American cuisine

How enslaved Africans helped invent American cuisine

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

“The basic ingredient of Coca-Cola is the native African kola nut,” says Frederick Opie, professor of history and gastronomy at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and 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 native to Africa.

“If you know what people eat, you can tell where they come from,” Opie says. “There are certain things that we crave. A lot of African Americans like spicy food. That’s because we come from the South. But also, we come from a culture, a hot tropical climate, and spicy foods create a gastrointestinal sweat that cools you down, which is why so many African Americans love spicy food.”

Hercules, George Washington’s chef in the 1780s, escaped while in Philadelphia with the president, and was later released under Washington’s will.

There was a practical reason why native 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 you found out what that group of people were eating, and you made sure they were fed that and given that when they first arrived in the Americas.

Fruits and vegetables brought from Africa flourished in America largely 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)

These plants eventually passed from the gardens of slaves 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 developing recipes that are now staples of the American diet, especially in the southern United States.

“Dishes like okra, jambalaya, pepper shaker, the method of cooking greens – Hoppin’ John (a dish made with greens and pork),” said Kelley Deetz, director of programming at Stratford Hall , to VOA via email.

Stratford Hall is the birthplace and family home of Robert E. Lee, General of the Southern 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.

“The method of frying fish or meat on a barbecue was documented in West Africa before the transatlantic slave trade,” says Deetz, who is also the author of “Bound to the Fire,” which explores how cooks enslaved Virginians helped invent American cuisine. . “These dishes and ingredients were essential to the formation of the food of the South, and eventually of America.”

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

“Soul food is just a term that was coined during the Black Power movement of the mid to late 1960s as a way to identify a food that represented the heritage of African Americans,” Opie says. “But also, over the years, it’s the food that African Americans started creating long ago to eat with dignity as slaves to (the) diaspora.”

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

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

For more than 200 years, southern plantation owners relied on enslaved Africans and their descendants to work in their fields and homes, to help raise their children, and to provide food and drink. But the contributions of African Americans to American cuisine have only more recently been well documented.

Deetz says it’s because there’s been a long-standing, intentional misrepresentation of the origins of southern cuisine.

“The skilled and talented black chef has been erased from our nation’s history,” she says. “This neglect gives way to racist narratives that support the white supremacist ideology that enslaved Africans and African Americans brought only their labor to this nation, and the culture of their ancestral land. did not have a positive impact on the United States. … It is both their work and their talent that have shaped American cuisine.”