The Cooking Gene: Identity and Food and Family History

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Those are the famous words of Brilliat-Savarin that everybody seems to have morphed into “You are what you eat.”  I like the “original” translation a lot better.  It’s more accurate….it’s not so much that we are what we eat than it is true that what we eat says a lot about us.

So who the hell am I? And for that matter, who are you?

Part of what The Cooking Gene seeks to do is to uncover that answer.  Does “Sunday Gravy,” make you Italian-American?  Does matzoh and its aftermath make you Jewish? Or is it true that “(y)ou don’t have to be Jewish to eat Levy’s Rye?”  If you can find pretty much the same kinds of foods at a Klan rally or Black Family Reunion in the South; does it mean that the Black folks are Americanized?  Are the Klan people Africanized? Are they both Southern?  What does your food say about who you are?  Can you in fact change identities based on what you choose to eat?

Food is often identified with ethnic identity–but its also been used to “racialize,” people of African descent.   Our food has never really been “allowed” to be ethnic on our own terms with the exception of the short-lived universal power of the term “soul food.”  Recently even that has come under scrutiny by some who would challenge the idea that there is a uniquely ethnically African American food tradition.  This racializing of food and food identity was expressed many years ago when Tiger Woods faced bad-natured ribbing not because he was “Cablinasian,” but rather because he was seen as a representative of African Americans, read “American Negroes.”  In the eyes of some of his “colleagues,” as an American Negro he was supposed to want to eat fried chicken and collard greensm “or whatever the hell they eat….”  What does that mean?  What does it mean when Beneatha’s boyfriend George Murchison muses in A Raisin in the Sun that her heritage was not in fact African but some “foul smelling chitlins” and “raggedy ass spirituals?”

Cajun Woman Hulling Rice. She's using an instrument with Native American and African antecedents to hull a crop brought by the French to be grown by Africans familiar with its cultivation. There was no rice cultivation in Acadia or the region of France the Acadians were rooted in. So tell me where did they learn this food preparation method that any Gullah would understand?

The Problem

The tertiary placing of African after European and Native American in terms of Southern food history–and cultural history as a whole for that matter, is incredibly dishonest and has led to some of these nasty tendencies in our culture.  Africans have been cognitively displaced from their role as contributors to Western society through the Americas by terms that mitigate their “Africanness,” if that’s the right word for it.  One of my greatest disappointments of 2001, was Ken Burns’ Jazz, where in the first episode the VERY African drum ceremonies of Congo Square were dismissed as Caribbean dances rather than African rituals from Ouidah, Oyo, and Kongo.  “Rest assured dear viewer,” the documentary seemed to say, “this has nothing to do with the Jungle.”  The Jungle=Africa the exotic, Africa the mysterious, Africa the monolithic, Africa the timeless, Africa the broken, Africa the starving, Africa the savage, Africa the unfathomably un-Western.

What cultural markers like this do is displace and remove Africans from the categories of explorers, innovators, inventors and translators.  Michael W. Twitty isn’t stupid–we’re not talking about Africans contributing culture to the exclusion of what others contributed….We are not talking about an “Africanness” that existed before the slave ships…We are talking about Africans as pioneers, Africans as people with an exploratory nature who are willing to adapt and adopt in order to both survive and to negotiate the newness of their New World selves.  What this means for food history is the same thing it has meant for every other area where we see that “African caress.”  Jazz is the marriage of military and European spiritual music with African spiritual and secular music.  A shotgun house is what happens when an Arawak hut, a Yoruba house and a French colonial home get mushed together and people of African descent call a home a home.  Hoodoo/root medicine is King James Bible, Cardec, Choctaw Sassafras roots and African Orisha all thrown in the same bag and shaken–and whatever you pull out is what you get.  We spoke a language that is a car-crash of African syntax and African, European and Native American words–and there was a version for every colony–the American 13, Saint-Domingue, Brasil, Jamaica, Cuba….all of them spoke “the Negro language.”  There is little in African American  civilizations that can’t be chalked up to –they knew something would work based on trial, era, experimentation and how it fit into their scheme of how things should be.

For food we should expect nothing less.  It’s amazing to me that much of African American food history writing does little to draw the link between other cultural forms and African American food.  If I am an enslaved African–I’m bringing first hand indigenous elements of myself; but I am already the product of multiple traditions.  How I integrate these realities into my sense of self is what’s important.  Then I start to translate what I see others doing…and to do that I need to understand their grammar…no small accomplishment, I need to understand their tastes and flavors, their rhythm and tone.  And because I am human, and because I am resisting total assimilation, I’m going to take that culture and turn it inside out, and make them groove like me.  They will present me a problem in terms of raw ingredients and directions and  I will solve it with an iron pot,  a wooden spoon and the willful ingenuity to make things anew.

