by Ari Weinzweig
Fear is a powerful thing, and for too long I let it keep from taking on this topic. For me, fear comes in two forms, both of which work their way into my mind on a regular basis. First, and easiest to own up to, there’s the sort of fear that’s well founded, and of obvious value in living life in a safe and healthy way. Stuff like “I’m afraid to stick my hand in a fire;” or “I’m afraid that if I don’t pay attention when I’m driving I could crash;” or, “If we don’t constantly taste the food we prepare and serve, I’m afraid that our product quality will suffer.” Ignoring fears like these would be, it’s safe to say, sort of stupid. So I’ve come to look at these as good fears to have.
Which then leads me to talk about that other, less desirable, form of fear. Rather than helping me stay safe, these are fears of the sort that actually keep me from doing what I need to do; if I let ‘em get the better of me, I end up reinforcing the status quo instead of challenging it and changing it (hopefully for the better). In honesty, I’m usually actually afraid to even admit to having fears like this in the first place. But hey, the truth is that, like it or not, I do have ‘em.
There are a thousand things that fall into this second category and all I guess I can do is tackle them one or two at a time. Which is why decided to get down to it and actually put fingers to fret board and write something about African American cooking. Lord knows I’ve been thinking about it long enough. But though I don’t like to admit it, I’ve been reluctant to write about it. The truth of the matter—let me get it over with—is that I have a pretty deep hesitation around presenting, or in this case, writing about African American cooking. I mean, although those of you who know me know that given all the time I spend in the sun and given my naturally rather brown complexion, I do get extremely dark in the summer. There’ve been any number of times over the years that people—both black and white—have thought I was black. Although Adrian Miller, (deputy legislative director to the Governor of Colorado, board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, writer and a very funny guy) did offer to make me an “honorary brother,” I’m not an African American. And there’s a fear that always dwells in me of
showing disrespect for others’ culture, a feeling that I should never presume to know what I haven’t lived…from doing the writing. I’ve known for a while now that this one is my problem and I’m doing nothing good for anyone by letting it rule this little corner of my world.
The thing is that I also have a vision—to contribute in some small way to bring together people and cultures that might not otherwise get hooked up; to build communication and positive connection in ways that might in some small day-to-day way make a positive difference for people we work with. To bring people together over stuff that they might otherwise leave to the side, where they stay (comfortably, if often unconsciously) in separation and stress. I’d like to help close those gaps, to connect the dots, to help reduce uncertainties by providing a chance to connect over coffee, cornmeal or cake.
The truth is, I guess, this vision has been working pretty well really when I look back on all the writing and teaching work I’ve done over the last twenty-five years here at Zingerman’s. But this subject—food and race and African American culture, coming as it does out of the horrors of slavery and 20th (and 21st) century racism—feels a bit more loaded than most. But the truth is, I think, that the subject is only loaded because of fear. The best way I know to off-load that baggage is to get the topic out there in the open, to talk, to teach, to make it all real. And to get started on the road to making that vision a reality I’ve got to get over the fears, the social taboos, the worry about what others will say and my clear lack of genetic credentials and…do it.
As I pondered this problem over the last few years I realized the truth is that I’ve had pretty similar, if less fraught, sorts of hesitations when it came to writing about Italian, Spanish, or French foods for the first time. I’m not from any of those places and I’ve got a ton more to studying to do on each of those subjects. For me, the learning never ends—at best, even after thirty years, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I need and want to do. But I’ve written and taught at length about all those other cultures and it seems to be going ok so…why not this one as well?
Thinking further still, it became ever clearer that I hadn’t just tackled this challenge in terms of cultures and countries that weren’t my own, but also with foods that were completely outside my upbringing—although country ham, bacon and oysters are all thing that loads of Americans are passionate about, growing up in a kosher home, I never even tasted them until I was nearly twenty. To write about them I just had to make peace with the reality that I’m never going be able to relate to oysters in the way that Tommy Ward (third generation oysterman in Apalachicola) or Bill Taylor (4th generation in Olympia, Washington) do. And I’ll never have the relationship to country ham that Sam Edwards or Nancy Newsom (both third generation ham curers) have.
