For more than four centuries, food from every corner of the diaspora has fueled the labor that built the foundation of the United States. Soul Food’s blueprint of the African diet was supplemented by foods from the South, the Caribbean and the West Indies. Even now, in this era of Afro-fusion cooking and food influencers, ingredients brought from Africa for slaves to cultivate in the Western hemisphere are being re-imagined as the custom Soul Bowls of Instagram and Soul Food Trucks. This is a brief history of the beginnings of this unique cuisine.
There are many recurring ingredients that turn up in the history of African American food. Okra, for sure, yams, definitely, ginger, tomatoes, fried fish, of course pork and collards as well as other greens, all repeating themselves in the familiar telling and re-telling of our common culinary history as a diaspora. And the tart pickling of foods — from beets to pig’s feet – became popular for their utility; preserving food in the era before refrigeration. However, the story is far more complex than just the recurring cast of ingredients. “People of all backgrounds really don’t know the full story of African American food in the South, and that’s because a simplistic, one note narrative that can be quickly digested and spat out has become the prevailing narrative of African American food —and most African American culture in the marketplace of ideas,” wrote eminent African American food historian, Michael Twitty in Afroculinaria.
Some of the ingredients of African American cuisine came from the ports along the way of the diaspora, while others were castoffs from the table of the slavers, but they were all mixed together with love to give comfort during a time of vast existential trauma. Hundreds of years later, the recipes have changed and the comfort food for the fields has evolved into a food genre of its own, enamored the world over. Still, the core elements remain in place at the heart of the dishes, but the history and the stories behind them are nothing else than their essence.
It is virtually impossible to talk about the history of diaspora cooking without bringing up okra, the most texturally controversial of ingredients that features prominently in diaspora cooking. Love it or hate it, geobotanists trace its origins back to 12th Century BC Ethiopia. It is said that African women hid okra seeds in their hair to plant when they arrived in the new world. “I have heard stories of how mothers would braid okra seeds into theirs and their daughters’ hair so that no matter where they ended up they would have something that they knew how to grow for themselves and eat,” writes Southern food blogger, Ben in FoodIsLoveMadeEdible. “I don’t know how accurate this is, and it’s hard to find any documentation of it, but I choose to believe it could be true.”
Early ethnographies of slavers and their methods revealed that their understanding of the food of the people they were enslaving was critical to their survival in the traumatic transatlantic slave trade. Yucca, collard greens and yams probably migrated across the oceans because slavers thought those familiar foods from home would strengthen the enslaved for the long journey. By the start of the 18th century, slave ports like Charleston and New Orleans became centers for the harvesting of okra. “To the Wolof people it was kanja, to the Mandingo, kanjo, to the Akan it was nkruman and to the Fon, fevi,” writes food historian Tori Avey. “Okra was most often prepared in a peppery stew that was eaten with rice, millet, hominy or corn mush.” Ironically, by 1813, plantation owner and noted white supremacist Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia, had already fallen for the vegetable, including it in many of his family recipes.
African diaspora food was originally an improvisational cuisine, one that included cast offs, imported vegetables from the homeland and whatever one could find as sustenance in the field. Archaeologists of plantations have found evidence of fish and foraged fruit, like cherries, in slave settlements, but also cowpeas and melons that enslaved people likely grew in their own gardens. Still, as Booker T. Washington said in his autobiography Up From Slavery, “the usual diet for the slaves was corn bread and pork.” Food, according to another former slave, Fredrick Douglass, was used a form of control and discipline. Washington also noted that in the place where he grew up, in the floor was a hole – a root cellar, not uncommon in the era — where his family stored sweet potatoes, a staple of slave life. Boiled corn was fed to the farm animals, he recalled, but when he failed to find breakfast anywhere else, he got his “share.” Even breakfast was not guaranteed for slaves, so ingenuity was needed to supplement the diet.
