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African-American Food Is the Backbone of American Food

Black food is “omnivorous and multinational,” says historian Jessica B. Harris. And it’s nourished this nation.

Many assume African-American cuisine consists solely of fried chicken, collards, and cornbread. These are indeed touchstones of Black food in America, but that assumption is limiting in more ways than one, most obviously because it too narrowly defines the diversity of what we bring to the table. African-American food is omnivorous and multinational. It encompasses the food of the formerly enslaved and the meals that were prepared by black, brown, and tan hands for those who enslaved them. It has taken foods from European culinary customs and the traditional ways of American Indians and adapted and inflected them with some of the tastes and techniques of the lost African motherlands.

Balkanizing food like fried chicken and gumbo as simply soul food ignores the fact that African-American food is not only the matrix of Southern food, the most distinctive of all American regional cuisines, but is in fact the backbone of American food itself. From enslavement to today, African Americans have played foundational roles in transforming the landscape and identity of the United States. In the 400-plus years since enslaved Africans first arrived on the North American continent, we worked the fields, harvested the crops, wrote the recipes, brewed the beer, distilled the whiskey, cooked the food, set the table, served the food, cleared the table, and even emptied the chamber pots. In so doing, we made this nation’s table and have long been the stewards of some of its most important dishes.

Historically, African Americans’ agricultural and botanical skills built this nation. Expertise in cattle-rearing, a trait that was especially evident in those people stolen from herding and cattle-rearing groups like the Fulani, created some of the original cowboys. In the early 19th century, around one-third of the cowboys who herded cattle across the western United States were African American. These skills with animal behavior and husbandry led to many African Americans working with chickens; long before they were the most consumed protein in the country, they were the center of celebration dishes prepared by those who cared for them.

On the country’s Eastern Seaboard, Africans and their descendants became experts in oyster cultivation. They became some of the country’s most noted watermen and best-known purveyors of oysters, including New York’s Thomas Downing, who shipped the mollusks to Queen Victoria. Traditional African planting methods (deliberate planting rather than scattering of seeds) resulted in higher crop yields, and African foods like okra, black-eyed peas, and watermelon became staples on American tables, especially in the South. At the same time, in South Carolina, West African knowledge of rice culture created unequalled wealth for slave masters and added myriad recipes to the American culinary repertoire.

African Americans created or popularized some of the country’s most iconic dishes. Consider just a few of the African Americans who laid some of the building blocks of some of the country’s food. James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, traveled to France in 1784 and was trained in the French cooking at the highest culinary level. He returned to the nascent United States and was instrumental in introducing macaroni and cheese, ice cream, and french fries to American palates. South and North, African Americans worked in all levels of food service. Street vendors’ cries provided the soundscape of American cities. Black caterers, victuallers, and purveyors sold foods and catered the parties of the wealthy who were not able to afford the lavish staffs that the truly rich could afford. Black Philadelphian Robert Bogle virtually invented a system that allowed for those without sufficient wherewithal to hire household staff to help them with their events; this system would develop into today’s catering industry. Free-born Anne Hampton, wife of Solomon Northup of Twelve Years a Slave, worked as a highly regarded cook and kitchen manager in hotels in Saratoga Springs, New York. The same town became the birthplace of the all-American potato chip when African-American and Native American chef George Crum, who cooked at Moon’s Lake House, transformed the British game chip.

The list goes on and on. African Americans have expanded America’s food journey in ways too numerous to note. Yet, as centuries passed, the contributions of the continent’s sons and daughters and their descendants became subsumed under the weight of time, or erased by the inadvertent forgetfulness or deliberate removal that is a part of our national character when the achievements of African Americans are concerned. While too few may recognize it, hundreds of thousands of unnamed African-American domestics and restaurant workers nourished this nation. So, consider the potato chip, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, french fries, and the beef in your hamburger, and the next time someone says, “African-American food is American food,” just quietly think on this and all those folks, and nod your head, and say yes.

Jessica B. Harris is an educator, culinary historian, and the lead curator of MOFAD’s African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.

Lead image photo credits: Getty Images, NYPL Digital Collections, MOFAD

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