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Taste of Juneteenth Image

African-American calendars are slightly different. Along with Christmas and Memorial Day, Easter and the Fourth of July, they include such specifically African-American Holidays as Kwanzaa in December; Pinkster Day, a holdover from Dutch Pentecost celebrations; and Juneteenth, the Emancipation celebration that ushers in the summer season. Juneteenth’s genesis goes back to the days of enslavement, and thoughts of the day the enslaved referred to as the day of Jubilee.

It began in whispers on Sept. 22, 1862, as a trickle, titillation, a corner of hope. Word slowly spread. Overheard by house servants plying heavy silver ladles and proffering bone china platters, it was passed along in unheated cabins where moss and rags plugged up the holes to keep out the winds of the upcoming winter. It was whispered over bowed backs in cotton fields, murmured in tobacco barns among the leathery leaves. It was shared in the boiling houses over vats of steaming cane juice: President Lincoln had issued a proclamation that gave the seceding states 100 days to abandon their pro slavery positions. Could it be?

Word spreads across the South

Then, on Jan. 1 1963, the day of the Jubilee finally arrived. As magnificent as the tidings were, news of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t travel with the speed of today’s modern information. Instead it made its way slowly across the American South. Many plantation owners felt it best to withhold the information until crops had been gathered in. Yet, slowly but surely like a rising tide that enveloped the land with the sureness of inevitability, the word passed through the tobacco fields of Virginia, through the rice-growing marshlands of the Carolina and Georgia low country, through the cotton fields of Mississippi and Georgia and out to the indigo plantations of the Sea Islands where Africa’s descendants had been able to maintain their ways. It sped along the cane breaks on Louisiana’s sugar plantations, where some of the slave owners were black themselves. Finally it made its way into the hinterlands of Texas.

“The people of Texas are informed in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”  So read Gen. Gordon Granger from the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston on June 19, 1865. The day of Jubilee had finally arrived. It had taken its time getting to Texas, but two years, six months and 19 days after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, those who had worked in slavery’s fields could finally lay their burden down. As the word spread throughout the state, a flurry of spontaneous and joyous celebrations broke out that are the ancestors of today’s Juneteenth festivities.

Black Texans celebrated their red-letter day with a fervor that made the holiday a second Christmas. The celebrations grew and flourished. They included entertainment ranging from heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving offered up by preachers in sonorous tones to cake walks and parades with lots of high stepping horses. New clothes were the thing at celebrations where the survivors of this American  holocaust were often the guests of honor.

A focus on the food

The backbone of all of these festivities, though, is the table. Those who had toiled in sorrow’s kitchen commemorated their liberty with some serious high-on-the-hog eating. Picnics and barbecues were the hallmarks of the festivities, with tables covered with bright cloths offering specialties like barbecued ribs and fried chicken, along with variations on summer produce like black-eyed peas, peaches and watermelon.

Today’s festivities are more likely to include beauty competitions and baseball games than the sermonizing of the past. The uniquely Texan holiday and the emancipation that it honors, though, has struck a chord with African-Americans around the country and increasing numbers north and south are celebrating Juneteenth in a variety of ways. The date became one of Texas’ 14 official holidays in 1979. All of the varied celebrations involve a shared meal of some sort, more often than not a barbecue. I like to think that somewhere on the table is the black-eyed pea dish that Texans call Texas caviar.

Texas Caviar

Ingredients

3 (16-ounce) cans black-eyed peas
½ cup minced yellow bell pepper
½ cup minced red bell pepper
½ cup minced scallions, including the green part
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried cumin
1 teaspoon minced jalapeno chile, or to taste (Use minced habanero, if you dare for extra bite.)

Directions

  1. Drain the black-eyed peas and place them in a non-reactive bowl.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well to make sure that all of the ingredients are mixed.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least five hours. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Jessica B. Harris, a contributor to Zester Daily, is the author of the new book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” and 11 other books on African-American foodways.

Photo: Texas caviar. Credit: Jessica B. Harris

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Black Chefs Shortchanged Image

When I ask any group to name African-American foods, only a few timid hands go up. And invariably whatever list I draw out from them runs to chitterlings, collard greens, gumbos and cornbread. With prodding, it might grow: Fried chicken? Catfish? Smothered pork chops? Occasionally a fearless soul will venture watermelon? Or okra — complete with the grimace that the vegetable usually evokes in Northerners. I smile and congratulate them for they are indeed correct. Why, though, I wonder, have they not added other dishes to the list?

To be sure the savory crunch of a well-fried piece of chicken owes a great deal to the wizardry of African-Americans, as do potato chips, Hoppin’ John and barbecued spareribs. But black Americans’ culinary heritage is much deeper — and broader — than most people appreciate. Joe Randall, a 43-year veteran of the hospitality industry put it bluntly: “Part of the problem with African-American chefs is that people don’t think of us as cooking anything other than ribs or barbecue.”

Despite centuries of cooking in the kitchens of others — preparing their foods and our own — African-American chefs are left with a presumed culinary legacy of a scant number of dishes, most of which involve making kitchen magic from some less noble animal part.

The great irony is that this imagined lack of culinary tradition and ability is a relatively recent position on the part of the country. In times past (or, to tell the truth, before being a chef became a moneymaking proposition) blacks operated at the highest ranks of the culinary profession and could be found in all of the best kitchens of the country from the White House down. George Washington was so fond of the food of his enslaved chef, Hercules, that he sent for him when he was in New York. Thomas Jefferson requested that James Hemings (Sally’s brother) travel to Paris when he was American ambassador and apprenticed him to the top chefs in France trusting that he would learn well and bring Gallic culinary innovations back to the States. Robert Bogle in 18th century Pennsylvania was so renowned for his oversight of the events of the high and mighty that no Philadelphia affair was deemed properly executed unless he had a hand in the preparations. His fame netted him a handsome income as well as a poem penned by a member of the Biddle family, “Biddle’s Ode to Bogle!”

In the antebellum South, the stereotype prevailed that African-Americans, in fact, had a natural gift for cooking. R.Q. Mallard of Georgia wrote of one plantation kitchen where “French cooks are completely outdistanced in the production of wholesome, dainty and appetizing food; for if there is any one thing for which the African female intellect has a natural genius, it is for cooking.” In Louisiana, another made a sweeping, if incorrect, categorization, writing, “The negro is a born cook …” He should have tasted my aunt’s food!

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, however, the pendulum seems to have swung. Many will gladly admit to loving greens, gumbo, chicken and catfish. Yet, as obsession over fat content pushes those dishes out of favor, African-American chefs are somehow considered able to cook nothing else. While Washington’s Hercules may have known his way around a mess of greens, he undoubtedly spent more time cooking the steak and kidney pie and trifle that Washington loved. One of the recipes that we have from Hemings is a variation of the French dessert known as Ile Flottant. And the generations of African-American chefs in Big Houses, Pullman cars, hotels, and throughout the country certainly offered their clientele more than hogmeat and hominy.

Let’s therefore stop placing African-American food in a ghetto defined by pork chops, greens, and macaroni and cheese. It’s a much more varied repertoire. It encompasses cornbread and biscuits and succulent roast pork. It’s black-eyed peas and butter beans, but also Heming’s snow eggs and now, in the 21st century as the definition of African-American expands, it’s also Jamaica’s jerk, Ethiopia’s injera and Brazil’s moqueca — and a myriad of dishes that mean we eat the world.


Jessica B. Harris, a contributor to Zester Daily, is the author of the new book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” and 10 other books on African-American foodways.

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Kwanzaa in Recipes Image

The menorah is stowed and the dreidels tucked away for another year. The Christmas tree is beginning to shed needles on the rug and the batteries are already wearing out on the new toys. It’s Dec. 26 and that means it’s Kwanzaa, the secular African-American holiday that runs from Dec. 26 until Jan. 1.

The seven-day holiday is based on seven principles: The Nguzo Saba, a collection of building blocks of self awareness. Each day celebrates a different principle.

Seven Days of Kwanzaa

Each day of Kwanzaa celebrates a different principle.

  1. Umoja – Unity
  2. Kujichagulia – Self Determination
  3. Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility
  4. Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
  5. Nia – Purpose
  6. Kuumba – Creativity
  7. Imani – Faith

Each evening, the family gathers around the Kwanzaa centerpiece and the question “Habari gani?” (Meaning “what’s up” or “what’s the news”) is asked. The answer is the principle of the day, which is discussed by the entire assembled household. In some families a chalice of unity is passed around. In others, libation is poured in honor of ancestors. In honor of all of the African-Americans who made their way in this country thanks to food ways — from planting the crops to clearing the tables, I’ve decided that this year I’ll think about the different culinary heroes each night who embodied the principle of the day and celebrate them with a special dish.

