When the Spice is “Race”: The Case of the “Racist” Pizza

Huffington Post called it “the most racist pizza ever.”    It’s got southern fried chicken, argula, sea-salted watermelon, a sunflower seed crust and goat, ricotta and bleu cheeses.  It’s the “pick-a-nika” pizza from Certe in New York.

I’ve never had this pizza, I don’t want to have this pizza, I don’t think this pizza sounds particularly appetizing, but I’m still waiting for this pizza to call me a nigger.  When that happens, I’ll let you know.  It will be moldy, fly covered and finally dried and petrified before it does and that’s why I’m calling this outrage of the week a lesson in the need to understand context.  Is this pizza truly racist?  Can it BE a racist pizza?  What does calling it racist say about us?

“Pick-a-nika” is supposedly based on the way that Mr. Guzman, the owner of the pizzeria pronounces the word “picnic.” That’s not unheard of. It’s part of ethnic European America. What Mr. Guzman didn’t know is the old urban legend circulating in the African American community that picnic is a racist term.  Before you scoff, keep in mind that during the time of Nadir of Black life–between Reconstruction and World War II, many normal, happy-go lucky things were transformed into racial battlegrounds–jokes and words circulated that gave all African Americans an air of unease.  Products were sold by the thousands mocking and demeaning African Americans or at best, praising them for their servile and submissive attention to white people.  Sunrise and sundown meant the times you were to enter and leave all-white towns.  More than one white supremacist in that day MAY HAVE referred to a lynching in coded speech as a “picnic”, (short for pick-a-nigger—apart.)  Doesn’t mean the origin of the word “picnic” lies in that fetid, twisted, grotesque joke–because it absolutely doesn’t.  It means that something harmless was given a sinister veneer and that it remained in the memory of African Americans as a scar from the trauma of lynch law.

This difficult miscommunication/ situation reminds me of a PC gone awry situation in the 90’s when a group of high school kids got disciplined when their multicultural band chanted “Oi! Oi!” during the performance of a song they wrote. Their principal thought they were being anti-Semitic when in reality they were a punk band and using the British “oi!” not the Yiddishe “oy!”  If that seems terribly off to you consider that many attribute “Hip Hip Hooray” to anti-Semitic cries during massacres of Jews in the Middle Ages and 19th century.  Is this about feelings or about blood memory?  Do we really have a grip on how far historical traumas bleed into our own time and experience?  (In writing this post I noted that Snopes.com didn’t have an article addressing “hip hip hooray,” but there certainly was one for “picnic.”  (#ijs)

White Southerners have long been grandfathered into Africanized foodways over the course of multiple generations for the past 400 years there are very few that would doubt you’re just as likely to find fried chicken and watermelon at a Klan rally as you would at a Black family reunion.  Fried fowl–born of a collision of West African  poultry fried in palm or peanut oil and Dorset style chicken from the British Isles and that ancient African curcubit–the watermelon–speak volumes about the complicated nature of being Southern and the deep influence enslaved and free people of African descent had on the American South.  Fried chicken and watermelon are foods that came to be associated with African Americans owing to stereotypes and accusations of theft, greed and barbarism during the late 19th century.   Both of those realities exist side by side—and you don’t have to Southern to like watermelon or fried chicken or both.  This pizza had nothing to do with the South or our assumptions about whst those foods mean. Again, what does it say about us that these ideas persist under the skin of American culture?

One of the first memes to come out about Michael Brown, killed just over one year ago in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri was the image of the corpse of young Brown surrounded by fried chicken and watermelon.  The image enraged me and made me burst into tears. It brought up all sorts of emotions in me about my own place in the world as a Black male with a big body and often–but not always–seen with a veil of suspicion.  It was both cruel and crude–and undoubtedly racist.  It wasn’t funny–it was meant to underscore some un-articulated notion that perhaps the white supremacists of the 19th century and early 20th century were dead on–we were dangerous, sub-human, useless eaters. But still, this pizza had nothing to do with any of that.

I had to field many a question as a Hebrew school teacher to students who thought they were being clever by asking me if I enjoyed fried chicken and watermelon.  My retort was often, “Oh like you like bagels, lox and kreplach?”  The reply was almost always, “Well that’s just stupid.”  My response, “No more stupid than you believing something you’ve heard passed around about how I adore watermelon and fried chicken.  I can’t stand watermelon but I happen to love fried chicken.  Do you like fried chicken?” The answer was usually yes, and my reply was usually, “Welcoming to being Black! Please collect your toaster on the way out the door.  I should have known that I could have converted much easier just by liking bagels and kreplach…could have saved me the trouble.”  That went over a few heads–but not so many I didn’t drive home the point.

