U.S. Food and Cuisine

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U.S. Food and Cuisine

The African-American culinary tradition derives from the foods and methods of preparation of the African continent, the diasporic sojourn of the enslaved peoples in South America and the Caribbean, and the dominance of blacks in the preparation of food in the South for themselves as well as for the planter class. The tradition was sustained and enriched as blacks traveled northward during the Great Migrations. Although corn and corn products, pork and pork products, and greens are dominant, it is a diverse cuisine as reflected in the heavy use of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Notable among cooking techniques were frying in deep fat, stewing diverse chopped ingredients in a single pot, and seasoning with hot peppers. By way of the Caribbean, it included the barbecue. Characteristic dishes include greens boiled with salt pork, deep-fried chicken and beef, and one-pot dishes (e.g., gumbos). During the 1960s and 1970s this traditional cuisine was popularly called "soul food"; as the sine qua non of southern cooking, it is the most universally identified American cuisine.

The First Source: The Old Homeland

The transmigration of plants makes points of origin arguable, but it is generally acknowledged that Africans were responsible for the presence of certain foods (some of which, for example the peanut, had traveled from the New World to the Old World to Africa and back to the New World) in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Before their arrival in the United States, West Africans, for example, had become familiar with corn, and Africans, particularly from Sierra Leone, were major rice cultivators. Although food historians differ, most include cowpeas (black-eyed peas), okra, peanuts, sesame, watermelon, and yams among the products that came to the United States directly with African slaves through the provisioning of slave ships, through items the slaves transported, or through trade with the West Indies. For some foods, the African origins of American use are evidenced linguistically (e.g., gumbo from the Tshiluba kingombo and Umbundo tchingombo ); Americans used the word pinder (Congo mpindo ) in the eighteenth century and the Bantu goober in the nineteenth, both as alternatives to the term peanut. Some sobriquets point to African sources as well (e.g., guinea hen, guinea corn, guinea pepper ).

In addition to certain foods, Africans brought their familiar methods of preparation. To six practices (boiling in water, steaming in leaves, frying in deep oil, toasting beside the fire, roasting in the fire, baking in ashes) identified by anthropologist William Bascom, Jessica Harris adds seven as "emblematic of African-inspired cooking" (1995, p. 21): preparing composed rice dishes, creating various types of fritters, flavoring with smoked ingredients, thickening with okra, thickening with nuts and seeds, seasoning with hot sauces, and using leafy vegetables, such as collards.

The Second Source: Cooking in the American South

The diverse origins of the slave population, the changing historical eras as the South moved from a pioneer society to a plantation one, and variations in the size, location, and tasks of the workforce as well as in the practices of slaveholders make most generalizations arguable. The African-American culinary tradition would develop from what the slaves wrought with their limited resources and from the preparation of food for their owners.

Those resources consisted of such rations (commonly corn and pork products) as were issued by the owners, supplemented by undesirable cast-offs, such as pigs' feet, pigs' tails, hog maw (the stomach), hog jowl, ham hocks, chitterlings, and neck and back bones, and bottom-feeding fish such as catfish. These were augmented, where possible, with food slaves gathered themselves through gardening, fishing, and hunting, particularly such nocturnal animals as the raccoon and the opossum. Some slaves were able to raise chickens, but usually for trade or barter rather than the common table.

Typically the ration resembled that described by former slave Allen Parker (1895): "The common allowance of a slave was four quarts of Indian meal and five pounds of salt pork. Sometimes one quart of molasses, per week, and all the sweet potatoes that they wanted. Whatever else they had, had to be earned by over work, or by selling a part of their allowance." Cooking was done on open fireplaces, as described by Parker: "The cooking utensils were few and all of the simplist [sic] kind. A long handled shallow iron skillet with long legs did duty as a spider in which to fry our salt pork, bacon and other meat, whenever we could get it. It was also sometimes used to bake 'hoe cake' in. These hoe cakes, which formed a large part of the slave's bill of fare, were made of Indian meal, and water with a little salt and sometimes a quantity of pork fat was added."

Neither the deficient food supplies nor the inadequate cooking apparatus limited the repertory of African-American traditional cuisine. As Parker observes, "On some plantations each slave had to do his or her own cooking, but on the others there was a cookhouse called the kitchen where not only food for the master's family was cooked, but also the food of such slaves as did not live in families." A significant part of the African-American culinary tradition would develop from the food slaves prepared for "the master's family"choice cuts of meat, dairy products, and rich desserts. Out of such kitchens would come the feasts remembered by travelers. Hilliard (1988) reports an 1832 meal at Alston plantation that included turtle soup, a leg of boiled mutton, turtle steaks and fins, macaroni pie, oysters, boiled ham, venison haunch, roast turkey, bread pudding, jelly ice cream, a pie, bananas, oranges, and apples.