Day One: Umoja (Unity)

To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

An African-American president in the White House who has no blood connection to enslavement and a changing national discourse about race are enough to signal that the need for unity among peoples of African descent is as present as it was in 1966 when the Nguzo Saba of Kwanzaa were first formulated. Therefore, on the first night of Kwanzaa, I pour libation on the ground and salute all peoples of African descent wherever they may be on the globe. I celebrate our unity by raising a glass of good Kentucky bourbon.

Day Two: Kujichagulia (Self- determination)

To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created for and spoken for by others

In the days of the Civil Rights movement, it seemed that every Southern town had an African-American restaurant that was a bastion of comfort for its inhabitants. These places offered up the traditional African-American fare of the South: heaping plates piled high with smothered pork chops or fried chicken. There were freshly cooked collard or mustard greens seasoned with fatback, butter beans that had been cooked long low and slow, sweet potatoes dripping with brown sugar syrup, and fluffy cornbread with no sugar in it. In each town, these places with names like Paschal’s and Deacon’s and Dooky Chase became lynch pins for the movement. These were cultural way stations where blacks could meet and strategize around a table piled high with comfort food.

On this second day of Kwanzaa, I will pour libation on the ground and salute those entrepreneurs who provided a place for coming together to plan for the events that created the world in which we now live. I will salute them on the plate with a dish of the fried chicken that was often on the menu.

Fried Chicken

Serves 4 to 6. Adapted from “The Welcome Table.”

Ingredients

2 ½ to 3-pound frying chicken, cut into pieces
vegetable oil for frying
½ cup flour
¼ cup white cornmeal
1½ tablespoons Bell’s poultry seasoning
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Wash the chicken thoroughly and pat the pieces dry with paper towels.
  2. Heat the oil to 350 F in a heavy cast iron skillet.
  3. Place the remaining ingredients in a brown paper bag and shake to mix well. Then, add the chicken pieces a few at a time and shake to ensure that each piece is well coated with the mix.
  4. Place the chicken pieces in the skillet and fry, uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes turning as the chicken browns. Check for doneness by pricking the chicken with a fork. The juices should run clear with no trace of blood.
  5. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature.

 

Day Three: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

To build and maintain our community and to make our sisters’ and brothers’ problems our problems and to solve them together.

From the days of enslavement through the present, people of African descent in the United States have worked the land. During the Colonial period, they planted rice in South Carolina and created that state’s vast wealth. In the North, they worked on plantations and small farms provisioning not only themselves, and their masters, but often growing food that was sold to others as far away as the Caribbean. In recent times, the workers may indeed be from the Caribbean or points south, but they are still growing and harvesting the crops on which we depend.

On the third day of Kwanzaa, therefore, I will celebrate African-American farmers whether they farmed their own land in freedom or that of others as slaves or migrants. We would all be less well nourished without their agricultural ability and technological knowhow. I will salute them on the plate with a dish of blanched okra.

Blanched Okra

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 cups water
1 pound small unblemished okra pods, topped and tailed
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Directions

  1. Place the water in a large saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat.
  2. Plunge the okra into the water and allow it to cook for three to five minutes.
  3. Add the lemon juice at the last minute of cooking time.
  4. Remove the okra, drain, and serve hot with a pat of butter.

 

Day Four: Ujima (Cooperative economics)

To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nineteenth-century Philadelphia was a pivotal city for much African-American history and blacks had long worked in the city’s food-service industry. There, a group of French West Indian immigrants banded together to create a union that became a bulwark of that city’s high society well into the 20th century. They formed a union of caterers and shared the equipment, chairs, linens and other service items. They also trained the waiters who then could work for any of the catering companies.Kwanzaa table

These African-American caterers and their descendants set the bar for entertainment. In the words of African American sociologist W.E.B.Du Bois, “they transformed the Negro cook and waiter into the public caterer and restaurateur, and raised a crowd of underpaid menials to become a set of self-reliant, original businessmen…”

On the fourth day of Kwanzaa, I pour libation on the ground and salute the caterers of Philadelphia for their embodiment of the principle of cooperative economics. I celebrate them on the plate with a slice of lemon pecan pound cake.

Lemon-Pecan Pound Cake

Serves 10

Ingredients
2½ cups sifted cake flour
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
5 eggs, separated plus 1 egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon lemon extract
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
½ cup minced pecans

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan.
  2. Sift the flour, salt and nutmeg into a small bowl and set aside.
  3. In another bowl, cream the butter, slowly add the sugar, continuing to stir until light. Beat the egg yolks until thick and slowly drizzle them into the butter while continuing to beat.
  4. Gradually blend in the flour mixture, add the vanilla and lemon extract and zest and beat until smooth. Stir in the pecans.
  5. Beat the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the batter.
  6. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for an hour or until the cake pulls slightly from the sides of the pan.

Day Five: Nia (Purpose)

To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Sometimes, purpose in life means succeeding in the face of unspeakable odds. In ante bellum New Orleans, coffee stands were scattered throughout the city from which women of color sold coffee — the city’s favorite non alcoholic elixir. The most prized spots were in front of the cathedral where the women were assured of customers at the end of Mass and in the French Market where shoppers were equally likely to stop for a tiny cup of the brew. The Daily Picayune described the coffee served by Zabette as “the essence of the fragrant bean” and bemoaned the fact that following her death “lovers of that divine beverage wander listlessly around the stalls on Sunday mornings with a pining at the bosom which cannot be satisfied.”

Others served their purpose by re-creating a West African rice fritter called a cala that was prepared from leftover rice and often sold along with the coffee.

On this fifth day of Kwanzaa, I pour libation on the ground and salute the purpose of those women who created their own way in the world by selling coffee and making fritters. I celebrate them on the plate with calas.

Calas

Makes approximately 12 calas. Adapted from “Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim.”

Ingredients

2 cups cooked rice (Must be cold or at least room temperature)
6 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 whole eggs
Oil for frying

Directions

  1. Place the rice into a medium-sized bowl and sprinkle the flour and the baking powder on top of it, mixing thoroughly to coat the rice. Mix in the sugar. Sprinkle the vanilla over the rice and mix well.
  2. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well. Heat the oil for frying to 375 F in a heavy skillet, (You need at least ¼ to ½ inch of oil.)
  3. Form the calas with two tablespoons, moving the dough from one to the other until you have an oval.
  4. Push the oval off the spoon into the oil and fry, turning once until it is browned on both sides.
  5. Drain well on paper towels and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve hot.
 

Day Six: Kuumba (Creativity)

To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

African-American street vendors have transformed the nation’s culinary landscape for centuries. Roast corn sellers who hawked their roasting ears on the street corners of Lower Manhattan in the Federal period, vendors sold roasted sweet potatoes out of the back of rigged up burners in Depression-era Harlem. And men drive trucks up from North Carolina filled with ham, greens, sweets and sorghum syrup to sell to homesick African-Americans in northern black neighborhoods until this day. For all of them, the ability to create a street cry or to design a humorous sign made the difference between success and failure.

So on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, I salute the street hawkers who keep neighborhoods lively and keep the tastes of fresh black-eyed peas, sorghum syrup, and good country ham alive in black neighborhoods throughout the country. I celebrate them on the plate with a snack of roasted sweet potatoes.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Serves 6

Ingredients

6 medium sweet potatoes
vegetable oil
6 tablespoons butter
Salt and freshly ground nutmeg, to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
  2. Scrub the potatoes. Coat their skins lightly with vegetable oil and place them on a rack in the oven. Allow them to cook for 45 minutes or until they are cooked through.
  3. Slit them open and place a tablespoon of butter and the freshly ground nutmeg in each.
  4. Mash it all in and eat while piping hot.

Day Seven: Imani (Faith)

To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

People may suggest that we live in a post-racial world, but anyone who has looked at national statistics about homeless, education, poverty, hunger and more knows that there is still work to be done.

On the final day of Kwanzaa I salute all of those who are working to better the lot of people of African descent in the world. I celebrate them with a glass of rum — aged Rum Barbancourt from Haiti.

Kwanzaa yena iwe na heri. Happy Kwanzaa!!

 


Jessica B. Harris is the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage. Her narrative history of African-Americans and food, “High on the Hog” will be published by Bloomsbury in January.

Photos, from top:
Kwanzaa table and Kwanzaa candles.
Credit: Jessica B. Harris
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Chef School’s Latin Reach Image

The percentage of Latin Americans in the kitchens of the U.S. is startling, yet few have attained the ranks of stardom in this country. At the beginning of October, the Culinary Institute of America began its first steps toward doing something about that. With the support of generous funding by San Antonio entrepreneur Kit Goldsbury, the culinary school opened a San Antonio campus with the objective of creating more well-trained Latin chefs.

Situated in San Antonio, a city where the food is redolent with the rich flavors of the Mexican world, the campus is well placed to attain its mission as was amply testified to by the opening ceremony that included not only guest chefs from as far away as Brazil and Peru, but also notable chefs specializing in the foods of Latin America and those influenced by Latino culture such as Rick Bayless, Mark Miller, Cuban-born Maricel Presilla, Houston’s own Robert Del Grande, Florida’s Norman Van Aken and others.

Presenting Latin and Caribbean influences

The Oct. 9 opening of the campus was preceded by a two-day conference that explored many aspects of the food of Latin America. Chefs presented glorious dishes with bright Latin flavors and amazing zest of taste. The chefs with restaurants in the U.S. may have been the headliners, but those who got the most attention at the conference were the guest chefs from other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean who strutted their stuff before an attentive audience in the demonstration kitchen of the new facility.

The keynote presentation celebrated Mexican history with an instructive discourse about our notions of Mexican food and its true history by academic Jeffrey Pilcher, author of “Que Vivan Los Tamales.” Then it was on to the chefs who spent the next day and a half presenting many aspects of the foods of Latin America from Brazil’s churrasco to the cebiches of Peru and the complex dishes of the Amazon rainforest.

Dinners passed in a haze of new friends, fellowship over wine and food, and good conversation and by Friday morning it was all a culinary blur. By then, master chef Mark Miller brought attendees back to reality with a presentation that discussed how these vibrant tastes and innovative cooking methods could effectively be brought to American tables.

Three panels galvanized the crowd and got our mouths to watering. The first was a presentation of cooking over live fire as chefs from as far away as Brazil and as close by as Houston hit the grill and demonstrated the multiple Latin methods of grilling and barbecuing. Chef Rodrigo Oliveira grilled Brazilian rump steak called picanha, along with other Churrascaria specials such as fraldinha (Brazilian flank steak) and carne de sol (jerked beef). The accompanying manioc spears and manioc flour with garlic and savory vinaigrette sauce were also demonstrated by Mara Salles also from Sao Paolo. His eatery, Mocotó, founded by his father, specializes in the foods of Brazil’s northeast, and has won awards for its more than 350 brands of cachaça. Also from Saõ Paulo, Mara Salles was the first Brazilian chef to join contemporary culinary practices with the traditional foods of the country. Her restaurant, Tordesilhas, is a Saõ Paulo must for diners interested in the country’s culinary history. Beer, ribeye steaks, bacon, onions and garlic were the major components in a series of salsas created by Houston chef Robert Del Grande and Roberto Santibañez of Brooklyn’s Fonda restaurant.

Arturo Rubio and Marilu Madueño demonstrated an Andean pit roast called a pachamanca. Similar to a Hawaiian Luau or an old-fashioned New England clam bake, a pachamanca is cooked in a hole in the ground with heated, cured stones. The building of the pit was fascinating and all waited eagerly as chicken, baby back ribs and leg of lamb, along with potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, corn, yucca and unshelled fava beans were piled in. The meats and vegetables were precisely layered with hot stones, and covered first with a cloth, then with a mound of dirt on which the godfather and godmother of the pit roast — CIA benefactor Kit Goldsbury and his wife — placed a cross and red and white flowers, the colors of the Peruvian flag. When it was uncovered and disassembled after the morning’s sessions, we all stood around marveling. The pachamanca’s offerings of meat and vegetables were the highlight of lunch.

A pig cookoff was the conference’s culminating culinary event and featured Mexican pork in adobo sauce, Brazilian pork cracklins, Michoacán-style slow-cooked pork, Morelia pork stew, slow-roasted pork in banana leaves and Maricel Presilla’s 100-pound pig roasted in a caja china. The dishes were all demonstrated and served at the final reception of the conference.

A solid culinary education

The amazing display of the scope of the food of Latin America and the Caribbean were explored in panels on topics as wide-ranging as Mexican regional cooking, the African hand in the foods of Latin America, and the importance of women in the creation of Latin American and Caribbean cuisine.

The attention to the diversity and influence of these cuisines made the challenge for CIA evident. If students are able to access even a small portion of the knowledge displayed, and if they receive training in these cuisines as well as the classic French training that is the standard at most U.S. culinary schools, they’ll get a solid foundation. If they are able to use this information to capitalize on their own varying backgrounds in a San Antonio region so culturally rich in the foods of the Latin world, this campus will be poised to be a big success.

The proposed opening of an Asian campus to be located in Singapore would seem to be another step forward for the Culinary Institute of America as it aims to celebrate the varying culinary cultures of the globe. I wouldn’t be me, however, if I didn’t ponder when and where will the campus be located that specializes in the foods of the African continent and its Diaspora? Now that’s an opening I dream of attending.


Jessica B. Harris is the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage.

Photo: Afro-Peruvian tacu tacu as prepared by Chef Marilu Madueño of Huaca Pullcana in Lima, Peru.

Credit: Jessica B. Harris
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A Summer of Oysters Image

I am allergic to shellfish through some mysterious act of the gods, yet oysters have marked my summer and are on my mind as the season once again turns to a month with an “r” in it. The dictum not to eat oysters in months without an “r” in their spelling is a long-standing one and may have to do with the months in which the mollusks traditionally spawn. However, with the advent of refrigeration, people increasingly ignore the old saw. Some places like Casamento’s Oyster House in New Orleans remained one of the last holdouts, closing for several months during the summer. They closed this year as well, but with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill gushing wildly, no one was sure of when they would reopen.

My early summer was spent in New Orleans amid folks wondering and worrying about the BP oil spill at a time when the city should have been rejoicing at the progress that had been made five years after Hurricane Katrina and looking forward to better things yet to come. In June, I ate with friends who consumed Gulf oysters with appetites that would make Henry VIII blanch and heard tales of how the old-line New Orleans eateries like Galatoire’s and Antoine’s were examining their old recipe files to discover ways to continue if Gulf oysters should not be available.

Oyster beds of Virginia

A few weeks after watching friends slurp down several dozens of plump Gulf oysters, I found myself on the eastern shore of Virginia. Again oysters prevailed. There were oyster tastings with the connoisseurs savoring the difference between saltwater and freshwater varieties and oysters  – raw, fried, poached and baked  –  at almost every meal and much slurping all round. One of the high points of the trip was riding out to oyster beds and being instructed on the aquaculture that allowed them to be produced in controlled conditions. We watched the various stages of the production from the seeding of the oyster beds to the harvesting of the shellfish.Oyster harvesting in Virginia

I even managed to summon up the courage to hop (OK, climb with much trepidation) over the side of the boat to see the beds up close. Sitting in the damp bottom of a boat as it sped along the flats, I thought of my friends in New Orleans, but also of the history of some 19th century African-Americans whose knowledge of oysters allowed them to create businesses based on the mollusks. One man, Thomas Downing, managed to earn enough to open a restaurant and later a hotel, and to become one of New York City’s leading black citizens. At that time when much of America indulged in a love affair with the briny mollusks, African-American oystermen were in the vanguard of the trade.

Potluck on Martha’s Vineyard

My oyster summer finished on Martha’s Vineyard where at the Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard’s potluck, oyster knives once again were being manned. Here they were deftly wielded, not by those whose facility with their oyster knives and their gift of gab gave rise to the expression shuck and jive, but by local oystermen. My friends assured me they were no less tasty. I noted with dismay for my oyster-loving friends a sign in a local fish market that attested to the fact that the BP oil spill and the resulting lack of oysters on the American market had caused a rise in oyster prices.

As summer fades into September — a month with an “r” in it — no one is sure what is going on in the Gulf. What we do know is that oysters and other Gulf seafood were and are some of the most desirable in the country. There may not be as many as there were in the past, but Gulf oysters are still around and being savored. Casamento’s has reopened, and a reduced staff of shuckers is hard at work. Diners at Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Dooky Chase’s, and other of the city’s eateries continue to savor their oysters Rockefeller and oyster po’ boys. I know that when I’m back in New Orleans at month’s end and see oysters on the menu, I may have to load up on Benadryl, get myself an epi-pen and slurp down at least one to show my solidarity with the Gulf oystermen, fishermen and shrimpers who have lost so much once again.

