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Celebrating the African Heritage of American Cuisine

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Jollof Rice with Fried Meat, Shrimps and Dodo: Matse Uwatse, Top 121 Best Food Bloggers across the globe.


The diversity of American heritage is reflected in our food, but most of us are only aware of its European roots. So, this Black History Month, Crave It is highlighting some of the most common foods we eat today to share and celebrate the little-known history and big influence of the African diaspora on American cuisine.

Before we dive into the delicious details, we want to mention it is imperative that we continue to re-examine our nation’s history beyond this month. We need to address how society at large habitually omits and misconstrues the role of Black Americans — as well as undermines the emotional and economic impact of white supremacy and racial oppression still present today.


And we can do so through the lens of food and community.

Much like Southern cuisine, Southern hospitality is a white-washed characteristic of the American South which is truthfully rooted in African-American culture. Teranga, a West African concept of neighborliness and community, was practiced in the states by enslaved Africans and the communities of their descendants. These customs evolved into the gentile manners we associate with the south in large part due to the many generations of white children raised by Black women.


Soul Food vs. Southern Food


Blackened Catfish: Brown Sugar Kitchen, Oakland, CA


Society, more often than not, deems Soul Food as derived from Black communities and Southern Food from white (think Edna Lewis vs Paula Deen). The term soul as characterizing Black culture is linked to jazz. In the 1940s when the popularity of jazz swept the United States, its founding Black musicians were suddenly losing gigs to white counterparts. Revisiting their gospel roots to expand the genre, soul music was born. Along with it came the personal attribute, soul brother or soul sister, and soul food. Despite its unhealthy reputation, Soul Food is born out of a largely plant-based diet


Kale



The trendy green, Kale, has been a staple in African-American culture for centuries. While many think of collard greens as a side dish rendered nutritionless by bacon fat, the traditional recipes often lacked animal fats as they were rare and reserved for special occasions. In fact, eating seasonally and vegan were standard practices of enslaved Africans, and later carried on by their families.


Rice


Jambalaya: Harold & Belle's Los Angeles, CA Traditional Southern cuisine since 1969



The few rice dishes deemed American are entirely born of African cooking. A fun factoid: rice is not indigenous to the Americas. Spanish colonizers and enslaved Africans are responsible for its debut in North, Central, and South America.

Jollof rice, a common West African dish made with tomatoes, peppers, and onions, evolved into Jambalaya with influences from the French etouffée and Spanish paella, which include seafood and other meats.



Jollof rice with Stewed Oxtail and Dodo: Matse Uwatse, Top 121 Best Food Bloggers across the globe


Hoppin’ John, a New Year’s Day tradition in the American South, is derived from Waakye, the national dish of Ghana. It is traditionally made with rice, black-eyed peas, and ham hock (a tough cut from beneath the knuckle).


Macaroni and cheese


Mac & Cheese: KC's BBQ Berkeley, CA Family-owned since 1968


Digging into our research for this article we found that many credit Thomas Jefferson for the comforting, ooey-gooey childhood and adulthood favorite: mac n’ cheese. However, it is important to remember that back then people like Thomas Jefferson didn’t cook. While the combination of pasta and cheese can be traced back to ancient Rome and Jefferson’s first encounter with the concept was in Europe, it was an enslaved chef by the name of James Hemings and his brother Peter Hemings who created the casserole-style dish we love today.


James Hemings: Thomas Jefferson’s Head Chef

Having trained in France to serve as Jefferson’s head chef, James Hemings likely drew on this knowledge to develop a roux-based recipe for the dish, making it creamy. Its popularity in the 18th century was propelled by the Black chefs making it and passing down recipe tips from one generation to another. But what started out as a dish for the elite soon became a family staple with the industrial revolution. Processed products like cheese and pasta became cheaper with mass production. Instant box versions were made for convenience. But the true, delicious recipes resided within Black communities home to those who cooked up this quintessential American dish.


Community and food





Food is something that blurs the lines between family and community. It’s how we welcome new neighbors, celebrate, and grieve together. It’s a means of introducing ourselves and exploring heritage as well as the diversity unknown to us. At Crave It, we love food because it brings us together.


Stay hungry.


Sources


1. Terry, Ruth. “How Black Culinary Historians Are Rewriting the History of American Food.” Yes! Magazine, https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2020/02/26/food-african-american-history/.


2. Worley, Sam. “Where Soul Food Really Comes From.” Epicurious, www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/real-history-of-soul-food-article.


3. Hayford, Vanessa. “The Humble History of Soul Food.” Black Foodie, https://www.blackfoodie.co/the-humble-history-of-soul-food.


4. Okwemba, Tara. “The History of Slavery in the Cultivation of Mac & Cheese: From Elitist Dish to Cultural Staple.” https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/03dbf30ccad245b0a505f18b18fb5e8c



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