will respect us, and we want desperately to believe that we—in our protest, in our pursuit of justice through the courts of law, in our demands for information—are the epitome of what it means to be American.

To my foodie friends: throw your hands up!  Listen, we do ourselves no favors when we pretend that food is a respite from the matters of the day.  Where do we go when we want to feel better and hash out our grievances and vent?  We go to the table.  Given that I am often the only Black guy, or one of five Black people period at many food events, I want you to know what this harassment means when you see me/us encounter it.  I want you to step out of the fantasy that food is freedom from socio-cultural politics and just remember to be aware of the cues and clues that injustice and inequality are ever close and we must all be vigilant.

But I ask, as James Baldwin once asked, “How much time do you want, for your progress?”

Please don’t shoot!






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When the News Hits Home: Ebola in Sierra Leone, A Love Letter to My Ancestral Country

ALMOST a year ago I learned my maternal line was a 100% match for the Mende people of Sierra Leone, West Africa.  I was on the grounds of North Carolina’s largest historical plantation, when Gina Paige, head of African Ancestry revealed my results in the shadow of the four remaining slave cabins on the property.  For me it was a watershed moment. I was in a sacred place, reclaiming part of the African in my African-American.  If I am honest, I was also reclaiming part of the American as well.  As an African American until you know something of those initial moments of your ancestor’s arrival and what life looked like for them, it is hard to have the same feeling towards your American-ness that someone of another background has looking at Ellis or Angel Island, the borderlands of the Southwest or the Gulf Coast.

In my mind’s eye I could now imagine this young woman disembarking from a canoe to Bance/Bunce Island in the 1760’s, then coming by canoe to a ship that would take her over two months journey to permanent and irrevocable exile.  She landed in Charleston, South Carolina, the Holy City of Southern colonial commerce and trade; the site of Sullivan’s Island, where one quarter of all enslaved Africans brought to North America landed.  That’s about the same as the number of European immigrants who came through Ellis Island.  To this day it is known as the Ellis Island of Black America.  If the Civil War had not been fought there, the site of Fort Moultrie, named after the Revolutionary War hero, we may not know the spot where she, my direct paternal ancestor, and so many other fathers and mothers of Black America first set foot and began the long journey toward today.

From the moment I got my results, African Americans who had already had their results, but not revealed them to me, began to divulge new forms of kinship.  Dontavius Williams of Historic Brattonsville, my friend and colleague said, “Hey, my family is from Sierra Leone too!”  Nikki Miller-Ka, spoke to my other roots saying, “We are also Akan from Ghana!”  From that moment on, a new kind of family emerged based on a sense that we were more than just Black, more than just “African.”  I met more and more African Americans who were Mende, Temne, Limba, and other ethnic groups from Sierra Leone.  Sierra Leone—a small country the size of South Carolina, who through the forced exportation of rice growers and craftsmen swelled the Southern Lowcountry in the mid-18th century—Sierra Leone—the home of the ancestors of Lou Gossett Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Janet Jackson and family, Spike Lee, Michael K. Williams, Regina Taylor, India Arie, Questlove, Isaiah Washington,  Anna Marie Horsford, and many others.  Oprah Winfrey’s roots go back to the Kpelle people in next door Liberia, also an unfortunate center for this current health disaster.

Whenever I meet people from Sierra Leone they have NEVER addressed me as anything but a kinsman.  At the reception for Many Rivers to Cross, I met a woman from England of Sierra Leonian background, who introduced me to her husband, also from Sierra Leone, as, first and foremost, a “Sierra Leonian.”  There is such a pride in the fact that so many connections have been made between Sierra Leone and the United States, Brazil, Jamaica and other parts of the New World, that it is second nature for the people of Sierra Leone to boast that their blood flowed in Cinque/Singbeh Pieh, one of the leaders of the Amistad revolt, in Martin Luther King, Jr., and in Marcus Garvey, the father of modern Pan-Africanism, the idea that we are one family—all of us parts of the African family, scattered but searching for soul solidarity.   No encounter with a Sierra Leonian has not led to someone saying, “When you go, here is my information…” this feeling of being part of a family that was always a part of me and that I never knew I had is exhilarating and makes the world seem smaller and more loving.

