African American food is American food

Many assume that African American cuisine consists only of fried chicken, cabbage, and cornbread. They are indeed touchstones of black food in America, but this assumption is limiting in more than one way, obviously because it defines too narrowly the diversity of what we bring to the table. African American food is omnivorous and multinational. It encompasses the food of former slaves and the meals prepared by black, brown and tan hunks for those who enslaved them. He took foods from European culinary customs and the traditional ways of the American Indians and adapted and inflected them with some of the tastes and techniques of the lost African motherlands.

Balkanizing foods like fried chicken and okra as mere soul food ignores the fact that African American food is not just the matrix of Southern food, the most distinctive of all regional American cuisines. , but is actually the backbone of American food itself. From slavery to today, African Americans have played a fundamental role in transforming the landscape and identity of the United States. In the 400+ years since the arrival of African slaves on the North American continent, we have worked the fields, harvested the crops, written the recipes, brewed the beer, distilled the whiskey, cooked the food, set the table. , served the food, cleared the table and even emptied the chamber pots. In doing so, we have made this nation’s table and have long been stewards of some of its most important dishes.

Historically, the agricultural and botanical skills of African Americans have built this nation. Expertise in raising cattle, a trait that was particularly evident in people robbed of herding and cattle ranching groups like the Fulani, created some of the original cowboys. At the start of the 19th century, about a third of cowboys herding cattle in the western United States were African-American. These skills in animal behavior and husbandry have led many African Americans to work with chickens; long before they were the most consumed protein in the country, they were central to the festive dishes prepared by those who took care of them.

On the east coast of the country, Africans and their descendants have become experts in oyster farming. They went on to become some of the country’s best-known watermen and best-known oyster suppliers, including Thomas Downing of New York City, who shipped the shellfish to Queen Victoria. Traditional African planting methods (deliberate planting rather than dispersing seeds) resulted in higher crop yields, and African foods like okra, black-eyed peas, and watermelon became staples on American tables, especially in the South. At the same time, in South Carolina, West African knowledge of rice cultivation created unparalleled wealth for slave masters and added a myriad of recipes to the American culinary repertoire.

African Americans have created or popularized some of the country’s most iconic dishes. Consider some of the African Americans who have laid down some of the building blocks of some of the nation’s foods. James Hemings, the slave chef of Thomas Jefferson, traveled to France in 1784 and was trained in French cuisine to the highest culinary standard. He returned to the nascent United States and was instrumental in bringing macaroni and cheese, ice cream, and fries to American palates. In the south and north, African Americans worked at all levels of the restaurant business. The cries of street vendors provided the soundscape of American cities. Black caterers, muckers, and purveyors sold food and attended to parties for the wealthy who could not afford the lavish staff that the truly wealthy could afford. Philadelphia black Robert Bogle practically invented a system that allowed those who could not afford to hire domestic staff to help them with their events; this system would flourish in today’s restaurant industry. Anne Hampton, born free, wife of Solomon Northup of Twelve years a slave, worked as a highly regarded cook and chef in hotels in Saratoga Springs, New York. The same city became the birthplace of all-American potato chips when African-American and Native American chef George Crum, who cooked at Moon’s Lake House, transformed the British gambling chip.

The list is lengthened increasingly. African Americans have expanded America’s food journey in too many ways to note. Yet over the centuries the contributions of the mainland’s sons and daughters and their descendants have been subsumed under the weight of time, or obliterated by the unintentional oblivion or deliberate suppression that is part of our national character when the achievements African Americans are affected. . Although too few recognize it, hundreds of thousands of unnamed African American domestics and restaurateurs have fed this nation. So think of the chips, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, fries and beef in your burger, and next time someone says, “African American food is American food,” just think. to that and to all these people. , and nod, and say yes.

Jessica B. Harris is an educator, cookery historian and senior curator of African / American: Making the Nation’s Table at MOFAD.

Main photo credits: Getty Images, NYPL Digital Collections, MOFAD

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