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Ancestral Cooking Forum

African American Influence on Cooking
In Response To: Soul Food" a brief history ()

African American Influence on Cooking - Eating Healthy and Recipies Guide

When captured Africans were placed on the ships that would take them to a life of slavery in America, many had the foresight to bring along the vegetables and fruits of their homeland with them. Not only did they provide sustenance for the long and arduous journey, but the seeds would forever provide a link back to their homeland.
Watermelon, okra, black-eyed peas, and eggplant all came with the slaves, and all flourished under their care. Cooks in plantation houses made use of the vegetables, and the white population, already used to culinary change (from Europe to America) happily made room for these new dishes.

The popularity continues on today in Southern cooking, black and white. The wonderfully sweet and juicy watermelon has helped fight summer's heat for generations. Thick cuts of eggplant provided the texture of meat to stews. Okra, either thickening the West African inspired gumbo, or deep-fried, is a constant companion. Gumbo is the West African word for okra-the stew like dish that now bears that name is typical of slave cookery. Long-simmering stews that didn't require many tools or careful watching, but did depend on an assortment of vegetables, bits of meat, and rice. Legends about the luckiness of black-eyed peas eaten on New Year's Day continue on-my local grocer has a sale on black-eyed peas and collard greens every New Year.

A common, and understandable myth has grown up around the yam, or sweet potato. Although Africans may well have brought yams to America, they would not have grown-to this day, very few places in the US produce a 'true yam' and that only recently. However, upon seeing the orange-fleshed sweet potato, the slaves referred to it as a 'yam' since it was fairly similar in look. As a result, we in the US use the terms interchangeably, although they refer to different species of vegetable. In a time when potatoes were still somewhat mistrusted, the African confidence in cooking and eating this new variety must have seemed like a rarity. Sweet potato pie is still a holiday favorite, and sweet potatoes (ideally baked in ash) are a treat anytime.

Collard greens, although native to the Americas, became part of the slave diet in a time when leafy green vegetables were unpopular with whites. Lightly fried and seasoned, or boiled with a bit of pork, these dark and astringent leaves were a frequent accompaniment to otherwise scant meals. So important was this crop that the traditional day for planting was Good Friday, in hopes of ensuring a plentiful harvest.

Although the slaves from West Africa didn't need to bring rice with them, their skills at rice cultivation were greatly needed in South Carolina, where rice, not cotton, was King. Already familiar with this crop from their homeland, the slaves' intimate knowledge of this crop helped to keep the economy of South Carolina afloat, as well as feed themselves and their owners.

In the last half of this century, 'soul food' restaurants have become popular, especially in Northern cities, where African-Americans moved in order to escape the Jim Crow South. Although the greater opportunities of the North were appreciated and reveled in, with no desire to move back, homesickness took the form of food nostalgia. Restaurants formed where the traditional favorites could be enjoyed-giving a taste of home far further away than just south of the Mason-Dixon, but all the way to the Home Continent.

Messages In This Thread

Soul Food" a brief history
African American Influence on Cooking

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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