 


Jessica B. Harrisis the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage.

Photos, from top:
Oysters on the half shell.
Oyster harvesting in Viriginia.
Credit: Jessica B. Harris
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Rum That Packs a Punch Image

It’s August, but this year I won’t make my annual trek from Martha’s Vineyard down to the Caribbean.  I have to miss Saturday’s Fete des Cuisinieres (Feast of Women Cooks) in Guadeloupe. I will miss the high Mass at the cathedral with all of the members of the Association des Cuisinieres and the Cuistot Mutuel: two organizations that are guardians of Guadeloupe’s culinary patrimony. I will miss dressing in full Creole finery and will only know what bird of paradise colors were selected for this year’s dress when I get to Guadeloupe later in the year. Even on my other island, I’ll  probably still deck myself out in my chaine forcat, or convict’s chain, that the slave master gave his slave mistress and my grains dor, golden balls that were worn when sumptuary laws forbade wearing real pearls. And I might even wear my earrings in the shape of bunches of sugar cane. But I will miss the annual luncheon with all of its gaiety and the dancing that follows, and the feeling of conviviality. Most of all I will miss being a part of a culinary connection to something much larger that country or language.

I will get to Guadeloupe before next year because my Cuisiniere friends there are guardians of a little known but century-old tradition that celebrates the mastery of women cooks and the classic dishes they prepare. The organization began as one of the many self-help and mutual aid societies that were developed by peoples of color in the New World who had no access to health or burial insurance.

Classic Creole

This one was formed by those who worked in the culinary trades, and their pride in their profession is evident in their selection of Saint Lawrence as their patron. He’s significant because he was martyred on the grill, and their uniforms all include embroidered aprons that have as centerpiece a design of the grill. Although many of them are venerable, and the oldest member one year topped 100, they still take delight in serving their guests and in celebrating the culinary classics of their Creole tradition. Many of the dishes they serve to the admiring public who assemble annually in the schoolyard in Pointe-a-Pitre harkens back to the days of enslavement and the ingredients —  cassava, potatoes, carrots and lesser cuts of meat — recall that time. Other dishes are bright testimonials to the inventiveness of Creole cooks: blaff, freshly caught fish poached in a lime-infused broth spiced up with hot chili; acrats de morue, fried codfish beignets that maintain the name of a West African fritter; and small land crabs seasoned to perfection.

A little punch

The beverage of the day is often Champagne — a testimonial to the island’s French influence — but the bottle of rum is never far away. And the meal begins with a round of the lime, rum and sugar cocktail known as a ‘ti punch. Preparing one at times can take on the intricacy of a Japanese tea ceremony. First there’s the sugar, just enough at the bottom of the glass, then a squeeze or two of lime so that the juice moistens the sugar. Muddle it well with your teaspoon. Then add a full dose of rum. Too much and you’re marked as a drinker; too little and it’s limeade. Voila, it’s the perfect way to celebrate the feast and a perfect way to begin to understand the importance of rum in the Caribbean region.

Short for a petit punch, this is a classic mix of lime, sugar or sugar syrup, and white rum from the French Caribbean. There, natives debate whether it ruins the drink to add an ice cube and discuss the relative merits of using simple syrup (sirop de canne), which is sold in the grocery stores, or simply crushing brown sugar with a spoon. If you like a caipirinha, you’ll love this French variation on the lime, rum and sugar theme.

‘Ti Punch

Serves one

Ingredients

1 lime, cut into pieces
Sugar or simple syrup to taste (use refined sugar).
White rum from the French Antilles to taste. (You may use any white rum, but the rum of the French Caribbean has a sugar-cane-y flavor that is not duplicated in the whites from the rest of the region.)

Directions

  1. Place the lime pieces into an old-fashioned glass or a small wide-mouth stemmed glass.
  2. Add the sugar and pour in the rum. Stir until well mixed.
  3. Some will add an ice cube, but many consider this anathema.

 


Jessica B. Harrisis the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage.

Photo: ‘Ti Punch from the Fete des Cuisinieres in Guadeloupe.
Credit: Jessica B. Harris
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