AFRICAN CROPS AND SLAVE CUISINES
By Joseph E. Holloway Ph.D.
Crops brought directly from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade include rice, okra, tania, blackeyed peas, and kidney and lima beans. They were consumed by Africans on board the slave ships on way to the New World. Other crops brought from Africa included peanuts (ultimately from South America), millet, sorghum, guinea melon, watermelon, yams (Dioscorea cayanensis), and sesame (benne). These crops found their way into American foodways and became part of the ingredients found in the earliest cook books written by Southern Americans.
As early as 1687, a young physician, Sir Hans Sloane, living in the West Indies, found many of these crops growing on the island of Jamaica. These plants reached the mainland of North America either directly from Africa, or came with enslaved Africans destined for North America and through trade with the West Indies. These crops may have already found a home in North America before Sloane's encounter. Eventually, however, these crops went from being eaten exclusively by Africans in North America to being in white southern cuisine.
Blackeyed peas were first brought to the New World during the transatlantic slave trade as food for slaves. They first arrived in Jamaica around 1675, spreading throughout the West Indies, and finally reaching Florida by 1700, North Carolina in 1738 and into Virginia by 1775. Slave planter William Byrd mentions Blackeyed peas in his writings in 1738. By the time of the American Revolution Blackeyed peas were firmly established in America and a part of the cuisine.
George Washington wrote in a letter in 1791 that "pease" (Blackeyed peas) were rarely grown in Virginia. In 1792 he brought 40 bushels of seeds for planting on his plantation. Blackeyed peas became one of the most popular food crops in the southern part of the United States. George Washington later referred to them as "callicance" and "cornfield peas," because of the early custom of planting them between the rows of field corn.
Okra arrived in the New World during the transatlantic slave trade in the 1600s. Okra or gumbo, as it is called in Africa, found exceptional popularity in New Orleans. In French Louisiana, Creole cuisine and African cooking came together to produce the unique cuisine of New Orleans. Gumbo is a popular stew or soup mixing other vegetables in which okra is the main ingredient thickened with powder from sassafras leaves (gumbo file). One observer in 1748 noted that thickened soup was a delicacy like by Blacks. Okra was commonly being used by the American white population before the American Revolutionary War.
Enslaved Africans used the young fruit that contains the vegetable mucilage to eat by boiling. The leaves were also used medicinally to softening cataplasm, and seeds were used to make a coffee substitute on the plantations of South Carolina. Okra was popular among women to produce abortion, by lubricating the uterine passage with the slimy pods. In West Africa, women still use okra to produce abortion, using the same method.
The next important crop to arrive to the United States by of Africa is the American peanut. The peanut is known by several names including groundnut, earth nut and ground peas. Two other words of African origin are Pindar and goober. Among other recorded source of the use of these African names, both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington called peanuts' peendar and pindars (1794, 1798); the word was used before the Revolutionary War. The word goober was used principally in the 19th century. The period of its greatest popularity was the 1860s when the Civil War song "Goober Peas" started. After the war, when published, its words were attributed to "A Pindar" and its music to "P. Nutt."
The American peanut has an interesting history. While the peanut is indigenous to South America as a crop, it was first brought to Africa by Portuguese sailors and then back to Virginia from Africa by enslaved Africans. The peanut was used to feed Africans crossing the middle passage. One New World observer noted, "The first I ever saw of these [peanuts] growing was the Negro's plantation who affirmed, that they grew in great plenty in their country." In Africa, peanut stews, soups and gravies serve as an important part of any meal. Nut soups, however, in the American South are of African origin and are no longer enjoyed by the descendants of Africans, but rather are associated with Euro-Americans.
The peanut is a crop that George Washington Carver researched. From his experiments he found water, fats, oils, gums, resins, sugar, starches, pectins, pentosans and proteins. From these compounds he discovered over three hundred possible peanut products including Jersey milk that led to the production of butter and cheese. Among the three hundred products invented from his research were instant coffee, flour, face cream, bleach, synthetic rubber and linoleum. Dr. Carver found rubbing peanut oil on them helpful for rejuvenating muscles. Gandhi found the peanut milk as well as the soy bean formula Dr. Carver created for him a healthy part of his diet.
Sesame first arrived from Africa to South Carolina by 1730. In 1730, a Carolinian sent sesame along with some sesame oil to London. This is an item of considerable importance in Colonial America and England, because table oil was one of the products England hoped to obtain by colonizing the New World. In order not to import olive oil for cooking, Britain encouraged production of table oils by offering bounties on edible oils. By 1733, a book on gardening published in London, noted the cultivation of the sesame plant, and its usefulness as a source of "sallet-oil." Enslaved Africans grew sesame for other use than for its oil. Thomas Jefferson noted in the 1770s that benne (another name for sesame) was eaten raw, toasted or boiled in soups by African slaves. Jefferson also noted that slaves baked sesame in breads, boiled in greens, and used to enrich broth. Today sesame is used primarily as bread topping.
