Monday March 18, 2019
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It Is Food That African Americans Began To Create A Long Time Ago To Eat With Dignity As Enslaved People

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Cooking
Cooking a fried supper as a benefit picnic church supper in Bardstown, Kentucky, in August of 1940. VOA

You can thank enslaved Africans for one of America’s most iconic drinks: Coca-Cola.

“The base ingredient in Coca-Cola is the kola nut that’s indigenous to Africa,” says Frederick Opie, professor of history and foodways at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and the author of several books, including “Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America.”

Since the 17th century, when Africans were forced into slavery in the New World, they and their descendants have had a profound impact on what Americans grow and eat. Watermelon, okra, yams, black-eyed peas and some peppers are all indigenous to Africa.

“If you know what people eat, you can find out where they’re from,” Opie says. “There are certain things that we crave. Many African Americans love spicy food. That’s because we’re from the South. But also, we come originally from a culture, from a hot tropical climate, and spicy foods create a gastrointestinal sweating that causes you to cool yourself. So, that’s why so many African Americans love spicy food.”

Hercules, George Washington's head cook in the 1780s, escaped while in Philadelphia with the president, and was later freed under the terms of Washington's will.
Hercules, George Washington’s head cook in the 1780s, escaped while in Philadelphia with the president, and was later freed under the terms of Washington’s will. VOA

There was a practical reason indigenous African foods made it to the New World.

“When Africans were put on slave ships,” Opie says, “the reality of trying to keep your cargo alive and making money off them meant that you found out what this group of people ate, and you made sure that they were fed that and given that when they first arrived in the Americas.”

Fruits and vegetables brought from Africa flourished in America in large part because enslaved Africans planted their own gardens to supplement the meager rations provided by their captors.

A recreated slave garden at Smithfield Plantation in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Historic Smithfield Plantation)
A recreated slave garden at Smithfield Plantation in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Historic Smithfield Plantation) VOA

These plants eventually made their way from gardens of the enslaved to those of some of the wealthiest and most prominent people in the country, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whose gardens were planted with heirloom seeds from Africa.

Enslaved African chefs left their mark on certain cooking methods, while also developing recipes that are now staples in the American diet, particularly in the American South.

“Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, pepper pot, the method of cooking greens — Hoppin’ John (a dish made with greens and pork),” Kelley Deetz, director of programming at Stratford Hall, told VOA via email.

Stratford Hall is the birthplace and family home of Robert E. Lee, general of the South’s Confederate Army during the Civil War.

The kitchen building on the Chicora Wood Plantation in Georgetown County, South Carolina.
The kitchen building on the Chicora Wood Plantation in Georgetown County, South Carolina. VOA

“The method of deep frying of fish or barbecuing meats were all documented in West Africa before the transatlantic slave trade,” says Deetz, who is also the author of “Bound to the Fire,” which explores how Virginia’s enslaved cooks helped invent American cuisine. “These dishes and ingredients were essential to the formation of Southern, and eventually American, food.”

Many of these foods with roots in African American culture eventually came to be known as “soul food.”

“Soul food is just a term that was coined during the Black Power movement of mid-to-late 1960s as a way of identifying a food that represented the heritage of African Americans,” Opie says. “But also, through the years, it is food that African Americans began to create a long time ago to eat with dignity as enslaved people in (the) diaspora.”

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For more than 200 years, Southern plantation owners relied on enslaved Africans and their descendants to work in their fields and houses, to help raise their children, and to provide food and drink. But the contributions African Americans have made to American cuisine have not been well-documented until more recently.

Deetz says that’s because there’s been a longstanding and intentional misrepresentation of the origins of southern cuisine.

“The skilled and talented black chef has been written out of our nation’s history,” she says. “This negligence gives way to racist narratives that support white supremacist ideology that enslaved Africans and African Americans brought little but their labor to this nation, and that the culture from their ancestral land has not made a positive impact on the United States. … It was both their labor and their talent that shaped American cuisine.” (VOA)

Next Story

The Dining Table Starts Turning To The DIEning Table, Is Eating Alone Healthy?

Orchestrating a family meal, day after day, was a chore that no one wanted to undertake and so the dining table witnessed a different kind of evolution. It became lonely.

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dining
My version of a happy home is as delineated through my own experiences, so I am less than amused by this change. It is here that my perceptions of the halcyon days gone by conflicts with today's reality. Pixabay

I have grown up in a typical Punjabi household. The place was Patiala. During the peak of any season, our oddly planned, 50’s built house would be such a cacophony… the din

created by us all…family members of all age groups and sizes. For a child, the craze in those days was that of play, play and more play interspersed with food, food and more food.

And this household had generosity writ all over it. A buzzing, bustling kitchen with Biji (grandmother) ruling the roost, her palpable charm and grace was always as warm as the
sugar laden tea she offered you first thing, should you be our guest on any day, forget just a good day!

Sunday was the day for special indulgences where brunch was almost always outsourced Poori Chana Aloo (fat be damned) from Mota Halwai. Sonorous conversations happened
around the dining table. Eating together was therapeutic too because a lot of problems were solved across kitchen counters and dining tables.

food
We sat at that table for hours, far beyond the meals, just talking and laughing. The benefits went beyond health. It was nourishment of the soul and the body alike.
Pixabay

We had it all. Our generation, and the ones before us. We may not have had the sophisticated gadgetry of today’s times nor did we have the knowledge of the world on our finger tips but we did have our own small happy world knit together. We sat at that table for hours, far beyond the meals, just talking and laughing. The benefits went beyond health. It was nourishment of the soul and the body alike.

The dining table was then the deciding table. Indeed.

Nothing changed in my world as I graduated from my teens to my 20’s except the fact that I was now married with children. Life in the 90’s was simpler. Sunday was still an open
house… a family and friends communion of sorts. Feasts became larger because the number of loved ones grew tremendously. And since the humble mixie could no more churn out the humongous lassi portions fast enough, it was irrefutably replaced with a dedicated washing machine with its rattling rhythmic buzz, perched right within the large kitchen.

Yes you heard it right. To churn lassi in bucketfuls. Sounds like privileges that are beyond the ordinary? Stuff that legends are made of probably! Even if it was just one big cauldron of home cooked mutton curry served with a “never-counted-never-ending” supply of tandoori rotis and raita, there was always more than enough for everyone. Those were the days when the dining table had enough scratches on it to prove that it had been a witness to countless feasts and fights, drinks and the drunk, the romance of meals à deux, love and lovers, in different measures. We may not have had it all together, but together, we had it all.

The dining table became the defining table. Indeed.

But that was then when life was comparatively simpler and eating together was the centrepoint of the day. The turn of the century turned the tables, literally and figuratively. The size of the family started to shrink as did the size of its generosity. Best friends and cousins were non grudgingly replaced with gadgets and communication was now happening via Skype and video chats. Visits became few and far fetched.

food
Dinners saw less and less of “you have to
eat all vegetables” kind of phrases and not many young mothers seemed to be sourcing recipes for Bottle Gourd or Panjiri anymore. Pixabay

Orchestrating a family meal, day after day, was a chore that no one wanted to undertake and so the dining table witnessed a different kind of evolution. It became lonely. Just like
the people who were eating on it somedays. The table was now mostly used as a work station, the laptop siting on it, once too often. Where once food garnered positivity and
camaraderie, now the simple, neatly laid out daily meals were replaced with quick “on the go” breakfasts and “at work” lunches. Dinners saw less and less of “you have to
eat all vegetables” kind of phrases and not many young mothers seemed to be sourcing recipes for Bottle Gourd or Panjiri anymore.

The parental engagement fostered around the table was fast depleting. Did we even need a full-fledged dining table? The practical acceptance of its now defunct utility and
importance was directly related to the disappearance of the family size and family meals. It was no more the centre of distribution for anything at all.

And the dining table started to be the DIEning table instead. Indeed.

My version of a happy home is as delineated through my own experiences, so I am less than amused by this change. It is here that my perceptions of the halcyon days gone by conflicts with today’s reality. When my children left home to pursue their dreams and lives, the first thing that felt really different was the dining table. My shared meals became limited to the Langar (community meals in gurdwaras) and social events. Food has always defined my existence and our mutual love for each other often evokes wistful sentiments of a once full family life.

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With an increasing focus on eating food that benefits our health, we have definitely moved towards nutritionally better meals but from a psychological perspective, is eating alone healthy? Healthy enough? No amounts of supplements can infuse a rush of endorphins, like a happy chatter around the dinner table can. Once the unifier, the table stands alone
today. When did it become just a piece of furniture really? Maybe it’s time to create a home, all over again, around the diening table. One meal at a time.

And bring it back to life! After all there is nothing half as good as a household bonding over a meal. (IANS)