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.