The first successful cultivation of rice in the United States was accomplished in the South Carolina Sea Islands by an African woman who later taught her planter how to cultivate rice. The first rice seeds were imported directly from the Island of Madagascar in 1685 and Africans supplied the labor and the technical expertise. African experts in rice cultivation were brought directly from the island of Goree to train Europeans how to cultivate this cash crop.
African cooks in the "Big House" introduced their native African crops and foods to the planters, thus becoming intermediary links in the melding of African and European culinary cultures. In short, the house servants while learning from the planters also took African culinary taste into the Big House. African cooks introduced deep fat frying, a cooking technique that originated from Africa. Long before the day of refrigeration, African understood how deep fat frying of chicken or beef could preserve these foods for a time.
Using their indigenous crops enslaved Africans recreated traditional African cuisine. One such dish is fufu. In South Carolina this dish is called "turn meal and flour." This meal is prepared by boiling water and adding flour while stirring the ingredients, hence the name "turn meal and flour." Throughout Africa fufu is a highly favored staple. This is a traditional West and Central African meal eaten from the Senegambia to Angola. Africans prepare fufu by mixing palm oil and flour. From these fufu mixture slaves made hoecake in the fields that later evolved into pancakes and hot water cornbread. Corn bread, prepared by African slaves, was similar to African millet bread. In the reports of slavers found in the journal entry from the ship Mary, June 20, 1796. "Cornbread" was mentioned as one of the African foods provided for their cargo. The report also mentions a "woman cleaning rice and grinding corn for corn cakes." Corn is fried into cakes as is still prepared throughout in Africa today.
As early as 1739, naturalist Mark Catesby noted that slaves made a mush from the corn meal called pone bread. He also noticed that slaves took hominy Indian corn and made grits, a food similar to the African dish called Eba. Catesby observed in 1747 that Guinea corn (sorghum vulgare) and Indian corn were used interchangeably by Blacks. He wrote that "little of this grain is propagated, and that chiefly by negroes, who make bread of it, and boil it in like manner of firmety. "It [sic] chief use is for feeding fowls... It was first introduced from Africa by the negroes." Lawson noted that Guinea corn is used mostly for hogs and poultry [by whites], adding that enslaved Africans ate nothing but Indian corn.
From their food traditions Africans contributed greatly to the culinary taste of America. Southern cooking is a cultural experience to which both blacks and whites contributed; however, today black cuisine is strongly influenced by the African style of cooking, a carryover of this antebellum period. "Soul food" itself goes back to days when plantation owners gave slaves discarded animal parts, such as hog maw (stomach), hog jowl, pig's feet, ham hocks. Blacks took this throwaway and added a touch of African culinary techniques to create tasty dishes. Collard greens and dandelion greens were first recorded in 1887. Poke greens, turnip greens, and black-eyed peas were first brought to Jamaica from Africa in 1674. They later arrived in North America in 1738. All of these African foods contributed to the great diversity in American cuisine.
Sweetened rice cake, African in origin, served with morning café au lait, formerly sold by black women in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In Georgia this sweetened rice cake was called saraka: Yesium. I membuh how she made it. She wash rice, ann po off all duh watah. She let wet rice sit all night, and put in mawtuhm an beat it tuh paste wid wooden pastle. She add honey, sometime shuguh, add it in floot cake wid uh kams. Saraka, she call um.”
Thick soup or stew similar to gumbo. Ferdinand Ortiz traced calalu to African coilu, Mandingo name for plant resembling spinach. In Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, it is a rich soup or stem in which one or more kinds of calalu leaves are the chief ingredients. Name given to several plants having edible leaves, eaten as greens, in soup, or used medicinally.
Word derived from Kaffa, region in Ethiopia
Vigna unguiculata, black-eyed peas. Used in southern U.S. by both blacks and whites. Traveled from Africa to North America in holds of slave ships as food for the cargoes.
Sweet, fried cornmeal cake, first appeared in American English 1770. Gullah kush or kushkush. Related to Hausa via Arabic kusha.
