The contribution of African slaves to America’s culinary traditions must never be forgotten. But it is a challenge, one must reconstruct history because in our case, white slave owners—did their very best to subjugate Africans to the point where our ancestors contributions were nearly snuffed out. But not if its up to Culinary historian and author Jessica Harris who says, “food traditions hold symbols and meaning that serve as a historical roadmap.” “Black people have been in the room, but for so long they were regarded as invisible” to where they were easy to leave out of the historical record, Harris says.
who would have known that female Muslim Nigerian slaves, working as fruit sellers and market vendors helped shape the overall economic structure of the American South
Emeline was a slave who started as a house servant and rose to the pinnacle of American culinary life with her extravagant multi-course meals. Getting job offers from Presidents Garfield, Arthur, and Cleveland, who sampled her fabulous meals of terrapin and canvasback duck, Lynn haven oysters and crab salad, hominy cakes and fabulous confections while working as a cook at New York clubs in the late 1870s. Her story might have been lost if David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and an expert in early American literature and food revivals, had not dug through news articles and obituaries to re-create her life.
Researcher Alicia Cromwell says one major challenge is “studying the silences,” a phrase coined by Harris, “If we want to understand current relationships, then we need to go back to these very uncomfortable pasts and explore how Africans actually contributed to American culture.”
For instance, who would have known that female Muslim Nigerian slaves, working as fruit sellers and market vendors on behalf of their owners, helped shape the overall economic structure of the American South with long-distance price fixing and aggressive sales techniques?
“I’m trying to teach my students, black and white, a different kind of history about slavery,” says Cromwell, who is still researching the subject at the University of Georgia.
“I’m trying to teach my students, black and white, a different kind of history about slavery,”
We were cooks, farmers and innovators
Slaves were usually given only a small portion of food each week, so they learned to make dishes with the foods they had around them, such as pork, cornmeal, and vegetables. And yet others developed meals from their extensive understanding of farming.
Georgia chef and farmer Matthew Raiford is able to reconstruct his family’s past through his farm, which has been in his family since 1874. He came to the North Carolina conference with a yellowed letter, a rare piece of history addressed from his great-grandmother to his grandmother, detailing how and where to plant corn, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and watermelon. His great-great-great grandfather Jupiter Gilliard, the man who purchased the farm, was born a slave in 1812. “It’s important to continue this conversation, about who brought what [to America] and why we eat what [we eat],” he says. “Those conversations need to happen so everyone has a voice at the table.”
We believe that everybody needs to keep in touch with their ancestors, and through food is one of the best ways to get close!