Flavors of Africa - Many Southern dishes have African roots

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

P Many beloved Southern dishes actually have African-American roots.

Next Monday the nation celebrates the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prelude to Black History Month which, fittingly, is observed every February, the month which marks the birth of Frederick Douglass, the passage of the 15th Amendment, and the founding of the NAACP.

Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month are propitious times to take note of the many contributions which African-Americans have made throughout our nation's history, contributions which go back centuries but until relatively recently were all but ignored.

But in focusing on the influence of African-Americans on our collective culture, let's not overlook the considerable contributions which they have made to our national cuisine. These too have been extensive and likewise we are frequently unaware of them.

Consider, for example, hopping John, a combination of rice, black-eyed peas, garlic, onion, hot sauce, and bacon, which you may have eaten for good luck a couple of weeks ago on New Year's Eve. As Anne L. Bower in her foreword to the reprint edition of "The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro" points out, "So ubiquitous has hopping John become that many Americans don't realize it has African roots; Southern whites think of it as a 'Southern dish'; New Englanders and others often enjoy it at New Year's without questioning its origin."

Similarly, we might not be aware of the debt to African-Americans owed by rice producers in the Carolinas and the Gulf Coast. But in her landmark treatise, "The Carolina Rice Kitchen," Karen Hess demonstrates that even though African slaves did not introduce rice into the Americas, were it not for their ingenuity, large-scale rice production might not have developed in the region.

Nor might we realize that the method we call barbecue is, in the words of culinary scholar Heidi Haughy Cusick, a "thirty-thousand-year-old practice of Africans." (The word may have been picked up from the Arawak tribe as Africans journeyed to this country via the West Indies.)

And even if the African influence on foods like black-eyed peas, barbecued ribs, mustard greens, and sweet potato pie seems obvious to you, as Maria C. Hunt, writing in the San Diego Union-Tribute notes, there are a host of other dishes, such as paella, fried chicken, pralines, sesame-seed cookies, and peanut butter which usually aren't labeled "soul food" (the preferred term these days is African-American Heritage Cooking) but which nonetheless have their origins on the continent of Africa. No wonder cookbook author Jessica B. Harris declares, "Throughout the Americas, there is a flavor of Africa."

Even much of our food vocabulary has African origins. The word "yam," for example, comes from a Woloff word meaning to eat; the word "gumbo" from an African word for okra; the word "goober" from a Kimbundu word for peanut. And even though the banana is not of African origin, because the fruit was first widely adopted there, the word for it is.

The "Africanization" of American food, of course, occurred as the result of the slave trade, the largest forced migration of people in history. Resilient African captives managed to bring many native foods with them and, moreover, applied their traditional cooking methods to the foods that greeted them in the New World. And since in the American South slaves did most of the cooking, the kitchen being one of the few places where their innovation was encouraged, the result was that Southern tastes were subtly transformed, so much so, in fact, that Eugene D. Genovese refers to the process as "the culinary despotism of the slave cabin over the Big House."

But the influence of Africans on American foodways was not confined to the South. After emancipation, many former slaves headed west (as many as one-third of all cowboys were African-Americans) where they continued to wield their culinary impact. Texas cowboy stew, for example, is a direct descendant of the one-pot meals of the slaves. Similarly, because the Pullman Company became the largest employer of African-American labor in the world, the menus of the railways were likewise affected.

In making their indelible imprint on the cooking of this hemisphere, Africans brought with them a cuisine that was steeped in history, going back to ancient civilizations. (For example, yams were being cultivated in Africa as far back as 5000 B.C. where they took on mythical proportions. Even today in Ghana their planting and harvesting is the occasion for festivals.)

To ancient culinary techniques Africans applied the same sort of resourcefulness and penchant for improvisation that gave the world jazz. Relegated to eating animal parts that whites would throw out, such as a pig's tongue, snout, feet, tail, ribs, hocks, and intestines (no wonder the yearning to live "higher on the hog"), they nonetheless managed to create something delicious. One taste puts the lie to the notion that you can't make something majestic out of a sow's ear. Since they were able to hunt only at night, if at all, they transformed the nocturnal possum into a delicacy. Faced with a paucity of kitchen utensils, they cooked cornmeal on the blade of a hoe (hoecake).

The poet Maya Angelou, perhaps, sums it up best when she says, "We have roasted, toasted, boiled, and fried on open fire and in electric ovens. We have cooked for presidents and princes and brutes and poets. We have taken the discards of well-to-do kitchens and made mouth-watering dishes. We made bread on the blade of a garden tool ... We know a lot about cooking to survive and even more about cooking to thrive. In this country we have been, for over three centuries, Historical Cooks."

Emancipation Proclamation Breakfast Cake

This pastry, traditionally served on New Year's Day, which is also Emancipation Proclamation Day, tastes good year-round. The recipe is adapted from "The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro," a collection of recipes arranged to commemorate dates significant to the African-American community. First published by The National Council of Negro Women in 1958 and recently reprinted, the book, containing historical facts, photos, and anecdotes as well as recipes, offers a delicious way to learn about Black history.


2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup butter

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

1 1/2 cups blueberries

1/4 cup honey

grated orange and lemon rind


Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg. Sift dry ingredients, add blueberries, and add to butter mixture alternately with milk to make a dough. On a floured surface, pat dough out to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into rounds and arrange overlapping in greased pie pan. Spread with honey, sprinkle with rinds, and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until browned. Serves 6.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. and Saturdays at 11:59 a.m. on KRCU 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or e-mail tharte@semissourian.com.

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