American cuisine

African Americans have shaped American cuisine in surprising ways

JHE MOST the visually striking things on display at “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table,” an exhibit at the Africa Center in Harlem, are a quilt and a kitchen. The quilt (pictured) is made up of 406 squares, each representing an African-American contribution or contributor to American cuisine. It invites study: determining who is who and what each cookie or mug represents. The test kitchen for Ebony magazine, saved from demolition in Chicago, is a paragon of psychedelic chic, with multicolored swirls covering the walls, cabinets and even the dishwasher, as well as pea green countertops and a dark orange refrigerator.

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But perhaps the most telling artifacts are the most prosaic: an ice cream scoop and a photograph of a man standing in front of a truck. Alfred Cralle invented the scoop with a built-in scraper, turning what used to be a laborious task usually requiring two hands and at least two tools (ice cream is hard and slippery) into a simple task. And Frederick McKinley Jones invented the first portable refrigerated unit, allowing perishable foods to be shipped more widely. These two items, now so mundane they’re unremarkable, have changed how and what the world eats.

They embody the declared premise of the exhibition. In the words of Jessica Harris, author, food historian and the show’s senior curator: “African American cuisine East American food.’ Americans, like the rest of the world, can eat strawberries in February and oysters from Cape Cod far from Massachusetts thanks to Jones’ invention. simplicity and less risk of covering yourself in icy ice, thanks to Cralle’s.

Cralle’s invention also signifies the unspoken idea of ​​the exhibit: that African Americans have never been given the credit they deserve for their influence on American cuisine. Cralle patented his invention but never took advantage of it. Nearest Green, an enslaved distiller born around 1820, is not as well known as the white man he taught how to make and filter whisky, a man named Jack Daniel. In coastal Georgia and South Carolina, enslaved West Africans turned huge malarial swamps into productive rice paddies, but never profited from the wealth their labor produced. Thomas Jefferson is renowned as a foodie and oenophile, but his enslaved cook, James Hemings, prepared the food (including a “macaroni pie”) that earned the founding father the culinary fame.

This is a valuable fix. The feeling visitors get at the end is awe at the ingenuity of the brewers, chefs, distillers, farmers, restaurateurs, writers and others who persevered through unimaginable hardships and showed much more faith in their country. than their country has shown. And the taste they’re left with is sweet: everyone who comes gets a pair of cellophane-wrapped dumpster cookies on the way out (dumpster is a Bantu word for sesame). The dessert has roots in Africa, but it is also, in its sweetness, comforting delicacy and clever packaging, profoundly American.

This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “Makers and shapers”