African American Food History Food and Slavery Recipes

You Asked For It: An African American Thanksgiving Primer

Please cook dat turkey nice an’ brown/Shuck dat corn before you eat!/By de side of de turkey I’ll be found!/Shuck dat corn before you eat! –William Wells Brown, an enslaved person’s cornshucking song, Missouri, 19th century

Turkey Talk:

The domesticated turkey was introduced to West Africa by the Spanish and Portuguese from the Americas, early on in the days of the slave trade to stock their settlements along the coast.  The turkey was domesticated in early Mesoamerica in what is now Mexico and Central America.  Turkeys were found in Dahomey (the Fon kingdom in the modern nation of Benin) in the villages and marketplace, but was seldom eaten.  It was considered more of an exotic pet–kind of the way we look at a peacock in America.    The turkey is known in Yoruba as “tolotolo” which obviously  reflects  onomatopoeia in naming  birds in West Africa—the Akan to the west call guinea fowl akuku (WHREW!) after its call.  The last word–well its hard to transliterate because it involves a few sounds that we don’t have in English.  The first term akuku refers to poultry.  Interestingly enough, the turkey’s scientific name, Meleagris gallopavo, is partially derived from the ancient Greek for guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, meleagris.  On early plantations and small farms of means a bevy of poultry from all over the world would have clucked around—guineas from West and Central Africa, turkeys from Mesoamerica, Muscovy Ducks from South America, chickens and domestic ducks ultimately from Southeast Asia, and geese from Northeastern Africa, specifically the Nile Valley. Yay for Africa–2 out of the rest ain’t bad.

On plantations, small farms and urban settings throughout the South, enslaved people were the predominant marketers of poultry.  Many enslaved people kept poultry by their homes in little hutches or in yards specifically meant to maintain small flocks of birds.

Slave Cabin and Chicken Yard, Dinwiddie County, Virginia Pamplin Historical Park

In West and Central Africa chickens had long come through Egypt, Ethiopia and Eastern Sudan, diffusing through the African continent at an early time.  The chicken found its way into the sacred narrative of the Yoruba, for whom the early began when the Creator let a chicken descend on a golden chain to scratch the primordial dirt.  The chicken is sacred in our heritage.  Its blood and feathers were often offered to the deities and Almighty G-d by the priests of traditional West African religions.  Many, but not all sacred animals were cooked and consummed in ceremonial meals.  During and after slavery, the chicken became “the preacher’s bird,” the common dish served to Black clergy and the Sunday meal delicacy.  Of course European Americans followed the same custom of feasting the preacher on a visit–but this uncanny link connects the custom across the Atlantic divide.

The Poultry Yard

Enslaved people sold turkeys, guineas, chickens, geese and ducks to their owners, at market and to passersby.  Our ancestors were known as the “general chicken merchants” of the Chesapeake.  On some plantations enslaved people could only sell chickens and ducks and turkeys were reserved for the Master’s use–while on others turkeys were enjoyed at special times.  Frederick Law Olmstead made note of an “Old Negro woman” selling one of her Master’s large turkeys in the market in Washington in the mid 19th century.  One of my favorite stories from the enslaved person’s survival book was a formerly enslaved man from Virginia  named Henry Johnson. He set a trap for one of his Master’s turkeys and caught it and wrung its neck.  He told the mistress there was a dead turkey, and cried and cried and cried:

“She said, stop crying, Henry and throw him under the hill.  I was satisfied.  I run back, picked that old bird, taken all his feathers to the river and throwed them in.  That night we cooked him.  And didn’t we eat somethin’ good.  I had to tell her about that missin’ bird cause when they check up it all had to tally, so that fixed that.”

In Missouri, William Wells Brown talked about enslaved people singing for their harvest meal at the cornshucking festival.  They clamored for their “turkey and clam sauce,” a reference to the Virginia and Maryland borne custom of serving Turkey in the English/English American fashion–stuffed with oysters or sauced with oysters.  In Missouri, freshwater clams would have replaced the Eastern oyster.

The Spanish Black/Norfolk Black turkeys that roamed the farms and fields of these early plantations were often essential to the health of the cash and garden crops.  Tobacco and other leafy crops prone to hornworm infestation would be picked over by turkeys and guinea fowl driven through the fields explicitly for that purpose.  According to Charles Ball, turkeys were fattened on hornworms and corn, wild grain and any other fragments available on the farm.

Worming Tobacco, Wake County, NC WPA
Turkey Breast Stuffed With Collard and Cornbread Stuffing
(its really good–stop hating!)

Preheat Oven to 500 degrees.

1 (4 pound) turkey breast de-boned and butterflied  (ask your butcher!)

Seasoned Salt & cayenne powder

2 cups of prepared, lightly sauteed collards cut into thin strips

1/2 small red onion, minced

1/ 2 cup of cornbread crumbs with a teaspoon of poultry seasoning added

4 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
1 stick of margarine (pareve for you kosher keepers)
3 tbsp of fresh sage and rosemary leaves, flat leaf parsley, thyme and marjoram–leaves only no stems!
kosher salt & coarse ground black pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil and saute onions until they are transluscent. Remove the onions and place in a small bowl. Add the sauteed collards to the onions and season with seasoned salt and hot pepper to taste. Add the grated cornbread crumbs and mix.
Before you stuff the breast, rub margarine under the skin of the breast and salt, pepper and herb the flesh under the skin.  Lay the breast flat and spread the stuffing across the surface, leaving a 1 1/2 inch. Beginning at one end, roll up the turkey breast, and secure well with butcher’s twine. Place into a small roasting pan and rub the surface of the skin with the remaining oil or margarine, and season with soul food seasoning and coarsely ground pepper. Roast in a preheated 500 degree oven for about 20 minutes for the skin to lightly brown and crisp, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees, roasting for an hour and a half or until  the meat registers done when tested with a thermometer. Remove the breast roll from the pan and cover with a tent of foil and allow to rest for 20 minutes or so.  When ready to serve cut the butcher’s twine and slice every half an inch arranging withe pieces overlapping on a serving platter.  Serve with gravy or a sauce made from the stock.  (Hint–drain the extra oil and reserve the brown bits in the pan if you want to make your own gravy/sauce.)
Gravy Suggestion:
1 tsp kosher salt and coarse black pepper mixed
1/2 cup Moscato or Riesling
1 1/2 cups of vegetable, chicken or turkey stock
1-2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley  leaves
4 tbsp flour
4 tbsp vegetable oil
Swish the wine and stock in the turkey pan after the excess oil has been drained.  Scrape up any brown bits.  Save this liquid.
Add the flour and vegetable oil to a pan and mix, cook over low heat until a light brown color emerges and a slightly nutty flavor emerges.  Do not stop stirring!  Carefully monitor the color and smell of your gravy roux. When it has the proper color and scent, add the other liquids mixing well and stirring well for about 15-20 minutes. Be sure to season with the salt and pepper mixture at the end according to taste and need.  Lastly, stir in the fresh flat-leafed parsley leaves.

2 comments on “You Asked For It: An African American Thanksgiving Primer

  1. Pingback: Another View of the Holiday | Coffee Shop Rabbi

  2. Catherine Adams

    I love this! I hope you don’t mind if I share it with my African American History to 1877 class this fall. Keep up the good work!
    Dr. Catherine Adams
    Associate Professor of History
    SUNY Geneseo


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