If you are reading this you are either an American or a participant in the global culture brought about by technology, media and airplanes.  A smaller human earth is your home.  I acknowledge and participate in the stories of other people’s cultures and civilizations every day from the moment I awake until the moment I crash.  That’s the power of enduring cultural traits..they outlive the borders of the individuals and cultures that initially gave them life and they spread over time and place and take on different meanings and assumptions beyond the control of their innovators.  Control cannot be had in the journey of these ideas but only in the consciousness and respect and measured and balanced response we give when controversy arises.

Relating to neighbors of different cultures even as we draw on and participate in their worlds is a delicate act.  It is made more complicated by the fact that we more often than ever before have multicultural families and friendships and are enriched in ways the people of the past could never have dreamed.  With this comes a responsibility to be self-educated on multiple levels.  We often read these incidents smugly as an attempt to regulate feelings or inculcate guilt.  That’s not really possible and that really isn’t the case.  We are crying out for intercultural responsibility.

This pizza wasn’t a racist pizza.  It looked pretty damn racist because we haven’t dealt with the mental detritus of our collective past.  Instead we sweep it under the bodies of the people who fall victim to our inability to once and for all clean up.  It’s our responsibility to think about how what we say and do may come across to others and to ask how we can handle the past and cultural artifacts and mentifacts with respect and care and the proper deference to traditional authority.  We labor under the fantasy that the illusion we live too comfortably with called “race,” can be annihilated by our dismissal of the very real power of that illusion.

This pizza isn’t ever going to call me the n word, make me feel less of myself or take away my earning potential, shoot me for reaching for my ID or become enraged for kissing a white guy in public (I do that sometimes) .  It’s a gross pizza, in my opinion…but its not a racist pizza.  The people who called it out are not “race-baiters,” and the people who thought it was silly to raise the issue in the first place are pretty naive–but they aren’t necessarily going to burn a cross.  We owe it to each other though–to dialogue, hear each other out, sit at the table together–not because we want a kumbayah moment–but because we want truth.  Ethnotype, genotype and phenotype–all real–all very much a part of the human experience, and undeniable.  With those come history, culture, blood memory, emotions, hard truths–passions.  Like it or not that is the real Homo sapiens–complex computers of culture, genes, colors, body types, states of mind–and we all have baggage.   Sensitivity and respect aren’t options in that kind of world–the only world we have ever known.

So….

Give me my pizza–because I love it–but next time–think twice–maybe three times–and hold the “race.”

Posted in African American Food History, Cultural Politics, Pop Culture and Pop Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

New Publication!

I’m pleased to announce that I am in print again! Meet “African American,” an article in Ethnic American Food Today: A Cultural Encyclopedia.  2015, Rowman&Littlefield.

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This is a great reference for anyone interested in how individual ethnic cultures contributed to the feast of American foodways. 

Posted in African American Food History, Diaspora Food Culture, Events and Appearances, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Pop Culture and Pop Food, Publications, Scholars, Elders and Wise Folk, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Summer Campaign & 21 New Soul Food Hacks

Hi everyone! Once in a while we need a little hand. This summer my forthcoming book, The Cooking Gene, to be published by HarperCollins in 2016 is being written and research continues right up to the last day before I turn it in.

We have archives to visit, copies to make, documents to scan and oral history interviews to conduct.

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This project has been supported by awesome people for the past three years. Every now and then we need a helping hand. Find the PayPal button in our menu. Give what ya can. 1-5-10-20-36 or more, that’s up to you. We don’t take a dollar for granted.

This book is going to help a lot of African Americans searching for their roots and looking to ask the question, “How did the journey of our food, shape us?” This book is about racial healing and reconciliation and bringing people together to mend the wounds of the past. It is uncompromising in its search for truth but open to making a way for understanding. We are a world desperately in need of healing, our pain is injustice, disease, inequality, prejudice and misunderstanding. I hope this book, like it’s project namesake, will offer a lens on culinary justice, healthier living, equality and balance, openness and acceptance and creating a common appreciation for the heritage we share at the table.

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21 Soul Food Life Hacks #2

1. Never throw out water melon rind. It makes a delicious pickle. Same goes for thick collard stems.
2. Make your family reunions more memorable–support African American caterers and restaurants!
3. Eat your okra and sweet potato leaves!! Growing them this summer? Okra leaves are spiny buy after a quick dip in hot boiling water you can cook them like spinach. Shred sweet potato leaves and cook them like any other greens.
4. Red pepper, mint, lemon balm, water and vinegar make a great anti-squirrel spray in the garden. They are all still booming, so use em. Steep for a few days and spray.
5. Another way to shuck cooked corn on the cob: https://youtu.be/vbkSmOjvhEc
6. Summer alternative to “Red K….Aid” Make a pitcher of Roiboos or Hibiscus tea, sweeten lightly with coconut sugar, agave syrup, honey or nothing at all! Add slices of lemon and lime for zing!