Okra binds diaspora cooking across the Southern hemisphere. Caruru an okra stew made of palm oil features in many Afro-Brazilian dishes as well as smoked and dried shrimp. Caruru is said to be a dish that brings good fortune to the people who make and eat it, and according to NYU’s Dr. Scott Barton, it is “the cornerstone of the holiday Festa de São Cosmé e Damião (Festival of Saint Cosmas and Damian) on September 26th.” Caruru and Calaloo/Calulu are, according to Dr. Alves, “gumbo’s siblings from other mothers.” These are also okra stews with different “personalities.” Further, Crab and Calaloo is one of the national dishes of Trinidad, created around 1530 under Afro-Spanish influences.
Although pumpkins are believed to have originated in Central America over 7,000 years ago, in colonial Jamaica they replaced the edible gourds that West and Central Africans were used to. Similarly, sweet potatoes – originally from the Americas — a staple of African diaspora cuisine, replaced yams that West and Central African transatlantic transplants were used to. Over the years there has been a bit of a culinary rivalry between pumpkins and sweet potato pies over dominance at the Thanksgiving table, but the hearty Soup Joumou (above) is perhaps the most perfectly articulated use of pumpkin in African diaspora cuisine.
Soup Joumou — which means “land of the mountains” — commemorates Haiti’s liberation from French colonial rule on January 1, 1804. This rich pumpkin soup has a legacy so rich that it inspired an award-winning documentary, “Legacy in a Soup.” The story goes that; Haitian slaves were forbidden from drinking Soup Joumou, a delicacy prepared and reserved for white masters. After the liberation was consummated, the soup was reclaimed for all Haitians, then and thereafter.
Then there is the tradition of Hoppin’ John, which goes back as far as 1841. According to the story, a crippled black man hawked the storied food on the streets of Charleston, South Carolina in the 19th Century, the food was thus named after him. A simple one-pot dish of peas, pork and rice, Hoppin John is a New Year’s diaspora staple said to ‘bring fortune and peace’ to those that partake. Slow-cooked stewed meals like gumbo, calulu, pepperpot and groundnut stew appear across the diaspora. There are many variations of pepperpot, including Guyanese, which is eaten as a Christmas morning meal, with oxtail.
And there is seafood. In coastal areas in the Caribbean, seafood was plentiful. Archaeologists have found shellfish remains in slave quarters as far as Martinique. In Trinidad, the plantation owners provided their enslaved Africans with weekly rations of salt herrings or mackerel, sweet potatoes, maize, and occasionally salted West Indian turtle. It is still a bit of an archaeological mystery, however, how and when slaves fished.
The archaeological use of faunal analysis shows us that slaves often supplemented their diets from the basic rations given to them. Castoff bones, archaeologists have found, were severely smashed to extract as much nutrition and flavor as possible to make stews served in communal bowls. Archaeologists have found that subfloor toot cellars, like the one described by Booker T. Washington, were common. From subfloor root cellars, hearth areas and trenches at Rich Neck, a plantation in Virginia occupied between 1636 and the 1800s, there is evidence that the enslaved grew their own gardens.
Fruits and vegetables were sometimes grown by privileged slaves in provision grounds. Provision grounds were plots of land unsuitable for cane cultivation by slave owners and thus were allotted to the enslaved. The plots were rocky and difficult to cultivate, but African American families created innovative agricultural methods to produce food. Provision grounds were part of the Ameliorationist “ethos”; the idea that a better treated slave would lead to increased productivity and thus a greater profit for the slaver. The provision grounds were not just a way for slave families to supplement their diets, in some cases they actually made money for themselves. There was a slave market in Charleston, South Carolina, held from sunrise to 9am on Sunday mornings where they sold their fresh produce.
Over centuries, African diaspora cuisine has evolved from improvisational sustenance to a rich and highly coveted genre of the culinary arts. Early Colonial era breakout foods like buttermilk fried chicken and cornbread have evolved into multicultural fusion classics. Somewhere along the way macaroni and cheese climbed on board with glitz and glamor studded restaurants charging up to $95 for a serving of “truffled” pasta noodles and cheese. The plantation owner’s cast off bones and irregularly chopped portions of meat have become Soul Food, an African American culinary tradition; the foundation for countless black-owned businesses as well as one of the leading ethnic cuisines on restaurant menus. There is a well-known food quote that says that “the stove is where one convenes with one’s ancestors”, and with African American cooking, that covenant runs soul deep.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair