Now LOL, I know what you’re thinking….
Ummmm, Really Twitty? I thought you was all about Black empowerment, Afrocentric eating, and blah blah blah …..What is this about? Calm down, get a grip and read.
It’s very interesting to see how many foods that are ultimately Western European in origin have resonated with African Americans and other people of African descent in the Americas. It’s important to remember that all cultures have borrowed from each other. European/Western culture without its African/Middle Eastern/South and East Asian/Native American/Pacific Islander roots has a lot to be desired as a global experience. By the same token, a lot of what we know of as African/Middle Eastern/South and East Asian/Native American/Pacific Islander civilization is the result of cultural mixing through intermarriage, war, trade, migration, religious movements and other diffusion over the past 500-1,000 years. Slavery and imperialism I might say, are fairly strong means of making people eat differently….and quickly…Globalization has sped up how fast we learn and perpetuate elements of each other’s cultures. If a person was foolish enough to separate out all the elements of their life that didn’t reflect their “pure” culture…they would be left with not much at all.
When Africans and enslaved Africans encountered Western foodways they quickly began weeding out what they didn’t like and took an interest in foods that were not as common to their diets. I saw an interesting site several years ago that talked about tea cakes. It insinuated that tea cakes came out of some African tradition. Now I am as Afrocentric as you get when it comes to credit where credit is due–but there wasn’t no tea cakes in the Muthaland, okay? How ethnic groups, “take over” certain foods and make them their own is a complex process. Foods, like certain styles of dress or words or old china–can be passed down and given away. In fact most of us are in a constant cycle of new purchases and recycled culture and don’t even know it. The culture of the plantation cook was definitely an arena where those ever so gifted “Mammies,” and “Uncles” took over dishes and made them part of the African American canon. But even in West and Central Africa, travelers and merchants noted that Africans had already begun to assimilate Western foods and change them into something more familiar to themselves. In this in-between spot, we can see what the African touch really looks like in our global diet.
Some Africans would have arrived with a passing knowledge or tasting knowledge of European foods–or better Africanized versions of European foods. For those people for whom that was the case see the Gold Coast, Kongo-Angola, parts of Senegambia, and the Caribbean during the Atlantic era. Other Black cooks would have been required to learn Western European foodways on the plantations of the New World—and British, Scots-Irish/Irish, Danish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and German cuisines were mastered in places as distant as Mobile and Montserrat, Pernambuco and Philadelphia. Certain flavors and tastes–spiciness–both hot spicy and spicy/spicy (there is a difference), fattiness–from meat, sweetness and dark, rich, savoryness were favored. In contrast, the West and Central African traditional palette was more about the oily, bitter, starchy, and hot flavors, and a light sweetness based on the array of tropical fruit available. Wine, cheese, olive oil, and other foods took some getting used to. Simultaneously the European baking tradition, temperate climate vegetables, and a higher consumption of meat informed a changing diet. For good or for ill, the collision between African and Western and —-Native American!—cuisines produced the African American, African-Caribbean, Afro-Latin, and Afro-Brazilian foods we love and appreciate today.
So with that, I bid you welcome to my list…
1. Biscuits/aka Scones and Rolls—Biscuits are the threefold test of any Southern cook–if you can make biscuits from scratch, fry chicken and make good coffee–you’re in the club. You have to have the light touch with biscuits, and not over do it. The best, most versatile side bread in all of history, a buttermilk biscuit sops, holds, sandwiches, and enjoys a good lavish now and then. I will never turndown a good biscuit–be it buttermilk, cathead, cheese, or the like. Our mothers, fathers and elders sure put a hurting on this recipe and made it their own. My great-Grandfather of blessed memory was said to make the best biscuits in Alabama.
And Rolls–I will never give you my Grandmother’s recipe for rolls—-never! It is from heaven itself. The secret may well die with me 🙂
2. Greens–as we know them—In records going back as far as the 17th century, Europeans brought cabbage, kale, and colewort–read collards to West and Central Africa. The Portuguese and Dutch introduced their respective “cabbage soups,” and Africans adopted them quickly and transformed them. The smoked meat, the onion, the seasonings–all of it was there and then came the hot pepper–and the rest was history. Africans took their greens recipes, merged them with European green soups and bam–an Afro-Southern and Afro-Brazilian classic!
Oh yeah–no white folks, (meaning the Dutch), no COLESLAW!!
3. Eurasian Veggies and Fruit—Could you really live without broccoli, carrots, celery, cauliflower, romaine, arugula, spinach and the like? These and other Eurasian vegetables are remarkably versatile and lend themselves to so many things. Broccoli has been great for Chinese cuisine but its also not a Chinese vegetable! And where would we will be without peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes, olives, and all that good stuff?
4. Macaroni and Cheese and Pasta—Need I say more? Macaroni and cheese is the golden center of any African American holiday or celebration table.. Paprika and garlic powder please–no sugar! Now the second follow up is the infamous Black reunion macaroni salad.
5. Cake and Pie—Pound cake, caramel cake, chocolate cake, sweet potato pie, pecan pie, apple crisp and peach or blackberry cobbler….Now I’m sorry but we put a hurting on this stuff too-from the crust to the flavor to the spices to the cloying sweetness that can only be made by people forced to grow and cook down the sugarcane…We made tea cakes our own even though they are as British Isles as they come…
6. Potato Salad—(Coleslaw was mentioned earlier) If you don’t have this at a Black family reunion, the Black Reunion Police show up and arrest you. Paprika and garlic powder are a must–please for G-d’s sake leave the sugar out! And put a little pickle and pickle juice and mustard in there! And DO NOT under any circumstances put peas and carrots in potato salad!!!! That is against the laws of Blackdom.
7. Grape (And other Fruit) Wine—In Kongo-Angola a lot of our ancestors took one good look at the Portuguese wine and thought it was blood. Since then, we’ve kind of morphed in our viewpoints on the subject. Our Grandmothers made many a quart of scuppernong and muscadine wine; blackberry and peach and apple and strawberry wine. I can still see those jars sitting in the cool of the closet floor!
8. Roasted Meats—now if we didn’t talk about that roasted turkey, (ham), roast beef, chicken, etc. we wouldn’t be telling it like it is! There was no smoked meat tradition in West Africa as there was in Western Europe. Meat was lightly smoked coming in from the bush–but no bacon or ham or baked or roasted hunk of meat–and ya’ll know we worked that out! Spices, sugars, we knew how to make meat sing….in a way that even the people who hated us loved it.
9. Coleslaw–Okay yeah it gets its own thing…Nuff said.
10. Iced Tea—the South would have no house wine if it were not for tea. Tea–sweet or otherwise…is there an otherwise(?) was our daily dinner drink growing up, and even when made without sugar and iced or just barely sweetened, no drink makes me feel stronger. Besides my Mother thought this was the rapper’s name for many many years until he was on Law and Order SVU 🙂
Got any more or have something to say? That’s what the comment section is for–BE LOUD!
There’s an amazing fried chicken place in Seattle (we don’t have many) called Ezell’s,where they make the most amazing rolls. They are somehow both light and dense at the same time, and a little sweet and ohhhhhh….so squishy and delicious. Reminded me when you mentioned your grandmother’s rolls.
Michael, this is such a fantastic post. I didn’t know this history and as a foodie in The South I am so happy to be aware of the roots and influences of our favorite foods. I’m very excited to see the upcoming work for the Cooking Gene Project. Keep up the good work!
Oh I love this article, very informative and funny. The debate in “Blackdom” now over potato salad is to whether to use Real Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip. yes the debate is real! LOL And for the record please don’t bring Psalad to my family events made from Miracle whip or without sliced boiled eggs and paprika on the top! 🙂 Thank you for all you do!
What a cool post – I think it’s important to show that influences move in complex ways. Very interesting content, too. In my book I referenced this great article about Norwegian immigrants int he Midwest by Knut Oyangen. At first it might seem unrelated, but what Oyangen does is break down the kinds of interactions people had with new foods (as well as their own imported foods) into distinct patterns – establishing what he calls a new “gustatory identity.” Loved this piece and you might want to check it out if you have not already seen it!
The Gastrodynamics of Displacement: Place-Making and Gustatory Identity in the Immigrants’ Midwest
The Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Vol. 39, No. 3 (Winter, 2009) , pp. 323-348
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20143876
What about Banana Pie made with Nilla Wafers?
This is a great companion piece to your post about the southern foods that most of us didn’t realize were of African origin.
You briefly mentioned the influence of Native American cuisines on Black southern cooks. I’d love to see some more about that.
Pickle juice in potato salad? I must try that! Thank you 🙂
Potato salad must have the hot potatoes dressed with a little vinegar or pickle juice. The hot potatoes will soak it up and it will add a little something to your p.salad that you will miss if it isn’t there.
Being innovative is always a good thing in cooking.
So here’s a trick I picked up from my midwife back in the ’80’s in rural Maine. (About as white as a place with humans can be!) So when she makes her own cole slaw, she pours in some of the juice from her own home-canned bread-and-butter (sweet) pickles. So, finely shredded green and puple cabbage, grated carrots, a handful of raisins and then a slaw sauce of mayo, cider vinegar, some sweet pickle juice, celery salt and a little this and that. How would that slaw fly in ‘Blackdom’? Thanks for this most excellent article. As the daughter of a culinary historian and a caterer in my own right, I LOVE this stuff!!
Everything but the raisins 🙂
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