My partner Paul, who many of you know well, told me last year about some of the ZingTrain work that he’d been doing with the folks at a group ACCESS (a very interesting, non-profit, Arab-American group). He said his contact there had shared with him the maxim that, “hatred is just when you haven’t heard the other person’s story.” That hit home for me. In this case, I had no hatred to shed. But historically, clearly many others have. And for all of us, I think the peace and connection that can come from understanding, from learning and then sharing other people’s stories can only help to make good things happen. If I can teach about the oysters of Apalachicola, I can write African American cooking too—not being black is a lame excuse for not learning. So, (talking only to myself here), yeah, I’m not an African American but since that’s clearly not going to change as I get older, I’d better stop wasting time, get my writing butt in gear and get going.
Going to the Source for Southern Foodways
I think it was five years ago that I went to my third (their seventh) Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium down in Oxford, Mississippi. The conference theme that year was basically race and food (the formal title was “Southern Food in Black and White”). It’s not a subject you come across every day of the week. Part of what I loved about that symposium was that it tackled all the taboos that our country struggles with, but did it beautifully in the context of food and having fun while doing serious eating and learning. The symposium broke down barriers by putting food, race and politics out there in ways I hadn’t thought about and that not too many people talk about.
I have very vivid memories of that conference. Bernard Lafayette, a co-founder of SNCC and a leader of the Civil Rights movement, talked about food in prison—his biggest memory of it was ice cream, brought by a friendly white guard, a guy for whom Mr. Lafayette ended up helping to write the man’s daughter’s college application. The Rev. Will Campbell came to receive and award, the first time he’d set foot in Mississippi since he’d been literally dumped over the state line into Tennessee decades
earlier. “Begging,” he said, “is hard work. You should try it some time. I did. I didn’t like it.” Jazz musician Olu Dara, another Mississippi native who lives now in NYC, was back in his home state for the first time in decades too. To my taste he left more wisdom on the table in half an hour of sharing thoughts than I’d heard in one place in a long time. “Racism doesn’t scare me,” he said. “It’s harmful to the person who has it, not so much to the person at whom it’s directed.” Writer Marcie Ferris shared a story that director Steve Channing told her from his work on a documentary of the Civil Rights era. A member of the Greensboro Four (who’d led a sit-in in the 60s at the Woolworths’ lunch counter where blacks weren’t permitted) was telling his story to some high school students and at the end he asked the kids if they had any questions. For an awkward minute or two, no one said a thing. Finally this one kid raises his hand and he says, “If they had let you order, what would you have wanted to eat?“ The answer. “I just wanted a piece of pie. Just a piece of pie!” The story still makes me cry rereading my notes five years later.
Suffice it to say that the Symposium planted some of the seeds that, in hindsight, helped me move forward, to pass through the stupid fear that I’d let stop me from tackling this subject—it took me a couple years to do it, but I took a deep mental breath, shared thoughts with partners and key folks around our organization and scheduled the first African American foodways dinner at the Roadhouse, held right after M.L.K. Day in January of 2006. That year we cooked the meal from Aspects of African American Foodways a pioneering work by Michigan-based writer Howard Paige. Thanks to the quality of Alex (Young, chef and managing partner at the Roadhouse)’s cooking, the hard work of the Roadhouse crew, and a lot of interesting and interested customers, it went really well. So I took another deep, fear-fighting breath and scheduled the second one for last January. That went well, too. We cooked out of the first two African American cookbooks published in this country: Abby Fisher’s What Mrs. Fisher Knows and Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Recipes for the Kitchen. And, now, here we are in ’08, about to put on our third annual event. This year we’ll be honoring the cooking and culture of the Gullah people from the Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Next year…. I’m not sure what the exact subject will be yet, but one thing I’m very clear on is that there are so, so many aspects of African American cooking to cover that we’ll have no problem taking things from a different perspective every year—which is good because I hope to be still doing these dinners twenty years down the road, in the same way that we just served up our 22nd Annual Paella on the Patio party at the Deli this past September.
Tracing the Roots of Culinary Tradition
Backing up a bit, let me share one of my early lessons about Jewish cooking because it’s informed my context for understanding African American foodways. Contrary to what I believed growing up in Chicago, the truth of the matter is that there isn’t really any such singular thing as “Jewish food.” If there had been, the way I’d have figured it, the universal Jewish cooking of the world would have been made up of dishes like matzo ball soup, chopped liver, potato latkes, bagels and cream cheese and all that sort of stuff. Turns out what I’d assumed to be all encompassing was actually just the particular style of Jewish food that I’d grown up with in a Midwestern family with Polish-, Lithuanian- and Russian-Jewish roots. Much to my surprise at the time, it turned out that there are actually hundreds of other versions of Jewish cooking, from places as far a field as Kazakhstan, Calcutta and Curaçao, each as different from what I grew up on as, say, a swordfish is from a smelt.
What I came to understand (as others had long ago figured out), is that Jewish cooking isn’t tied to any particular dish, but rather to (a) the rules of keeping kosher (which were taken out of the Bible) + (b) local ingredients, + (c) cooking techniques and traditions that were used in whatever area Jewish people were living. With that framework in mind, I think the first big “aha” I had around the subject at hand here was that, while African American foodways are a huge body of cooking, there isn’t really singular African American cooking any more than there is a Jewish one.
I checked in with others I respect to get their sense of it and heard much the same thing. I asked Adrian Miller (who’s been studying this stuff for many years now) how he described African American cooking: “I usually tell people it’s just African heritage cooking in the US, a melding of West African, Native American and European ingredients and culinary traditions.” Jessica Harris, probably the dean of African American culinary history, said something similar, though, she did point out that, very importantly, “Some things do bind us: okra, eating leafy greens and drinking the potlikker (or ‘liquor’ to some folks), use of hot sauces and peppers” are pretty much universally prized in African American cooking. John T. Edge, food writer extraordinaire and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (check out the website at southernfoodways.com) poetically but powerfully (as he’s so skilled at doing) brought the political piece into play: “I think it’s important to acknowledge that the South’s fitful dance of black and white has marked our food culture in significant ways. For the longest time, that BASTARD Jim Crow dictated who could sit down to dinner with whom. The thing was—our foods were always integrated. Black-eyed peas and okra from West Africa and the chess pies and puddings of Anglo-Saxon tradition have long shared the same menu.”
I agree with all three of them. For me to make sense of the subject, I’ve come to focus on three broad components of what we know as African American food: there are the foods and foodways that were brought to North America by African people on the slave ships; those were blended with the ingredients that were available in whatever areas of this continent they came to live in. And those first two were, in turn, influenced by the cooking styles they were taught by others they came into contact with—primarily white people from various European cultures and any number of different Native American tribes. Blended, iteratively and in no particular order, over the last three or four centuries what one ends up with is some of the most flavorful, most “American,” food we have in this country, and what we could commonly call African American cooking.
a) Items that came here from Africa
Remember that the “African” footings of African American cooking are actually rooted in a range of cooking styles that are as varied as Spanish food is from Swedish. If you take the time to travel from Algeria down to Angola, or cross the continent diagonally from Morocco to Mozambique, you’ll experience hundreds of different regional dishes, foods, cooking styles and cultures of enormous depth and complexity. The amazing complexity of these cuisines came together in North America through the forced arrival of Africans from so many cultures and countries. In this short piece though, my goal is merely to give some sense of what foods came west to the Americas.
Okra, known in a number of African languages as ‘gombo’ or ‘ngombo’ is a staple ingredient. The word became the went on to be used for what’s considered a classic New Orleans dish, but it’s also cooked extensively on the Carolina coast, and in the cooking of the Gullah peoples on the Sea Islands. Rice, (indigenous to Africa, as well as Asia), rice growing skills and rice cooking were certainly carried the Colonies with African peoples, planted deepest in the cooking of South Carolina. Same can be said for black-eyed peas, which came to be a staple of southern cooking, best known in the dish “Hoppin’ John,” traditionally eaten for good luck on New Year’s. Same, too, for the technique of deep fat frying which a number of historians believe was brought to the Americas with enslaved Africans. It’s not clear if sesame originated in Africa, Asia or both, but either way it too played a big role in African American cooking, both as seed and as oil. The latter helped to replace the olive oil that many Europeans were more used to cooking with.
While I don’t think very many people would class it as African American, or even African, coffee probably counts here too—it originated in Ethiopia. Open a bottle of Diet Coke last week? Kola nuts came from the western Sudan. Going to visit New Orleans (you should go, they need our business!)? Louisiana’s jambalaya probably has its roots in the Congo. Eggplant and watermelon also came from Africa. West Africans also brought their traditional meal-style—a starchy base (like yams, rice, porridge, etc.) served with a savory meat or fish (either of which might well have been dried first) sauce spooned over the top.