So let’s skip to today.  Ebola.  One of the world’s most mysterious and deadly viruses, reared its ugly head in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.  Unlike previous Ebola outbreaks that have occurred in relatively isolated areas, this outbreak was in the crowded cities and densely populated villages of Africa’s Rice Coast.  My people are dying.  My people are dying.  That’s all I can think as I see the news every night.  Over 700 dead.  In Sierra Leone that’s over 200 people who have died there alone, with over 500 infected.  As I write this, homes are being checked door to door for people who are possibly infected.

If you think this has nothing to do with our mission here at Afroculinaria, you’d be wrong.  The cause of this outbreak is likely bushmeat infected with the virus.  Bushmeat means wild game—usually small mammals like cutting-grass cane rats, monkeys, and bats.  Undercooked bat, may—nothing is official yet—be the cause of the current horrific outbreak. I don’t know how this helps other than just knowing how real and how scary things like this can be, but at least I know about the tradition and how the parts and pieces fit.  This epidemic is an opportunity for education and greater emphasis on public health awareness.

A lot of people think of Africa has plagued, benighted, scary, violent, and even sinister.  These conclusions are rooted in the evils of the recent past when corruption among indigenous powers and invaders from the East and West raped the Mother Continent for all she had.  Some of you may know Kanye West’s song about Diamonds from Sierra Leone or Blood Diamond or the Lord of War…all of which reference the Civil War and blood diamond conflicts and strife that plagued the nation not so very long ago.  Africa was not the starving continent we see on late night TV until colonialism came—colonialism robbed Africa of so much—but first and foremost—it handicapped her ability to raise food for herself and sustain self-sufficient economies.  It is no accident that the rubber, minerals, oil, and the like that fueled the 20th century Industrial Revolution owed much to African slave labor under colonial administrative practices.

I admit that I have already winced at the reports about West Africa coming out of the news.  Please hold media accountable  during human crises like these where they spotlight fears of “witchcraft,” and focus on eating monkeys and apes and string together exotic and stereotypical views of the “Dark Continent.”  To be sure elements of the surreal and sad saturate Africa, but they are not its totality.  When you are talking about these people folks, you are talking about my family.  I am a proud descendant of the Mende people and others—so when you talk about my family, HAVE SOME RESPECT.

I want you to think about that when you see reports on the current outbreak.  These proud people are being hit once again, by one of Nature’s more evil whimsies.  The situation is compounded by the fact that after the severe damage done by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the imposition of centuries of white supremacy came the blow of figuring out nationhood and re-organizing power.  Sierra Leone and Liberia have a special added layer of complication in that liberated enslaved people or Creoles/Krios have had a strange and sometimes destructive relationship with indigenous communities.  Through all these curses of the past, we work towards our humanity, our common goal to make the dreams of Martin and Marcus, the New World sons of Sierra Leone, come alive.

I am in pain right now, because I love Sierra Leone already, even though I have not yet set eyes on her.  She is my mother, she is the place that was the rootstock of both my African origins and my American journey.  I sit here, with nothing more than I can do than to raise awareness and let you know that she, along with Liberia and Guinea, and any other places affected matter.  They count, not just because of their role in history or the powerful legacies that they have left here, but because these are places where so many good people are struggling to just exist.   As we begin to get calls for aid, assistance, prayers, and the like, I urge you to support these nations in any way you can.  My mother’s blood calls out from the ground.  I am here Mother; I am answering You.  You gave us life, so we will do what we must to preserve Yours.

May the hands of the medical responders be blessed, and may the hands, hearts and minds of the doctors be blessed as they struggle to get this scourge under control.  May The True Judge see fit to hault this evil in its tracks and give all of these nations and their people a brighter future and tenfold blessings for their pain.  Tonight I fix my mind on the Motherland and tonight I say, Ashe/Amen.



Posted in African Food Culture, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Twenty One Soul Food “Life Hacks”

Twenty-One Soul Food Life Hacks


I am officially joining the Life/Food Hack movement.  Some of these may not seem so “hackish,” but if you guys want more hacks—I promise the next bunch will be more hackish.  Hacks usually use common objects and familiar things in uncommon and unfamiliar ways.  They are ways to solve basic dilemmas and problems or make life better—even if you couldn’t put your finger on things that needed a change or improvement.  Enjoy.  IF YOU HAVE your own “Soul Food Hacks,” let me know or respond to this post with your own, and I will try the best ten and document them here on Afroculinaria.

  1. Learn to cut a watermelon the new way—click here
  2. Make your own secret soul food spice. Tips—buy in bulk. Want lower sodium—adjust accordingly and use a salt substitute for part of it.  Call it your “house seasoning” like….ahem….you know….and put it on the kitchen table with pepper to replace iodized salt.
  3. Gullah remedy for rice that has a burnt smell—put a silver spoon in it. (You can thank Sallie Ann Robinson, the Gullah Diva for that J
  4. Twitty method for making good fried fish—a thick piece of potato frying with the fish in each batch takes the burned or dark taste off of it.
  5. Need a use for late okra….cut the caps off the end and presto—you have a free Halloween costume.
  6. Want pepper sauce without the vinegar?  Use rum or vodka instead of vinegar.  Vinegar actually softens the bite.  Alcohol makes it takes hotter.
  7. Vegan? Want that smoked meat taste?  Use a few drops of liquid smoke—carefully.
  8. Too much turkey?  Cut off and roast the breast.  Take the rest—thighs, legs, wings—soak them in a gallon of water with 1 cup of kosher or sea salt, and half a cup of black pepper, sugar, red pepper and poultry seasoning.   Take them out and pat dry.  Smoke or slow grill it over hickory chips.  Freeze after it has come to temperature.  Voila! You’ve got smoked turkey for your greens, beans, soups and stews.
  9. How to perfect “Gramma/Grammy/Nana/M’Dear/’s”  recipe.  Record her on your cell phone without her knowing LOL.  Offer to measure ingredients as she dumps them in and make notes.  If possible, taste the recipe as its made.  Ask a lot of questions and record it.  Make note of any special brands, sources of the food, etc.
  10. Create your own heritage garden: my Mother loved Kentucky wonders and Cherokee purple tomatoes.  Find out what your family’s favorite crops were, make notes, and ask HOW they were cultivated.  When you make your family garden scrapbook, include favorite recipes..make digital and hard copies and pass them around at the next family reunion.
  11. Save the extra potliker—freeze it in ice cube trays and put them in sealable freezer bags. This is the mother stock for our sauces.  Makes a great broth for sipping when you are sick.
  12. Us e the parboiling water as a base for your bbq mop.



  13. Give your kids a downhome connection—next time you visit “Down South/The Country/Down Home” take them to the farmers markets, neighbors, specialty stores—buy bbq sauces, jams, jellies, mixes, etc. that speak to your family’s likes and tastes—later on when they go to school, get married or have other life events—you can make a similar basket.  In order to pass traditions on—we have to make time for them.
  14. Fried chicken and waffles?—Slice up cold fried chicken into thin little bits and add to your favorite waffle batter.  Enjoy with cream gravy—THE ONLY RIGHT WAY TO DO CHICKEN AND WAFFLES SINCE THEY WERE INVENTED ON SOUTHERN PLANTATIONS BY OUR ANCESTORS!!! Thank you…

    Fried Chicken from Georgia made on the Open Hearth

    Fried Chicken from Georgia made on the Open Hearth

  15. Don’t wait on ceremony, affix jars to a wooden board affixed to a wall.  Place them on a wall facing a sunny window and grow your favorite herbs and small pepper plants—make sure they are spaced well and use a little fertilizer and moisture control mixed soil in each jar.  Growing your food can’t wait.  Cinder blocks, old tires—all that stuff makes great, cheap and reliable quick garden container space.
  16. Want to get your kid interested in a subject they don’t like?  Food preparation and getting food to the table—gardening, shopping, fishing, sharing– takes a number of different skills.  When you have the time—use these moments to go over math, reading and language skills.  Social skills are enhanced when we learn how to interact in regular and consistent ways.  Financial and economic principles and history and social science and learning about other cultures can also be enhanced and developed when we cook at home or have eating experiences outside the house.
  17. Don’t waste sweet potato, black eyed and other cowpea leaves,  and the like—they are edible—healthy, nutritious greens—pick them randomly and add to spinach, collards, etc. or just grab a bunch and saute them on their own!
  18. Do not let all that wonderful watermelon rind go to waste—start pickling now!
  19. Peach fuzz make you itch—give them a quick bath in boiling hot water—the fuzz will come right off before you peel  them!
  20. Want a nice coating on your fried chicken—use pancake mix or cornstarch instead of just plain flour.
  21. Use vanilla sugar in your candied yams, peach cobbler, apple crisp, berries and dumplings and the like.  Get a huge sealable dry jar, stick those precious barely crushed vanilla pods in there—and you can even add a stick or two of cinnamon…people will go nuts


WANT  MORE?  Write in and let me know!


Posted in African American Food History, African Food Culture, Diaspora Food Culture, Events and Appearances, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments