Quotes and Commentary: African American Foodways: Antique Gazes

Chag Sameach!

(Happy Holidays!)  It’s Sukkot! Jewish Thanksgiving!

So, every now and then I encounter quotes that shake me to the core because they are so old and emblematic of what the core of my work is–trying to find the elements of culinary genius in African and African American/African Diaspora cooking.  Indeed, one of the many qualities that makes our cooking a “cuisine,” a very very very loaded term; is its ability to incorporate other cultural influences in such a way that the lines of gastronomic descent appear seamless and unified.  I am working on something on the qualities of our food for when the blog grows in subscriptions and followers–if you are reading this—–and so far almost 3,000 of you have looked at this blog—subscribe!  And recommend it to others—and comment on what you read! Momentum! Momentum!

So, I came across a really interesting quote from a textbook from 1840…some 21 years before the Civil War.  The textbook: Pictorial Geography: by Samuel Griswold Goodrich:

5. Food and Drinks. There is a considerable difference between the food in the Southern States, and that in the Northern. In the former, there are few of the garden vegetables, and the Irish potatoe is not generally raised. Rice is much used, chiefly boiled, and it is often eaten as bread. Hominy is a preparation of Indian corn, which is coarsely broken, and boiled; it is found at all tables. Yams, or sweet potatoes, tomatos, and okra, are favorite vegetables. Hoe-cake, which is the johnny-cake of New England, and ash-pone, a coarse cake, baked under the ashes, are in common use, as bread. Ham is a general article of food, and the traveler will often find it set before him three times a day. In Virginia, it is, at dinner, a standing dish, accompanied by greens. In Louisiana, gumbo, a compound soup, is much used, and at New Orleans, it is sold in the streets.  pp. 280-281

Commentary: What’s so un-ignorably tasty about this reference is that this was a time when words on a page really mattered.   Words had to count—books were precious.  Griswold centers his food talk about the “South” (which he narrowly defined as Virginia to Louisiana–excluding Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas (all of which were states in 1840, subject to a slavery economy) on rice, okra, “yams”–its interesting he’s using that term interchangeably with sweet potatoes; tomatoes, corn, greens, and gumbo–“a compound soup.”  Without really saying it–but saying it plainly to our more culturally aware (we hope) eyes—he makes clear that one of the substantial differences between “food in the Southern states and those in the Northern,” is the presence of those foods that were central to Afri-Creole foodways on both sides of the Atlantic as well as across the Americas.

Here is another gem from the Hand-book of North Carolina from 1893, by John D. Cameron. :

The peanut is now accepted as the national nut, indispensable to the working of the legislative brain, equally so as proper elaborator of theatrical humor and appreciation.  North Carolina had the honor of directly introducing this priceless boon, directly in connection with the introduction of the African slave, very far removed from estimation as a boon. But the two came in together, the negro captive bringing along with him in the earlier days of the slave trade, before the sense of outraged humanity had enforced the horrors of the dreadful “middle passage,” when the slave .was transported as a passenger, with all the liberties of one, and before he was driven under hatches to conceal his presence as a contraband; bringing with him, among his household gods, his bene, his okra, and his peanuts, all indigenous African products. On the Carolina coast, both of the North and South States, these plants thrive with the luxuriance with which they nourished in their native soil and under their native sun; and long time ago, in both South and North Carolina, all these plants entered into the daily use of whites and negroes, and, for many years, without adoption by the other colonies. The bene plant has gone little outside of South Carolina; only of late years has the okra become of wider use, and even now not a universal favorite, or its uses well understood; and the peanut was slow in making national fame, and becoming conspicuous in legislative halls or in the galleries of theatres. Perhaps it is not more than three-quarters of a century ago that it burst its provincial bounds and went forth conquering and to conquer. pp. 221-222


Commentary: Wow! This guy was being remarkably sympathetic and poetic in a time when The Market Gardener periodical had “Nigger stealing a watermelon” cartoons…My favorite part is where Cameron talks about the household gods being concealed along with okra, peanuts and sesame.  The phrase “households gods” seems to reference Rachel transporting the ancestral “idols” from one place to the next as they moved in transhumanance with their flocks in early Canaan.  He also makes it clear that all three crops were adopted by whites and grown in both “races” gardens. This idea of a conquering seed—with financial benefits to the American economy of plants from Africa is especially significant at a time when enslaved Africans were supposed to be only good for brute labor…

John Louis Krimmel (1811); “Pepper-pot a Scene in the Philadelphia Market” Image Credit: Courtesy, Sumpter Priddy, III Inc.,Alexandria, Virginia.

This quote is from Jamaica, from Marly, or, A Planter’s Life in Jamaica, (1828)but its importance lies in the fact it illuminates the “crab gumbo such as you find in Baltimore” or Charleston or other places.  With the exception of the word “land” before crabs, it is clear that this scene and this recipe could just as easily have been found from Philadelphia south to New Orleans:

Next forenoon, having occasion to pass the dwelling of the lady who had been his principal partner during the previous evening, Marly took advantage of the opportunity to call and enquire concerning the health of the fair inmates after the fatigue of the preceding night, but observing no slaves about the door, he left his horse in charge of his boy, and unceremoniously entered into the hall. But although it was a house somewhat elegant, and the father reported to be in easy circumstances, he caught his fair partner, with her sister, and two other Creole ladies, much to their vexation, devouring out of an iron pot a sort of hodge-podge Called okra pepper-pot, completely in the negro fashion, dispensing altogether with the use of table, plates, spoons, knives, and forks, although abundance of each of these articles were in the room. Whether it was from indolence to help themselves, or to save the trouble of calling for help from the house attendants (who were not few in number), or from a relish to the negro mode of living, as more congenial to nature than the civilized manner, Marly had no means of determining. In this manner, however, he found them employed; squatted around the pot, alternately poking their fingers into the thick soup, and then thrusting the same into their mouths. When so caught, they vanished as quickly as their legs could carry them into an adjoining room, when a mulattoe girl made her appearance and removed the repast.

While waiting for their re-entrance, it may be mentioned that okra pepper-pot is a favourite dish with all Creoles, and those long-colonized, and may be called the Currie of the West Indies. It is a soup, in general prepared from the land crabs which abound in the island, thickened with vegetables, especially with a very small pea denominated by the negroes, okra, a kind of what is called squashies, and highly seasoned with the long pepper of the island. Creole epicures are fondest of the crab kind, but when these animals are awanting, they supply their place with salt fish or salt meat, and sometimes even with fresh meat. It was this delicate savoury dish of the land crab kind upon which the fairest born of inhabitants of the colony were regaling themselves, when they had the misfortune, or rather vexation, to be caught by Marly.

Commentary: The “long pepper” of the island? Long Red Cayenne perhaps, goats horn pepper or pepperpot pepper –as witness from the work of my friend William Woys Weaver are probable suspects.  In one of Dr. Weaver’s lectures, coincidentally given right before mine at the Wyck Food Symposium this year in Philadelphia, he described a red pepper used for sore throats steeped in liquor or cooked into broths for the ill.  Note that it is not called “gumbo,” but “okra pepperpot.” I TOTALLY disagree with those who would equate okra soup with gumbo–a dish that clearly has a roux–something that okra soup does not.  Okra soup and okra pepperpot are in the same family with okra gumbo, but okra gumbo is enhanced by the French presence of Louisiana.  Both dishes owe their existence to West and Central Africans—in Louisiana–the Kongo, the Senegambians and the people of Dahomey, who brought the Fon word “fevi,” to the area; in South Carolina–the Angolans, the peoples of the Rice Coast–what is now Sierra Leone and Liberia, and Senegambia–and in the Chesapeake and Jamaica–the Akan and Igbo, and again the Senegambians and the people of Kongo…all of them eating their various preparations of okwuru/okuru (Igbo), nkrumah (Twi), and ochingumbo (Mbundu.)  In Virginia, a formerly enslaved character in a “Slave rememberance” local colorist piece was quoted saying, “‘I tell um, ef’n dey could tase we-all’s rich, thick Jumbo soup, dey would’n tetch sich stuff is dat no mo.”

Consider this quote from William Wright (1828):

The Negroes in Jamaica use very few vegetables in their food, and these are of the nutritive and demulcent kind, viz. Hibiscus esculentus (okra), Arum esculentum (Indian kale), Cleome pentaphylla (cayo calaloo),and various species of Ama” ranthus (caliloo). These vegetables are made into soups or broths, with the addition of fish, crabs, or pork, and seasoned .with salt and capsicum. Instead of bread they have abundance of plantains (Musa sapientum), the roots of the Arum colocasia and sagittifolium (cocoes), the sweet and bitter cassida (Jatropha), several kinds of yams (Dioscorea), the sweet potatoes (Convolvulus battatas), &c.; besides many delicious fruits which they cultivate in their own gardens and provision-grounds. A simple diet of this kind makes them strong, active, and able to perform their work with ease in their native climate, whilst white people, and their pampered domestics, are unable to stand fatigue or labour in the heat of the sun.(Same old stuff–okra, sweet potatoes, other tubers, hot peppers, greens, and plantain and bananas (which were maintained in New Orleans and supplanted by the pawpaw “poor man’s banana” in other more temperate places, and the coco–or tannier was grown in the Sea Islands and Lowcountry of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida).  

What it is also interesting here is the fact that the white ladies are eating out of an iron pot with their fingers–and probably using mash or cassava bread, etc. as a dip.  One of the aspects of being white minorities surrounded by Blacks in plantation societies was the horror ascribed to “going native,” or better “going Negro” on the part of white slaveholders.  Their language, eating habits, religious practices, sexual mores, dance, music, values of honor and respect, foodways, gardenways, farming methods, architecture, even clothing and aesthetics  were influenced by the ways of their enslaved chattel.  Yes, Africans were assimilated into Western cultures—but even more interesting is that it was spectacularly powerful that enslaved people enslaved their owners with their culture…their ways, making them Fon, Yoruba, Kongo, Mbundu, Igbo, Temne, Wolof, etc.  Charles Dickens noted Southern ladies behaving in much the same ways as these “Creole ladies” of Jamaica.

While enslaved Africans brought these dishes directly to North America, the consistent influence of West Indians cannot be understated.  West Indian whites as well as enslaved and freed West Indians consistently influenced the culture of Boston and Newport, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Annapolis, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans and Galveston.  It is forgotten that enslaved Africans were not the only carriers of African and Africanized culture—pirates, missionaries, planters, sailors, slave traders, carried seeds, recipes, tastes for foods all over the Americas, and back and forth from the West Indies to continental North America. In the late 17th century as islands began to burst from overcrowding the spillover came to settle the tropical South.  Planter families might be divided up among islands and Southern or Mid-Atlantic ports; and white Creoles traveled between Philadelphia and Southern cities setting up trading networks that persisted through Reconstruction.  In the late 18th century to about the 1840’s, enslaved, liberated or “fleeing” Blacks from Haiti, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, Barbados, Antigua and other islands came to North America making unique settlements or intermarrying with Black populations already in place.  The Haitian Revolution and the sugar revolution in Louisiana meant thousands of Africans from the French West Indies came to the Lower Mississippi Valley even as thousands of Haitian whites and Blacks settled Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston. In Baltimore the Haitians would run the produce market for twenty years.

About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in African American Food History, Food and Slavery, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Quotes and Commentary: African American Foodways: Antique Gazes

  1. CHEF ERIC says:

    Man you are the man, i need to meet you one day.I know of someone who I think you would be happy to meet since you two remind me of one another.

  2. Had a fascinating dinner & conversation Michael. I can’t wait to get caught up on your posts. (as if I need more bedtime reading.)

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