Corn, chiles and peanuts (from South America), originated elsewhere but were brought to prominence in North American cooking by African cooks. Sesame oil came to be a very well received alternative to olive oil that Europeans might have been familiar with, but became a staple of cooking in many areas of Africa. Although corn clearly came from the New World it had been grown in Africa for over 100 years before the bulk of the slave ships crossed the Atlantic. (Toasted corn meal porridge is very common in West Africa today, where it’s often referred to as “Tom Brown,” derived from English boarding school tradition). Same was true for chiles, as per Jessica Harris’ comment above. While it’s unlikely to be universally true, historian Howard Paige takes the power of pepper to high levels of cultural import: “Hot peppers,” he said, “were considered a measure of affection: The more copiously she used hot peppers in her sauces, the more love she was thought to have for her family, especially for her husband. If, indeed, his food was bland, her love for her husband was not so hot!”
These foods often evolved into dishes that most Americans know but few realize have African roots. For example, at the 2007 Southern Foodways Symposium, Jessica Harris pointed out that the West African fufu, a porridge made from pounded yams (true yams of the African sort, not American sweet potatoes). The yam is made into balls which are then dipped into the brothy stew to soak and the liquid. Philadelphia’s beloved pepperpot—basically a gumbo made without roux—was sold on the streets by black women of West Indian origin (a bit of Caribbean influence) with “fufu dumplings,” like made from something other than true yams, but never the less, tied to the original African cooking and eating styles.
b) Foods that were native to the New World
Corn is at the top of this list—it’s no big revelation that cornbread, grits, cornbreads, cornmeal mush, cornmeal coated catfish and griddlecakes of all sorts are central to African American cooking. The preparation of grits and cornmeal mush were likely learned from the Native America tribes who’d long been cooking porridges made out of cornmeal. (Europeans—used to oaten and other porridges, certainly came to use corn in colonial era cooking as well.) Reared a slave in South Carolina she gained her freedom and traveled on, first to Alabama, and then to the West Coast where she built a very successful business in pickled products. Since she never learned to write, the book reads as she spoke it and not surprisingly, unfamiliar food names came out sounding and looking rather odd on the printed page—succotash showed up in Abby Fisher’s later in the 19th century cookbook as “circuit hash.”
Chiles are, or course, also an essential element of African American cooking. So are sweet potatoes—the true yams that are a staple of native African cooking somehow became the “yams” most Americans think of—sweet potatoes. Whether they’re baked, candied, roasted or put into pies, sweet potatoes are central to African American cooking. Sassafras for tea, pecans for pie, squash for casserole, all could come into play. Or perhaps one of my favorite dishes—both because it’s good to eat and because I love the mystery of its history—Mississippi Delta tamales. Made by many whites and blacks alike, they take the Native American cornmeal and corn husks and turn them into a unique adaptation of the Central American dish, but mostly made with beef and spicy sauce. I love ‘em and I love the idea of ‘em too.
c) European foods that had nothing to do with either
Cooking in the plantation kitchens meant learning to prepare the dishes that reminded whites of their European homes. African cooks forced into service in white settings learned to prepare foods that Europeans longed for from their homeland, and many of these went on to show up in African American cooking. Things like the Yorkshire Pudding that’s in Abby Fisher’s cookbook or many of the recipes in Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook like Rose Cake, plum pudding, cream puffs, potted beef and blanc mange (that uses Irish moss as its gelling agent).
I’m not sure where to put greens on this list, but they’re certainly an important element in African American cooking. They seem to have originated independently in Africa, Asia and Europe as well. Wherever they came from, the style of cooking that we now know—the one pot dish, cooked long and love low heat, with the broth (what’s called “potlikker”) served on the side, is very much African, and it became a mainstay of African American cooking. In fact potlikker was understood to be an important and nutritious ingredient in the daily diet. This fact is a little known and little recognized African contribution to American foodways. Potlikker is also delicious—ask for a taste next time you’re in the Roadhouse.
Local Flavor: Four Regional African American Foodways
In a geographic context, Adrian Miller identified four regional cuisines that have been heavily influenced by African American cooking. First, he mentioned “the Low Country, and by that,” he said, “I’d include everywhere rice was grown from parts of North Carolina down to the Atlantic coastline to Jacksonville, Florida.” This would include the well-recognized cooking of Charleston, and also the foodways of the Gullah people on the Sea Islands. With that in mind, I should share that I’m sort of stuck (in a good way) on the story of Carolina Gold rice as it relates to African American cooking. To quote from Karen Hess writing in The Carolina Rice Kitchen, “I think it is safe to say that most, if not all, of the small growers of rice were African Americans. First, they knew how to raise it, and a good deal of the cultivation of rice in West Africa must have been on a small scale.” Given that I don’t have room here, I’ll refer you to the essay I did on the subject that’s on the Roadhouse website
Secondly, he said, “is the Creole cuisine of the lower Mississippi Delta Valley which you could extend along the river all the way up through parts of Arkansas and Mississippi.” Third, he put “the Deep South cuisine; the rural cooking of the interior South (large swaths of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia where African Americans were populous), to me typifies what folks now call Soul Food.” For the majority of Americans this is what they think African American cooking is. I guess it would be the equivalent of the image of lox and bagels and chopped liver representing the entirety of Jewish food. Fried chicken, barbecue (in its varied forms in all its different iterations across the South), biscuits, sweet potatoes, cornbread, etc. That Southern cooking and African American foodways overlap only makes sense—at the time of the Civil War over 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South. From 1900 to 1960, during what came to be known as the Great Migration, about 6,000,000 blacks went north, taking African American cooking with them wherever they went. Interestingly, Adrian added that although this food is now nearly universally considered to “be” African American food, the earliest versions of African American cooking were primarily vegetable-based. When meat was used it was mostly as a seasoning, the way it is in much of the Mediterranean—bit of pork fat or chicken bones used to season one pot stews, rices, quick breads or other dishes. Meat and biscuits were originally mostly special occasion eating but became every day items only when folks could afford them after moving into more urban settings.
Last, Adrian listed the foods of the Chesapeake Bay. “This region,” he pointed out, has dropped off in prominence because we’ve overeaten the Chesapeake Bay foods but forty or fifty years ago…it was very important. The excellent reputation for foods like terrapin, beaten biscuits, oysters, and
canvasback duck were all attributed to the culinary achievement of black cooks.”
If those are the main streams, I like to look too at the obscurities around the edges like the cooking and influence of black cowboys (of whom there were a lot more than most folks today have any inkling—you didn’t see them on too many old TV shows but roughly one in five cowboys were African American), the Black Seminoles (African Americans who came to live as part of the Seminole Indian tribes in Florida), and black homesteaders in the west in places like Dearfield, Colorado, where living was so rough that their version of African American cooking was, “fried potatoes for breakfast, boiled potatoes for lunch and more potatoes for dinner.” And looking ahead, I wonder how modern day influence of the significant influx of new African immigrants coming from Somalia, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Eritrea, Ethiopia and most every other country in Africa will be assimilated into the
centuries of tradition I’ve been talking about above.
Books Telling Tales
In case you didn’t already know it, I love books. As I always do when I start to write on any subject, I go to my ever-larger stacks of ‘em and see what comes up that might be relevant. Because I never quite seem to have time to get them shelved in any very organized way I don’t really ever know what I’ll find, but, I always find something interesting. In this case it was kind of wild.
First up on my stack—literally, right on top of a pile—was a short book called Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I’d gotten it as a gift from a guy who came to one of our ZingTrain seminars, but I’d put off reading it for six months. Given the internal struggle I was having, coming up with the courage to write on this subject, I couldn’t really resist reading it. Applicable? Absolutely. “…viewed objectively,” they wrote, “these fears obviously have less to with art than with the artist.” Yeah, I’d pretty much accepted the truth of that statement. “What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit.” If I needed reinforcement that fighting through the fear was the right thing to do, Bayles and Orland were offering it up to me. “Your job,” they go on, “is to develop an imagination of the possible.” OK, here we go.
Nearby in the stack was my copy of Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cookbook. Published in 1866 it was the first cookbook written by an African American in the U.S. Obviously I never knew her, but I’ve been hearing about her and her book from Jan Longone, curator of American Culinary History at the Clements Library here at the U of M for many years now. Jan always refers to her in the first person as “Malinda,” as if the two women had been good friends.
Malinda is a fascinating figure. She was born in Tennessee to a freed slave; hence she lived her whole life as a free woman. At 19, Malinda set herself on course to return to her African roots by going to live in Liberia. But her money was stolen in the port before the ship sailed, and she ended up
staying in Virginia as a cook, later traveling with white women as a nurse. Struggling to make ends meet and wanting to escape the struggles of the post-Civil War South, she moved to Michigan, which she refers to as “the Garden of the West.” She ended up living in Paw Paw, and that’s where she was when she wrote her book. The book is telling because, for the most part, the recipes in it could really have come from anyone’s American cooking of that era, filled with dishes like Irish potato custard, Indian pudding and Charlotte Russe. Still, even if some of the recipes may, considered on their own, seem sort of run of the mill; the book itself is huge historically. (We have reprints of it for viewing or buying at the Roadhouse if you’re out that way.)
From there things got even more interesting. Five down in the stack in my pile of small pamphlets I came upon something called the Southern Cook Book of Fine Old Dixie Recipes. Oddly, despite the title, like Malinda’s book, it was published in the North, this time in Reading, Pennsylvania. Written by three women I know nothing (yet) about, it was published in 1935, nearly 70 years after Mrs. Russell’s work. The light brown paper cover looks normal enough—a nice line drawing of a pretty white woman in high heeled boots and flowing skirts carrying what looks like a roasted turkey on a what I assume is a silver platter. “322 Fine Tested Recipes, 40 Characteristic Illustrations, 50 Poems and Spirituals” it says at the bottom, below the drawing.
Many of the recipes are pretty much what one would expect; Corn Cakes, Savannah Stewed Prunes and Angel Food Cake weren’t much more than a mental shrug of the shoulders. Other items were a bit more interesting—Gazpachy Salad is a little-known bit of Floridian foodways; Confederate Coffee Cake caught my eye for the name but I’m not sure from the list of ingredients what made it “Confederate” but the fact that it had that name 70 years after the Civil War is sort of telling. But then, my attention was piqued by a recipe for Pickanniny Doughnuts. Discomfort started to set in. As I flipped further back through the book I realized that, aside from the recipes, on most of the pages there were caricatures of black people—these were the “40 Characteristic Illustrations” mentioned on the cover. Often the drawings were accompanied by the “Poems and Spirituals,” many of which were loaded up with words like “niggers” and “darkies” and assorted other incredibly racist images and
Intellectually I guess I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to find this stuff but it was still scary. Political manifestos are one thing—you can find printed copy written for pretty much every crazy cause you can imagine. But when racism and stereotypes are so ‘normal’ that they show up in an innocent looking cookbook, that tells you a whole lot more about a culture. It was a belated glimpse of the obvious for me that the institutional dehumanization that was slavery plays a large part in the development of African American culinary traditions. In a way I’m afraid to really think about it. But the point of this piece is to get past the fear and make connections, not to allow the dark parts of our past stay in the closet, culinary or otherwise.
Cooking for the Future
One of the things I love about the work that I get to do here with food and cooking is that it gives me the chance to go beyond just studying and actually put the history that I’m so interested in into a form in which people of all persuasions can eat it and, in the process, learn about it and where it comes from. While our focus on food is usually on the past—learning about and preparing traditional foods—our organizational work here at Zingerman’s is more often than not fixed on the future, working to agree upon, and then build, the future that we want and believe in. So with that in mind I focused on the idea that the antidote to dehumanization has to be rehumanization—that is, to take things out of stereotypes, out of generalizations, out of black and white (no pun intended) into the grayness that is the reality of life. Given that there’s never a singular history or cooking, what there really is are a series of millions of peoples’ personal experiences that develop from, or often into, some common themes and some shared stories, and, in the food world, shared ingredients as well. You can think about “African American” food in so many different contexts—being loaded onto and then cooked on 16th-century slave ships soon to sail west from Africa; the first meals that newly-arrived Africans might have experienced in North America; the West African slaves brought here to teach white slaveholders how to build systems for growing rice in 17th century South Carolina; the blending of all those culinary and cultural traditions in plantation kitchens; people like Malinda Russell taking their cooking out into the world; people I know here in Ann Arbor and people I’ve met around the country who’ve shared family stories and recipes. Out of all of all of those we form a “reality” of, in this case, African American cooking, a cooking that’s about very real people, hard times and good times, shared learnings, and very real, very flavorful food.
What I hope is that by writing and teaching, by cooking and caring, we will successfully bring more light, more openness to the African American experience of food. And, in the process, that we’ll be able to break down the fears that inhibit connection; and from there that we can help to make the understanding of, respect for and knowing consumption of African American foods so normal in this area that no one will ever remember a time that they weren’t. I invite everyone to zoom in on the personal culinary and cultural details that make up the traditions of African American foodways and approach it in the way that one of the country’s great writers, Zora Neal Hurston, might have, (as described in Zora Neale Hurston; A History of Southern Life). “…(Zora) was an expert witness to her time,” Tiffany Ruby Patterson wrote. “She imagined, as every great artist does; but she also made it her business to see, hear, and write as an ethnographer does—in detail, in depth, and by bringing to bear a deep understanding of human complexity.”
There are a whole range of books on this subject that I highly recommend reading.
• Sue Bailey Thurman, Anne Bower, The National Council of Negro Women, The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, Beacon Press, 2000
• Judith Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, Harvard University Press, 2002
• Rufus Estes, Good Things to Eat as Suggested by Rufus, Dodo Press (reprint), 2006
• Abbey Fisher, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Women’s Co-op Printing Office, 1881 (Available in a reprint edition from Applewood Books, 1996)
• Jessica Harris, Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking, Simon & Schuster, 1999
• Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, University of South Carolina Press, 1992
• Howard Paige, Aspects of African American Foodways, Aspects Publishing Company, 1996
• Robert Roberts, Roberts’ Guide for Butlers & Other Household Staff, Pomona Press (reprint), 2006
• Malinda Russsell, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Recipes for the Kitchen, 1866 (Facsimilie edition available at Zingerman’s Roadhouse)
• Sallie Anne Robinson, Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon and Night, University of North Carolina Press, 2007
Great Tastes of African American Foods around the ZCoB
“…[B]lacks caught in the grip of slavery often exhibited uncommon wisdom, beauty, strength and creativity. The kitchen was one of the few places where their imagination and skill could have free rein and full expression, and they often excelled. From the elegant breads and meats of plantation cookery to the inventive genius of Creole cuisine, from beaten biscuits to bouillabaisse, their legacy of culinary excellence is all the more impressive, considering the extremely adverse conditions under which it was compiled.” —John Egerton, Southern Food
Greens at the Roadhouse
While we may alter the type of green we use on any given day, it’s almost always either collards, kale, mustards, turnips or, on occasion, radish greens. We cook ‘em for hours with lots of applewood smoked bacon, and serve ‘em with a bottle of pepper vinegar on the side. As per Jessica Harris’ comments, the use of peppers and pepper sauces is woven through all African American cooking—sprinkle a few drops of the spicy vinegar on the greens and you’ll add a bit of zip and some cultural context to an already good offering. Secret tip—ask for a bit of extra pot likker on the side. It’s the “broth” in the pot from the cooking of the greens. Three hundred years ago it was often given to slave children to give them much needed nutrients in less than ideal living conditions. Today it’s worth having some just because it tastes so good. But I think it’s something worth raising a shot glass of as a respectful toast to the slave cooks who did the unglamorous work to develop the roots of African American eating that we get to enjoy today.
Roadhouse Fried Chicken
Sunday food from centuries past, now available every day here at the Roadhouse. Amish raised free range chickens, buttermilk batter, only subtly spicy in the style of Gus’ Fried Chicken down in Mason, Tennessee. On the Roadhouse menu it lists this as my favorite, which is true if for no other reasons than, a) it’s really darned good, and b) who makes it at home? I know I don’t. So I appreciate it every time I get to taste it at the Roadhouse. As do a whole lot of other folks—it’s the best selling item on the menu!
Nashville Hot Fried Chicken
While it’s true that fried chicken gets my number one vote six days a week, on Tuesday (the only day we make it) my allegiance shifts over a slot to this really amazing, special super spicy version. Nashville Hot Fried Chicken is one of those African American foods that’s been around for a decades though outside Nashville it seems to be pretty much a secret (other than with the band Yo La Tengo who record in there and seemingly love the stuff—they’ve recorded three different songs that mention it). You can read a lot more of my thoughts on the subject on the Roadhouse website or watch Joe York’s award-winning short film at www.youtube.com/watch?v=72xXxV9qIPg. The film is hot in a figurative sense; the chicken in the literal, spicy sense of the word. Remember, we only make it on Tuesday nights so mark it on your calendar!
Sorghum Syrup and Biscuits
An entry from the Roadhouse brunch menu, biscuits were originally a Sunday or special-event food for most African Americans. In Shared Traditions, Charles Joyner wrote, “Biscuits were a rare delicacy for most slaves.” Times, of course, change. Writer Fred Thompson, born and raised in North Carolina, notes that, “In Southern cuisine, the humble biscuit may be the food that crosses the most boundaries. Many times I listened as my father talked about growing up on a small Johnston County