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7. Have a barbecue potluck. Now is the time to create your own version of this Southern staple. Try eastern Carolina bbq with red pepper and cider vinegar, or western Carolina with a tomato based dip. Move down to South Carolina for a mustard based sauce and barbecued pork, chicken or turkey, or try Alabama white bbq sauce with chicken wings. Sauce Beautiful from the Mississippi and Alabama Black Belt over ribs is incredible, and Memphis bbq can be served with or without sauce…but dry rub to sauce it’s an incredible flavor. Kentucky bbq centers on lamb and mutton, Kansas City slathers on the tomato and molasses while Texas bbq brings sausage, brisket and beef ribs!! You and your family, neighbors or friends will have a blast.
8.  Rice or potatoes that have cooled down are reportedly better for your blood sugar levels.
9. Grill your okra!! http://www.southernliving.com/m/food/10-best-okra-recipes/classic-okra-recipe-peppery-grilled-okra-with-lemon-basil-sauce
10. If you have leftover corn on the cob, make it into a salad with sun dried tomato dressing, fresh tomato, and thinly sliced okra.
11. Invest in coconut sugar. It’s a rich brown natural sugar from the sugar palm from Southeast Asia. It’s delicious, blends well in sauces and beverages, and has lots of nutrients and vitamins.
12. When you bbq throw a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts on to use on salads for lunch during the week.
13. Aspirin, eggs and milk are great tomato foods in the garden.
14. Green grape or cherry tomatoes make great mini fried green tomatoes.

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15. It’s peach time, time to make freezer peach preserves: http://southernbite.com/2014/06/25/peach-freezer-jam/
16. Make an easy peach vinaigrette dressing: take two tablespoonfuls of peach jam, 1/4 cup of water, 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, a pinch of red or black pepper, kosher salt, a pinch of fresh chopped rosemary and 1/4 cup of light olive oil and whisk together. Makes for a great summer salad.

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17. Need a starch for dinner but don’t want it to be hot and overly filling? Try a cold rice salad.
18. Buttermilk Soup with Tomatoes, it’s cold and its perfect for summer: http://www.thekitchn.com/easy-breezy-chilled-buttermilk-56177
19. Fresh hot red pepper steeped in honey makes a nice drizzle for grilled chicken.
20. Leftover crabs from a crab feast? Learn to make crab rice: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ol-fuskie-fried-crab-rice-recipe.html
21. The secret ingredient for summery recipes is always preserved lemon :) http://www.daringgourmet.com/2014/04/08/how-to-make-preserved-lemons-moroccan-middle-eastern-cooking/ . A little chopped preserved lemon in potato salad, macaroni salad, etc will win you serious points.

If you enjoyed these tips, please consider donating 5$ or more to Afroculinaria via our PayPal button. If only a fraction of our subscribers did this we would be ready to hit the archives. Please help us stay afloat!

Blessings!
Michael :)

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Please help my Papa out!–Zeke

Posted in Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Pop Culture and Pop Food, Recipes, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A People’s History of Southern Barbecue

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/04/barbecue-american-tradition-enslaved-africans-native-americans?CMP=share_btn_tw

Enjoy this piece I wrote, freshly published on The Guardian giving a short history of how barbecue is connected to American food and freedom through its enslaved African and Native American roots!

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Posted in African American Food History, Cultural Politics, Diaspora Food Culture, Food and Slavery, Food People and Food Places, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My Heritage, Your Hate: Take on the Confederate Battle Flag Controversy

This is my response to the Confederate battle flag controversy.  The heritage of the Confederate era doesn’t just belong to white people, and for those of us who have a part in that history, it is impossible not to weigh in to correct some misperceptions about the divide between heritage and hate.  I hope this adds some richness and flavor to a debate that is lodged in tones of black and white.  As the descendant of whites who served in the Confederacy I have a unique take on how this narrative impacts our story as African Americans in a way the counter-protestors have failed to acknowledge.

Since its publication activist Bree Newsome climbed the flag pole in Columbia an d took down the flag.  Bree you have my utmost respect and appreciation for your act of civil disobedience and gentle use of spiritual force and creative power.

Chelius H. Carter's photo.

 

Posted in Cultural Politics, Pop Culture and Pop Food, Scholars, Elders and Wise Folk, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Cutting to the White Meat: The Real Issue With Rachel Dolezal

By now you’ve probably seen this picture:

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That’s Rachel Dolezal, NAACP activist, Africana studies professor, and according to her parents a white woman pretending to be a woman of color. Move over Iggy, all your problems just got solved, #fixitJesus Amen….

Now let’s be crystal clear. 1. RACE IS A COMPLETELY SOCIAL CONSTRUCT NOT A FIXED BIOLOGICAL REALITY, CULTURE AND ETHNICITY ARE FLUID BUT GENOTYPE IS NOT. 2. White people have been part of our blood and family life since we got here–and not just in the creepy rapey slave owner type way.  We have adopted white kids, we have had children with white people, we have even made some white cultural figures a part of our world.

When I was growing up I knew a short, red headed Irish American boy named Brian. Blue eyes, so help me. No surprise to me when we became Facebook friends as adults, that the love of his life is a Black woman. I never saw Brian as a “white kid trying to be Black.” Brian was Brian, and he’s still Brian. We never saw him as being ethnically or culturally separate from us African American kids. He was even MY rival for a spell in African American history class!

But truth…Brian has never claimed to be phenotypically “Black.” He’s never tried to pose as anyone else for his benefit or so he could more easily navigate his complicated identity. You’re a white person with a complicated cultural identity? We get that. What’s problematic is when you slide into positions of authority and influence pretending to be an African American when you are not or put your #whitecomplicatedidentityissues on the same scale as my #blackamericanlivedexperience.

Is this a question of fantasy? Delusion? Is the mantle of being a “strong Black woman” critical to her soul view?  Right now a lot of African Americans are confused by this story. Does she want “everything but the burden”? Or is the burden what she craves? We are bemused and befuddled but this is for sure, if Rachel wanted in on the tribe, there were much easier ways to achieve  that.

But there are larger systemic issues at work. There are relatively few high profile cases of white people trying to pass for Black. One of the more heart wrenching was the case of James McBride, author of The Color of Water, whose olive toned, curly haired Ashkenazi Jewish mother escaped an abusive household, fell in love with a Black man and passed herself off as a light-skinned Black woman.

We don’t question the perceived good Rachel Dolezal has done for her part of the world through her work in the NAACP  (which by the way has always had white member) and as an academic.  We have a saying in African American vernacular speak–“cut to the white meat” or hitting a deep spot of no return in an argument or conflict. We haven’t hit it yet. She claimed to be on the receiving end of hate crimes…real, imagined, suspicious, phony?  If she received threats who were they impacting, her perceived self or her real self? 

Part of it is our refusal to cut to the white meat of our deepest held cultural conceits. The script has been flipped in this case more than flapjacks at a pancake breakfast.  When enslaved Africans came to this country it was assumed that “seasoning” them and robbing them of their old ways was a blessing. It was not. In fact, the removal of many specific traditions weakened our family life, self-esteem, sense of communal responsibility and cultural ingenuity.  Ethnic traditions became a racialized hodge podge. We lost our ethnic verve – supposedly what drives everyone else to achieve and find their way into the American fabric—and we exchanged it for 400 years of battling for racial justice–to be seen as equal or good enough.

At the same time, what seemed like a great idea for Europeans in America, the loss of ethnic diversity as people began to take shape. You can be free free from your Italian, Irish, Jewish, or Slavic self. You can stop swinging from nooses on street poles, you can cease being told you “need not apply,” and those Old World blood libels are out the window. Over the course of a century, let’s say 1850-1950’s a new whiteness was born. Ethnic particularity died in favor of a user friendly whiteness that with some exceptions gave most European Americans reasonable social mobility.  It produced a whiteness that defined normality, superiority and a neutral base on which to build identities as creators and consummers. It also produced a bland industrial whiteness with no flavor. Whiteness became at best, a stew spiced with strong dashes of class and sexual identity flavored with borrowings from the non-white others. I gave up what made me special can I have some of yours?

Meanwhile back in Black America, the culture used scrips and scraps left over from Africa to spice a new stew, a vibrant one based on the constant need for uplift and to respond to oppression. We Black folk inherited a cause-based survival, from cradle to grave. The notion of the “struggle,” is so much a Black New World term you can even find it in Haitian Kweyol or Brazilian Portuguese.  Not only that, but an almost universal system of segregation helped encourage an interior world among people of color. Our culture became a response to a call…our language, our music, our religious life, all of it seemed to speak of our need to cling for dear life to our ancient roots, the challenge to prove our equality, the struggle against oppression and the creation of a world that white supremacy and hegemony could not dare penetrate.

