American cuisine

How Black History and Culture Influenced American Cuisine

Much of what makes up American cuisine can be understood through our country’s complicated history. Chefs Jerome Grant and Ashleigh Shanti are familiar with this story as culinary experts on the influence of black cooks on American cuisine.

“Brown Hands, Minority Hands has always been behind the scenes of American hospitality and has really helped grow what American hospitality is,” said Grant, owner of Jackie in Washington, D.C., and former Executive Chief of the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Whether we’re slaves, indentured servants, feeding the cowboys, or looking for a fresh start.”

Shanti, a chef in Asheville, North Carolina who focuses on Appalachian culture and cuisine, said preserving that history is simply a tradition in many black families like hers.

“I don’t have a lot of written recipes from my family, but I can call my aunt and she’ll talk about this amazing BBQ hash she’s been making for years,” Shanti said.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What impact has the black community had on American cuisine?

Ashleigh Shanti: I’ve always said to myself that black people have always been chefs and cooks. I’m grateful to now live in a time where this is actually recognized and where you see more black chefs and black restaurants. Because in some of those earliest historical images that we know of, black people in kitchens were in roles of servitude. And I love to see that finally change.

Jerome Grant: To really understand people, the best way to do that is through food, to understand their stories, a piece of their heritage, who they are and where they come from. Brown Hands, Minority Hands have always been behind the scenes of American hospitality and have really helped grow what American hospitality is all about. Whether we are slaves, indentured servants, feeding the cowboys or looking for a fresh start.

Where can we trace the roots of some of these dishes and ingredients?

Shanthi: I think it’s important to point out that the origin of a lot of these foods that we’ve been cooking for years, not just from the South, but from all over America, they came from West Africa, from Africans reduced to slavery. Beans, rice, okra, many of these seeds have made their way south from West Africa.

To agree: Ingredients such as sweet potatoes and benne seeds, many of which were brought during the transatlantic slave crossing [trade]. They grew up in places like Charleston, where they still run rampant today. Collard greens, all those types of things that at one point people considered garbage, it was like, “no, that’s part of our heritage.”

Why has the black community been so successful in passing down recipes to each generation?

Shanthi: I cook mostly foods that express my heritage and just stories from my past. And I try to tell stories about my family matriarchs. I think it’s because the oral history of African Americans is so powerful. And I think that’s how we express ourselves and pass on traditions and recipes. I don’t have many written recipes from my family, but I can call my aunt and she’ll talk about this amazing BBQ hash she’s been making for years.

Where do you see the future of food in the black community?

To agree: Sky is the limit. Just have a meal, have a meal with someone. You learn a lot more about them. It’s such an intimate thing. And with black food, it’s extremely important to show where it was all this time in history and what it contributed to history. He did so many great things to what America is now that he shouldn’t be overshadowed.

Shanthi: We are used to our mothers cooking in the kitchen and at home. I think women play a very important role in the kitchen. The way the industry is formatted and the way it’s set up, it’s hard for women to have a desire to be in those environments. It is designed to often alienate women, people of color, and marginalized people. And I think that’s part of what I want to change in the food industry. I think the future is not just about recruiting people of color, it’s about building communities of color and putting back into those communities because so much has been taken away from us whether it’s ideas, sweat work or sweat equity. I think the question is, “What gets fed back into our communities?”

Follow NBCBLK on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.