Called “turn meal and flour” in South Carolina. A mixture of cornmeal and flour is poured into a pot of boiling water. From this fufu mixture enslaved Africans made “hot cake” in the fields called ash cakes. This later evolved into “pancakes” and “hotwater cornbread.” Fufu is a common food throughout Africa and the New World, consisting of yams, plantains, and cassava roots (manioc, tapioca) cut into pieces and boiled together; maize or Indian corn beaten into one mass and eaten with pepper, boil in a pot with okra. A substantial dish of fufu is composed of eddoes, ochas, and mashed plantains made savory with rich crabs and pungent with cayenne pepper.
Bantu nguba, peanut (recorded 1834). Another word for peanut is pindar, from Congo mpinda. First recorded in Jamaica 1707, South Carolina 1848. used as food for cargoes on slave ships. Pinder Town, a place name in South Carolina.
Catesby noted that slaves took hominy (Indian corn) and made grits similar to eba eaten in Africa.
Guinea corn, also called sorghum and millet (Sorghum vulgave), indigenous African crop transported to U.s. by Africans. Catesby noted in 1743 how blacks used it to make bread: “This grain is propagated and that chiefly by Negroes, who make bread of it, and boil it. Its chief use is for feeding fowls. First introduced from Africa by the Negroes.
Tshiluba kingombo, Umbundu ochingombo, okra. By 1805, a soup made of okra pods, shrimp, and powedered sassafras leaves. Gumbo file and gumbo maile made of pulverized okra (1823). Know to most southerners by 1780s.
Gingerbread originated in Congo and was a carryover by enslaved Africans on plantations.
Traditional West African dish of black-eyed peas and rice cooked together. Common in black southern cuisine.
Bantu tshimbolebole, dish of tender, cooked corn. African influenced dish similar go gumbo, particular to New Orleans. Brought to Louisiana by Africans from the Kongo.
Style of cooking red rice brought to the American South by the Mande of West Africa.
Traditional slave food. Refers to the food that enslaved Africans working in the plantation house collected from the massa’s leftovers. Such leftovers were called juba, jibba, or jiba. On Saturday or Sunday the leftovers were thrown together; no one could distinguish the meat from the bread and vegetables. This juba was placed in a huge pot and those working in the ‘Big House” shared it with those working in the fields.
Tshiluba maluvu, palm wine. Produced throughout Africa from sap or jice collected from palm trees. African descendants continued to make it in Savannah, Georgia; in South Carolina the palmetto tree is the source. Materials called palm cabbage or palmetto cabbage is taken from the center of the tree and either cooked or fermented for wine.
Mentioned as African food provided for cargoes by enslaved Africans.
Abelmoschus esculentus, also called guibo and guimyombo. Originated in what geobotanists call the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) center of origin. Cultivated in present-day Ethiopia, plateau portion of Eritrea, and parts of the Sudan.
Use introduced by enslaved Africans in the American South. African cooks in the “Big House” introduced deep-fat frying, a cooking style which originated in western and central Africa.
Naturalist Catesby noted as early as 1739 that slaves made mush from cornmeal and called it pone bread.
Cola acuminate and Cola nitida, tree native to western Sudan. Kola nuts are source of major ingredient used in making modern cola drinks. During the slave trade, kola nuts were given by crews to passengers to suppress hunger and thirst. A transatlantic slaver wrote: ‘The seed, brought in a Guinean ship from that country, is called ‘bichy’ by the Colomanty and is eaten and used for pains in the belly.”
Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrimi, indigenous varieties of rice imported in 1685 from the island of Madagascar to South Carolina. Peter Wood (1974) noted that Africans first showed early Americans how to cultivate rice. By 1740, rice had become a staple in South Carolina farming economy.
Sesamum indicum, sesame, also known as “benne seed” in South Carolina. Benne (sesame) seed, brought by West Africans to South Carolina. Slaves raised larege crops of it, being found of the seeds to make soups and puddings. Sesame oil also introduced to U.S.by enslaved Africans.
Tania Colocasia esculenta, coco yam; eddo in West Africa, Tanya in West Indies. Appears indigenous to Central Africa. Two known varieties: “Old coco yam” (Colocaccia antiquorum) probably originated in the Congo basin, with earliest citation in reference to Africa made by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century; “Coco yam Tania” (Xanthosomaa sagitifolium) was a popular root plant in Sea Islands of Gerogia and South Carolina until the hurricane of 1893 destroyed most of the crop. As a coastal resident reported, “They ate funny kine uh food, roas wile locus an mushruhm and tanyan root. It lak elephant- eah and taase like Irish potatuh.
Citrullus vulgaris, spread from Sudan to Egypt during the second millennium B.C.E. Now distributed throughout the world. Transatlantic slave trade served as major vehicle of watermelon’s transport to the New World.