The Next Part

When food’s identity with the land comes into focus, its called terroir.  Terroir is the place where climate, the air, the minerals in the soil, the temperature, seasons, the lay of the land and maybe even the spirit of the people go into making food what it is.

So you thought I was talking about your identity alone right?


If the food you eat lends you a sense of identity or adds to your identity or your definition, you have to go one step further and look at the identity of the food.

Terroir is classically a French term used to define the qualities that go into a perfect variety of wine.  It has been used my food people to broadly paint the qualities that go into food in a given place.  In African American foodways it seldom gets asked, “What is the identity of African American food?  What is its terroir?”  One of the questions The Cooking Gene really wants to ask is, “Does the South have a unique monopoly on the African American palette and its foods and their terroir?”

Now if some of you are new to this–I’m glad.  I love everybody, I have an open heart, and I’m a diverse man but I WANT AFRICAN AMERICANS AND AFRICAN PEOPLE TO BE FULL AND EAGER AND INFORMED AND POWERFUL VOICES IN THE FOOD WORLD AND I WANT YOU TO BE INVOLVED IN THESE DISCUSSIONS!!!!  If you know this stuff, good–whoever you may be—this ain’t ’bout chu….  However for our farmers, our producers, etc. we need to have ample access to the kind of language that articulates what makes our offerings to the food world unique, precious and remarkably important.

Terroir is something that enslaved people knew about but could not articulate in the terms of classic French food and drink aesthetics.  Their terroir sense shifted from generation to generation….Picture this–and maybe we’ll discover this in my own family tree.  Someone born twenty or thirty years before the Civil War has a great-great grandparent born in Africa.  That person would have undergone an incredible leap from one Continent and climate to another.  Some things, amazingly will stay the same, while most of everything else will change dramatically.  That person’s grandchildren will be purely Afri-Creole.  They are Seaboard people.  Their children may be futher infland.  Again we change terroir, and then we come to what Ira Berlin has termed the “migration generations,” who are living far from their grandparents homeland of Virginia or South Carolina, Maryland or coastal North Carolina or Georgia.   With each power move, the terroir changed.  Don’t believe me?  There is a marked difference between the persimmons of one area and the next–based on soil, nutrients, growing conditions, and the type of transitional areas the trees colonize.  My enslaved ancestors may not have been able to put that in scientific or aesthetic terms but they understood well that the land and the water and the roots and leaves are intimately related to the food as end product.  That sense of place of mind and deeply spiritual thought that went into their relationship with their food is one of the great un-remarked elements of American food history and food culture.  I have said it and I will say it again–there were brains behind those bellies.

What does my food make me?

Now we get to you…

Globalism is an afterthought.  We all hate it, and yet before and after we hate it, we love it. We know we are some of the luckiest homo sapiens to have ever been born.  As much as I fantasized as a kid thinking about what Madrid looked like to an Aztec, or what Tenochtitlan looked like to a conquistador, I know that the human being can only take so much shock—cultural or otherwise.  I like the fact that people are reading this blog in England, in Kenya, in Chicago, in Brasil.  What’s the alternative?  Mail by ship–that might sink?  Messages in a bottle–quaint, but stupid.  This–our technology, our access to each other, our access to food and food cultures from around the world by taking a trip on a subway–is the way to go.  And we all know it.

Pho. General Tso.  Dim Sum. Sushi.  Takoyaki.  Sunday Gravy. Aronchini. Gelato.  Kreplach.  Chapati. Naan.  Wasabi..   Mole.  Tapas.  Feijoada.  Churrascuria.  Adobo.  Rublinki.  Lefse. Lutefisk.  Pierogi.  Salumi. Felafel.  Harissa.  Poutine.  Caldo.

If you understood that….you speak Global Foodese.  If a human is known as they say among the Mende–by the language  they cry in–they can also be known by the tastes that make them cry.  I believe food grandfathers us into different cultures.  The melting pot aesthetic and groupthink we bought and purchased in the 1970’s between Civil Rights and the Bicentennial era….is nice and all–but not sufficient.  When it comes to food we are co-participants in our own cultural impurity.  Bigots are many, but the fact that they just can’t get enough of whatever “the Other,” is making is what’s so delicious about pollution through food culture.

Does Tikka Masala make you British or Indian?  Can it make you both?  If you opt to pariticpate in a people’s food culture in any given way you are grandfathered into their culture.  By particpating you have just become part of their history, not just that group to yours.  This is true not only when things come over in their pure or raw forms from one food culture to another, its true when those things get translated and in doing so transform the language of food.

But identity is not just what you are–its what you are not.  

Food taboos–religious, cultural or otherwise aside—you know when a food does not fit into who you are.  Personal choice is in there too, but when it comes to how food should be—that’s where you get into the meat of food and identity.  Bland food is simply not me but neither is food that is so blazing that I can’t get it down.  That middle ground is where I identify.When food and identity are linked–we are all in the middle ground—its all about how far we will go and where our boundaries lie.

Food and Southernness…

It is the subtlety of your practice that makes you .  Africanness and Southernness don’t really exist in one form.  These words are abstract and are menat to broadly define an array of choices, opportunities, elements and come together in terms of time, space, and self and then change again and recombine.  African/African Diaspora foodways and Southern foodways are extensions of each other, even as all are the children of the food of the Atlantic world and its connections to and disconnect from the West.  To the joke of Ray Blount Jr. we are Afro-Celtic/Celtico-Africans beneath the Mason-Dixon Line.

John Martin Taylor said it best when he noted that Southern was a state of mind not a place or a thing.  Southernness is a flexible essence not a fixed formula.  While I appreciate the Dixiefication of Southern culture, it as obscured regional variations.  Talk to anyone who knew Southern life in the 1930’s and they will tell you things were pretty limited.  Some people didn’t really do the collard thing–others knew nothing about turnip greens or sweet tea.  That flies in the face of what we know as the link between food and Southern identity–one size did not fit all.  On the other hand, I’ve already expressed my dismay with the idea that the comfort foods of the early 20th century had much to do with the foods of the enslaved plantation worker.  The foodways of the plantation knew a curious paradox—when you looked to nature and the industrious gardening, fishing and trapping habits of the enslaved–sumptuous peasant culture lived beside a restricted and paternalistic ration system that used the basic staples of the Big House kitchen as carrots for good behavior or denied them completely.

Food and Peoplehood

What is the aim of feeding people? Is it for charity? For togetherness? To accompany the ritual of drinking?  Is it to celebrate?  Is it because your culture is generous, hospitable, or elitist? We seldom think about the idea that all food culture serves the ends of the sponsoring nation’s cultural aims.  Some traditions purposely divide us, while others are cause for unity.  Some food culture has an obvious connection to  a people’s aesthetics.  Japanese food is executed with some of the same principles that undergird traditional painting, dress or even the spiritual principles of Shinto, Buddhism and the ethical codes of the Feudal system.  French food  and Italian food celebrate seasonal bounty, regionalism, and the feel of both court and field—and anyone can immediately apprehend that.  What does African American traditional food–historic dishes–what do they tell us about our culinary DNA, our identity?  Do they show a shift in values, a shift in cultural priorities?  Did leaving a communal bowl and moving to individual plates affect our culture in ways we could never have imagined?   Give the nature of African cultures—where such social cues can change a people’s world, we should consider these elements.

Although Doris Witt does a much more thorough and scholarly job of describing this than I am about to…food choices and food culture have helped shaped African American identities.  Think for example of the Nation of Islam’s prohibition on pork and often–other foods that had become endemic to African American foodways.  The Nation and other nationalist religious and political groups identified soul food with slave food at times, and at others, traditional foods (mainly vegetarian ones) have been identified with secrets to good health.  Food and our identity affect how we see gender, race, sexual orientation, class, cultural identification, all of it…

You are where you Eat/Tell me Your Food and I’ll Tell You Your Hood

Enslaved Blacks bore a richness of mind that has seldom been acknowledged when it comes to food.  The voices of the WPA narratives were starving children when they first began to mentally record the world around them.  The lack of sufficient food made the presence of novelty food exceptional.  So enslaved people made note of varieties of fruit, vegetables, animal breeds and wild game and fish according to the area they lived in.  Just as Hesiod noted the connection between food and place–enslaved people’s sense of terroir changed as they moved across the Southern landscape—landing on the coast, moving towards the coastal plain, then the Piedmont then the Black belt and bottomlands—each place had its own distinct culinary reading and though they were denied the use of pen and paper their tongues recorded tastes and flavors that we can only imagine given the unique climate and soil conditions of the colonial and antebellum era.

And that’s why I have my work cut out with me going back hundreds of years into my family tree…


One Reply to “The Cooking Gene: Identity and Food and Family History”

  1. I’m also very aggravated when folks attempt to attribute those many aspects of our culture that are African in nature to the Caribbean. It’s not only hostile and biased, but it is HIGHLY disrespectful to the ancestors.

    Africa is the mother, the father, the creator.

    The sad thing is that I’ve even witnessed this same phenomenon among folks who look like me. Simple research would assist us in finally putting a stop to these myths.

    And why does Ken Burns have ANYTHING to say about “jazz”?? His voice is irrelevant. When I want to learn about indigenous African-American music, I go to the source, my people.

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