Migration Meals: How African-American Food Changed the Taste of America

Between the end of Reconstruction – which lasted from the Emancipation Proclamation until 1877 – and the second half of the 20th century, about 5 million African Americans left the rural South for the Northeast, Midwest and the west. The statistics and history are grim, but the cultural transformation that took place, known as the Great Migration, propelled the African-American world to the forefront of American culture in a widely felt way.. With the Great Migration, Delta blues morphed into Chicago blues, then rhythm and blues, then rock and roll. The barbecue took off and became nationally known, and sweet potato pies came to sit on Thanksgiving tables both North and South. With the Great Migration, African American culture transformed American culture, and the country began to know, eat, and love African American foods, many of which came from the South.

Runaway slaves had made their way north to freedom for centuries, and their emancipated descendants followed the same routes as their ancestors. Tattered clothes and rucksacks full of meager belongings were replaced by new, scratched store-bought finery and flimsy cardboard suitcases, but the essential baggage that entered the hearts and minds of slaves and free people alike was hope. Hope has not changed. It remained a constant – the hope of a new place to live freely, the hope of a place with jobs that could allow a person to support a family, the hope of a place in the country where they could be themselves and be at peace.

After Reconstruction ended, the safeguards the government tried to put in place to protect newly freed people also increased, and African Americans headed north from an increasingly hostile south. . The promise of Reconstruction, with its fairer tax system and attempts to integrate blacks into the American social fabric, was over. The end of Reconstruction led to the imposition of a series of Jim Crow laws in the South that required the segregation of whites and blacks on public transportation and later in schools, public places, and restaurants. Slavery had turned into sharecropping. The white supremacist organizations that had formed at the end of the Civil War grew. The Ku Klux Klan, which sprang from Confederate veterans at the end of the war, was revived and a second Klan was founded in 1915. Violence escalated. Between 1889 and 1932, the United States recorded 3,700 lynchings of black people. For many in the South, the rights won by the civil war slowly disappeared into the dreary life of harsh subsistence farming. The South was not close to their hearts: it was time to leave.

In 1910, seven-eighths of all African Americans in the country lived in the South under the so-called Cotton Curtain. By 1925, one-tenth of the country’s black population had moved north. Between 1916 and 1918 alone, nearly 400,000 African Americans—nearly 500 a day—traveled down dusty roads, pointed their faces to the horizon, and headed north and west. They headed for the metropolises where there were jobs in the factories created by increasing industrialization. They arrived in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New York and began to make their presence felt by creating neighborhoods and communities where they supported and supported each other in their churches, shops, restaurants and gathering places.

The movements of African Americans created a version preserved in Southern amber in Harlem, New York; South Side, Chicago; and Oakland, California. People settled – in areas near railway depots on the wrong side of the tracks and in hastily subdivided apartments and later in housing projects – to create new homes and neighborhoods. They often planted garden plots in vacant lots, growing black-eyed peas and lima beans; trucks from the South parked at the corners selling watermelons in the summer and sweet potatoes and country hams in the fall. Vegetable shops sprung up where those who couldn’t grow their own could get raw peanuts to boil, an array of greens, and, sometimes, even lard to season them with. Butcher shops have stocked a wide range of pork products ranging from lean/fat fillet and ham hocks for seasoning dishes to thinly cut pork chops which can be fried and, more recently, smoked turkey. The grocery stores had large bags of rice and bottles of hot sauce, and the fishmonger sold butterflyfish, red snappers and whiting, and often sold plates on Fridays. These are the neighborhoods that Toni Morrison was talking about in Ohio, those in which Vertamae Grosvenor grew up in Philadelphia, and that Aretha Franklin knew in Detroit. In these hoods, dinner might be a well-seasoned pot of slow-cooked cabbage accompanied by a slice of soft cornbread from a cast-iron skillet that had traveled north with a family member, and lunch a freshly fried fish sandwich or some grilled ribs dripping with sauce.

In more urban areas, the hallways of buildings and projects were marked by the funk of boiling chitlins or the smell of fried fish from last night, a rental party might have a buffet offering pork chops, fried chicken crisp or a pig’s trotter and a bottle of beer, and Saturday night could be spent at a downtown (or uptown) joint that served barbecue that would be at home in Memphis or Montgomery. The shopping streets of these neighborhoods were teeming with small, mom-and-pop African-American eateries that served the tastes of the black South whose transplants were homesick: pork chops smothered in a thick spoonful of sauce over buttered rice, pots of slow-cooked vegetables to eat with chopped onions, vinegar and hot sauce that graced every table with its fiery presence. Breakfasts offered creamy oatmeal and sausage patties with biscuits to drown in syrup. Neighborhood bars quenched the thirst with booze (perhaps you could even find corn liquor under the bar if a patron had just returned from the South). Before it became the catchphrase of a popular TV show, everyone knew your name and probably your family in those places, and there was always news from the original places in the South.

I grew up in one such neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens, in the 1950s, the daughter of a blessed nuclear family with two grandmothers who unwittingly bathed me in Southern mores. My paternal grandmother, who had come to New York from central Tennessee in the early 1920s, retained her southern ways despite living in the South Jamaica Housing Project. She painstakingly made battered cookies which she served with Alaga syrup (the name I would learn later was a compound of Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia). Buttermilk was always in her fridge, and from late spring through fall she worked in the small patch of land she and other tenants had behind their apartment building, no doubt remnants of victory gardens. past. The green cabbage she grew was left until the first frosts and then seasoned with smoked pork. His food was that of the rural and difficult south. My maternal grandmother, though originally from Virginia, had followed her minister husband to Plainfield, New Jersey, where the Baptist church placed my grandfather. There, she recreated Virginia’s cuisine of her youth with home-canned watermelon rind and Seckel pear pickles, fluffy yeast rolls, garden-fresh vegetables, macaroni and cheese, and glass pitchers. crystal filled with mint lemonades and other cool drinks all year round. She was my Edna Lewis before I knew Edna Lewis. Each grandmother provided me with a clear Southern culinary roadmap.

At home, there was a lot of Southern food on special days: freshly baked cookies every Sunday with a bigger one for my dad that we called the hoecake, cornbread for dinner most nights, and cornmeal corn in the turkey at Thanksgiving with candied sweet potatoes and the obligatory sweet potato pie. New Year’s Day meant a trip to the store for black-eyed peas and collard greens. Now that those days are over half a century behind me, I find that without thinking, I maintain many of the Southern culinary traditions of my youth, especially those related to New Year’s Eve festivities. My menu for this day- there is a celebration of the Great Migration, as most of the food on the table came directly from these southern grandmothers. Grandma Jones’ roast pork with crackling is the centerpiece of the meal. Grandma Harris took over in the slow-cooked, smoked-pork-flavored cabbage leaves simmered in low-sauce sauce that are traditionally eaten to guarantee money-bending, and in eyed peas blacks that were cooked with rice like Hoppin’ John for luck. I added a southern succotash made with okra, corn, and tomatoes as a personal tribute to the pod which, to me, signals African heritage food.

My New Year’s offerings are just one demonstration of the tenacity of African-American culinary traditions. Others show up throughout the year at birthday parties and summer barbecues, family gatherings and Thanksgiving dinners, Sunday suppers, church outings and Christmas dinners. week. Ways of being that began decades ago and thousands of miles away in the kitchens of the urban and rural South find their way into the kitchens of the Northeast, Midwest and West in a taste testimony to the Great Migration and the lasting ties that unite them.

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