If you look at it from that perspective, it’s not hard to go a little soft on Rachel.  White culture in America is a victim of its own urge to be Israel Zangwill’s “melting pot.” Black culture despite losing an enormous amount during our forced exile and humiliating assimilation process became meaningful and rich and interesting because it had goals and movements and aspirations. White culture’s urge towards appropriation rather than assimilation is not a surprise, it’s a symptom.

I wish Rachel Dolezal well in her search for her authentic self. Maybe she is the tan sister with the mixed-chick hair. Maybe she’s going to have a change of heart in how she expresses herself. Either way, her contributions for the good have been appreciated and if she wants in on our tribe, her application is already filled out.

Posted in Pop Culture and Pop Food, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

In Honor of National Soul Food Month: The Roots of Soul

It’s National Soul Food Month. Yes there is such a thing! I thought I might take you on a tour of one of the sources of soul, the early Chesapeake. I’ve written frequently about the Chesapeake being the first “Creole cuisine,” in mainland Anglo America.  That is, it’s the first in which Native American, West and Central African, and European foodways linked in the context of the larger Atlantic world and with it, an even larger African diaspora.

Soul Food is the memory cuisine of the great grandchildren of the enslaved, not the food that the enslaved ate.  The “proto – Southern” food, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Leni Sorensen, was breaking away from its British roots while acquiring carefully laced layers of other cultures, all negotiated in the hands and minds of thousands of diverse cooks. Some 80 plus different peoples made up this exchange…they were Pamunkey and Mbundu, Mende and French Hugenot, Bamana, Choctaw, Sephardic Jewish, Igbo, Scots-Irish and Canary Islander. What they created together was the root of the Southern and Soul Food traditions we know today. 

A few months ago, I worked with the African American Interpretive Department at Colonial Williamsburg to recreate an 18th century Southern meal reflective of the roots of African Virginians in the early Chesapeake and Tidewater. Training them and working with seasoned staff was incredible fun and I hope the pictures below give you just a hint of how good the food was and what to look forward to as the African American Historical Interpretive staff cooks several times a week at the Peyton Randolph House.

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The Way They Live, Thomas Anchutz, 1871

The Way They Live,” Thomas Anchutz, Virginia, 1871

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Harold Caldwell in a tobacco field.

Harold Caldwell in the tobacco fields at Great Hopes Plantation site, Colonial Williamsburg.

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The tobacco fields were where all this strted. Tobacco paid for American freedom during the Revolution. King Tobacco asked very little other than complete submission of time and space.  A diet based on corn, salted migratory fish and pork, bolstered by gardened, gathered, foraged, fished and hunted foods.

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Salted Blueback Herring

Salted herring. It makes complete sense, stinking fish was the first protein in West and Central African culinary traditions. Salt fish took its place in early slavery. The traditional West African stew would be stinking fish sautéed with onions with vegetables, tubers, leafy greens and lots of spices.

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Our West African stew..

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White Hominy

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Hominy, a Native American staple, replaced grain porridges from Europe and Africa and became an important factor in Black reproduction and normative improvement in health.  

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Salted pork was a staple seasoning for kitchens high and low.  The bits of meat were less important than the smoky, salty, peppery flavor they provided.

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Roasting whole ears of corn and sweet potatoes in ashes .

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Sweet potatoes roasted in ashes

Sweet potatoes roasted in the ashes of a fire. Stored in subfloor pits like these:

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From enslaved people’s gardens came many of the staples of soul. Corn and sweet potatoes joined cymling squash,

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Cushaw

sweet potato pumpkin,

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cowpeas,

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hot peppers,

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white potatoes,

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tomatoes, beans, okra, onions, watermelons and muskmelons and of course collard and turnip greens.

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Early American already noted the bounty of African American gardens!

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Okra Soup….

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And a very very rare treat, fried chicken and hot rolls or wafers. Black people were known as the “chicken merchants” of the Chesapeake region. Our Ancestors raised chickens, Guinea fowl, ducks, turkeys and geese for their eggs, feathers and meat–mostly for sale.

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And that’s delicious fried chicken the 18th century way.

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If you were enslaved to King Tobacco wheat bread was rare until the switch to grain was eminent.. as were wafers…we figured out this was definitely not 18th century…to have wafers with chicken! 

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We just had fun….

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And broiled stray chickens!

Posted in African American Food History, African Food Culture, Diaspora Food Culture, Events and Appearances, Food and Slavery, Food People and Food Places, Food Philosophy at Afroculinaria, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting, Scholars, Elders and Wise Folk, The Cooking Gene | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments