If You Want to Grow a Healthy African American Kitchen Garden–Here are Your Marching Orders

Climate change is real.  While we are still on land we need to figure out how to use this warm spell this year to our advantage.  You might just get eight months of reasonably warm or frost-free temperatures if you are not living in those coastal extremities that favor 8-12 months per year of growing time.

A Spring Meal--Lumper Potatoes Included

A lot of you have written to me concerning healthier eating and heirloom vegetable gardening, etc.  Let me say this first–in the African, African Diaspora and African American cultural traditions have long embraced the kitchen garden as an essential piece of daily life.  Don’t let the new crop of food advocates and activists fool you–this is a tradition that our Ancestors established, cultivated and fought for…Before anyone ever heard of a Victory Garden we had our truck and huck patches, which served as a means of cultural, economic and social power in the slave quarter through the age of the Freedmen and segregation.  While Europeans had their kitchen garden tradition, it is unique that enslaved Africans expected and promoted the idea that they were in fact “owed,” garden space to cultivate their own food.  In West Africa, enslaved and indentured persons had that right and it is likely that in the Americas, this was insisted upon by those who found themselves in exile.  Slavery was always colloquial and discretionary—gardens provided a means of self-reliance that cut down on the overhead costs of large planters to feed their workforce and reinforced–perhaps always subconsciously–African dietary traditions, African dietary adaptations and the establishment of Afri-Creole landscapes in the Caribbean, South America, and the Southern United States and eastern seaboard.  Our ancestors did not see gardens as a “dainty,” or a “hobby,” they were utilitarian and symbolic of their presence on the land.  I repeat–don’t let people fool you–we don’t need to be taught anything about the power of our traditional gardening culture–we just need to remember where we came from in order to facilitate the journey to where we need to be.

While the thrust of this post is about creating a garden that will help you “eat to live,” it goes without saying that we have lost a lot in the African American, West Indian and African Immigrant communities that could benefit their development and growth.  I encourage all of my readers who are of African descent to study gardening, get into a Master Gardener program, learn about urban farming and see if there are any local programs to facilitate that process or even establishing urban farms; and if you are still on land in the Deep South–DO NOT SELL ONE INCH OF GROUND–KEEP IT, IMPROVE IT THROUGH ORGANIC MEANS AND GROW OUR HEIRLOOMS AND RAISE OUR HERITAGE BREEDS.

Why so stern?  If you want sparkling wine, you can get sparkling wine.  If you want a salt and air cured meat product, you can get that.  But if you want to champagne, you have to go to people from a certain locale with a specific terroir in France to obtain the real deal.  If you want proscuitto or Spanish jamon Serrano,  there are specific places and sources from which the real deal is obtained.  Why is this not the case with plants familiar to the African American, African Immigrant and West Indian communities?  You would not believe how many of our distinctive crops and foods are “outsourced,” and are losing ground as products and productions of our community.  It’s an outrage for which we have only ourselves to blame.  Other ethnic communities take great pride in the monopoly and artisan production of their unique foods.  Once upon a time we did too.  We were “chicken merchants” of the Chesapeake; we were the Haitian emigrees who took over produce markets and established catering businesses, we are women who bought their husband’s freedom with tomatoes, we are the produce makers in central Virginia who bought gunpowder, lead shot and padlocks with their greens, cucumbers and cottton.  We are all those specific historical examples of ways Black women and men of old took the matter of self-preservation and self-determination into their own hands and used the earth they were bound to as a means to make way for freedom.

Don’t get me wrong–I am not a purist for “cultural ownership,” I’m just saying that anybody CAN make anything they like, but the descendants and heirs of a tradition should take the kind of pride and initiative to reintroduce and market those traditions so they can be culturally and environmentally sustainable.  The women of the Lowcountry have certainly done this with grass baskets from Charleston to Savannah.  Their children are partnering with state and local organizations interested in replanting sweetgrass and saving it from extinction while preserving a craft unique to the Gullah-Geechee nation.  Look no further than the Native American fishery projects from the Northwest to California to Virginia with its shad restoration.  In an age where Food People will pay top dollar for quality food—it is critical that we stay in the game and become our own best customers as we strive to find new ways to put our community back to work and our historic culture back to use.  Not only do we need to grow these crops, raise these animals and fish and have an informed stewardship of unique wild foods, but we need to encourage a broad and informed understanding of what our community can offer others in the marketplace of American food ingredients and ideas.  This is a call to action…So the first action is to grow what you can.

Gardening and Urban Farming:

  • puts our people back in touch with nature
  • gives us good exercise
  • teaches delayed gratification to our young people
  • encourages patient, loving and unconditional inter-generational learning between age groups, most saliently–the elderly and the middle and high school aged youth.
  • gives us access to our own self-provided part of the food supply
  • gives us stewardship over treasured cultural heirlooms, herbs and ingredients we need to define our historic and contemporary role in influencing American and global food culture.  EMPOWERMENT EMPOWERMENT EMPOWERMENT.
  • Connects us with our Ancestors.
  • Gives a fuller and better life to those who work and eat in concert with the seasons, absorb nature’s natural blessings and can eat in sustainable ways that are good for the balance of nature.

Forget the free range Ossabaw hogs, today we are hear to all about what plants will keep you and your families and friends who want to live well, alive:

Here’s the shopping list for seeds–tomorrow we talk health benefits:

  1. Collards
  2. Broccoli
  3. Sweet Potatoes
  4. Green Pepper
  5. Cowpeas
  6. Summer and Winter Squash
  7. Garlic and Onions
  8. Carrots
  9. Spinach
  10. Dandelion Greens
  11. Kale
  12. Mustard Greens
  13. Snap Beans
  14. Potatoes  (in moderation)
  15. Red Pepper
  16. Parsley, Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Mint, Oregano, Marjoram (all have medicinal qualities)
  17. Cabbage
  18. Okra
  19. Peanuts
  20. Tomatoes
  21. Swiss Chard
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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, African Food Culture, Diaspora Food Culture, Heirloom Gardening/Heritage Breeds and Wildcrafting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to If You Want to Grow a Healthy African American Kitchen Garden–Here are Your Marching Orders

  1. Saffron says:

    Awesome article Michael! Continue the great work. – Shivahn

  2. heatherm90 says:

    As far as we can, we need to take ownership over what we eat.

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