African American Maritime History Series #9: The Influence of African Foodways Globally
What can be said about the origins of early African foodways is that it would not have evolved as it did if it had not been born in the complex nexus of the African Atlantic. The foodways of the West and the Americas were introduced in Africa long before contact with Europeans. This was due to centuries long exchanges developed between African connections with the Islamic world and Southeast Asia. As a result, African plants and foods had long migrated north and east as ingredients and dishes from these regions were also integrated into the African world foodways.
Commensurate with the formation of new Creole languages, spiritualities, and aesthetics in the Atlantic world were foodway traditions that drew on West and Central Africa for its deep structure and enduring values. In key regions—Senegambia, the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), southeastern Nigeria and west-central Africa, the culinary compromises were direct and unmistakable. American crops parallel to African cultigens (cultivated plants deliberately altered) would come to flourish—think maize and cassava, tomatoes, peanuts and cucurbits (gourd family, most importantly squash). Where classic African traditions, Creole innovations, and caste control met, from there came the genesis of the foodways of early Africans in America.
These early African American foodways were also the product of the interchange between ethnic groups from West and Central Africa and new “nations” that emerged out of the fusion of the Middle Passage. People forcibly removed from a 3,500-mile stretch of coast and who had no prior contact with one another, now found themselves having to work out common food traditions parallel with common tongues and cultures. Wolof met Igbo, Mende met Mbundu, Akan met Fang. There were also levels of migration between enslaved communities in mainland North America and those from the Afro-Caribbean and Latin America. Furthermore, the exchanges with the indigenous communities in all these places led to very interesting foodway outcomes.
The story is made yet more complex by the fact that whomever enslaved and liberated Africans lived among—be they Dutch, Swedish, Scots Irish, German, Sephardic Jewish, Cherokee, Creek, French or Spanish—would either enrich or limit the culinary experiences of the African exiles in America. No other enslaved cultures in the history of the world have had such an enormous influence on the national cuisines where they sojourned than the people of the African Atlantic and the African Americas.
The only groups remaining with vestiges of resemblance to their cultures and languages of origin would be the Gullah Geechee throughout the Southern United States Lowcountry and the Louisiana Creole population.
It is sometimes difficult to discern through the intervening centuries what influence the original African population had on the foodways of New England. It is more obvious how greatly they influenced the Creole cuisine of the Caribbean (and thereby New Orleans), as well as the influences on the Southern plantation houses. Many foods now considered “Southern” were introduced by the Africans who labored in plantation kitchens. Among these foods are watermelon, okra, black-eyed peas, “benne” (sesame) seed cookies, pralines, and hot pepper sauce. African cooking techniques, especially the practice of deep-frying food in hot oil and meats slow cooked over coals with heavy spices and herbs, hence barbeque, were also incorporated into Southern cuisine.
This cuisine later traveled to the West with chuck wagon cooks and the “buffalo soldiers” of the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, and North in the dining cars of the early 20th Century railroads. With the migratory great exodus of African Americans to the Northern cities following the depression, “soul” food made its way into the culinary mainstream of the North and Midwest. All types of leafy greens, stewed varieties of peas, ham and biscuits, and the very best fried chicken were introduced throughout the North, in local restaurants and roadside diners. African foodways have had global impact and is a revered cuisine at many restaurants, even the fine dining establishments throughout the world.
Kim Cliett Long, Ed.D., FRSM, FRSPH, FRGS
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