African-American cuisine is enriched by two distinct regional foodwaysGullah, from coastal Georgia and South Carolina, and from Louisiana, Creole. The insularity and concentration of the Gullah/Geechee people in the Sea Islands and Low Country led to the most directly African-influenced foodways in North America; at the other extremity, the more cosmopolitan settlement of Louisiana led to a cuisine that, while abundantly indebted to the African presence, absorbed elements of Spanish and French cooking as well. Significant retentions of African foodways are found among the Gullah, even today, in dishes of indisputable African origins such as Jollof rice, red rice, peanut soup, benne wafers, and the variety of perlou (one-pot rice stews). It differs from inland cooking in the central place of rice, the staple crop nurtured by the slaves, and the availability of various fish and shellfish.

Creole cuisine, with its amalgamation of Native American, French, Spanish, and African foodways, is an integral part of African-American traditional cuisine. As in other parts of the South, Africans brought indigenous foundation foods and methods to Louisiana from both the continent and the Caribbean islands, and African Americans managed the preparation of meals. Out of the onepot came the signature Creole dishes, jambalaya and gumbo; out of the deep fat came beignets.

From the cauldron of slavery, African Americans merged a survival cuisine and a celebratory one. For the former slaves, freedom did not mean a full table. In the South, it meant sharecropping and peonage, conditions that sustained their poverty and traditional foodways. An 18951896 Tuskegee study reveals meals closely resembling Allen Parker's: salt pork cooked in the fireplace, bacon grease mixed with molasses for "sap," and bread made from cornmeal and water cooked on a hoe. North and South, it often meant work as cooks and caterers culminating, ironically, in the iconic image of the black cook (Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben) used by the food industry.

The Third Source: The Tradition Travels to the City

As African Americans moved north, particularly during the second Great Migration, they carried their foodways. Confronted by the absence of places to eat on the road and by northern discrimination, and longing for the food of home, the migrants went into the food business in significant numbers; eating places (simple as chicken shacks and barbecue wagons, fancier as restaurants) and grocery stores in the 1930s were the businesses with the largest group of black entrepreneurs. Upwardly mobile blacks adopted new foodways consistent with higher incomes (more meat, less offal), but everywhere the church supper kept the traditional communal meal alive. At picnics and revivals, one found, and finds, the fried chicken, fried fish, pigs' feet, corn bread, cornmeal dumplings, hominy grits, beans and rice, sweet potatoes, chitterlings, souse, greens with "pot likker," black-eyed peas, fritters, gumbos, macaroni and cheese, rice pudding, and peach cobbler that enslaved African Americans made to the United States' contribution to world cuisine.

Cookbooks reveal three major trends emerging in the 1990s. The first was a deepening awareness of the African sources of African-American foodways explored by Jessica Harris and Joseph Holloway and of the traditional aspects of African-American foodways in the work of Edna Lewis and the Darden sisters. The second focused on nutrition, reducing both the fat and salt content of traditional dishes with, for example, the substitution of smoked turkey for ham hocks and vegetable oils for lard; the rise of the Nation of Islam devalued pork as well. Third, after the long history of slavery where the indispensable black chef was a "cook" and of segregation where the distinguished black caterer and restaurateur was a "cook" came the emergence of African-American celebrity chefs such as Patrick Clark and Joe Randall.

See also Africanisms; Folk Arts and Crafts; Food and Cuisine, Latin American and Caribbean; Gullah


Cusick, Heidi Haughy. Soul and Spice: African Cooking in the Americas. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995.

Harris, Jessica B. Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa's Gifts to New World Cooking. New York: Atheneum, 1989.

Harris, Jessica B. The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Hilliard, Sam B. "Hog Meat and Cornpone: Foodways in the Antebellum South." In Material Life in America, 16001860, edited by Robert Blair St. George. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Paige, Howard. Aspects of African Foodways. Southfield, Mich.: Aspects Publishing Company, 1999.

Parker, Allen. Recollections of Slavery Times. Worcester, Mass.: Chas. W. Burbank & Co., 1895.

Spivey, Diane M. The Peppers, Cracklings, and Knots of Wool Cookbook: The Global Migration of African Cuisine. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

White, Joyce. Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections from African-American Churches. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

quandra prettyman (2005)

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U.S. Food and Cuisine