African American Genealogy: The Cooking Gene As Contextual/Culinary Genealogy

Some Things Are Best Planned over a Kitchen Table

I believe they call this delayed gratification.  I am not resting the same as I once was.  I am sleepless at times.  I don’t know what day it is.  The television in the background provides a soundtrack of cooking shows, news programs, sitcoms and political punditry.  Every now and then my mind comes back to where I need to be–and in clear focus emerges nanosecond epiphanies.  Little pictures of me and my team standing on the ground my ancestors toiled and cooked and ate on.  Eating an apple they would have enjoyed or going on a fishing trip in a Lowcountry or Lower Mississippi swamp or canal.  I keep realizing, this part of our history has never been told this way before.

African Americans have always been passionate genealogists.  We became even more passionate following the death of Alex Haley–who by the way died 20 years ago this February 10–and we will have a special tribute to him here—and his publication and subsequent mini-series, Roots.  I am very proud to say that so many African Americans have taken up the call to document and pass on the stories, artifacts, heirlooms and memories from their past.  Genealogy is genealogy, but African American genealogical challenges—chiefly centered in slavery and its side effects, migration and shifting naming and kinship patterns–make this journey and others like it uniquely difficult and frustrating.

Contextualizing genealogy means moving it beyond just birth, marriage, children, death, dates and places.  Everybody lives in and is a part of the time and space they are born and grow into.  We see these people in textbooks, articles, documentaries–nameless faces, generalized with a broad brush.  Our ancestors are the people in those books and the ones reacting to the trends and times around them.  To contextualize genealogy therefore means to put the other details of the story–the land, the water, economics and politics, social values, social upheaval, cultural trends, agricultural and industrial knowledge–all of it–helps you better understand where your ancestors were coming from–no matter what your background.

I have written here and at Afroculinaria about how remote and exotic some of our Ancestors seem to us.  They seem out of reach and distant.  The disruptive factors of the past make it harder for most people descended from enslaved Africans to have that sort of feeling of legacy and heritage that other communities enjoy.  We are racially classified rather than ethnically classified and this adds to the muck.  It takes other paths to truly discover who we are and figure out how to make sense of it all.

Food is an amazing way into the lives and bodies of our Ancestors no matter where in the world we come from.  To understand food is to understand the people who make the food and where they make the food and when….So much is connected to our daily meals, and if we follow those roads we can find paths that lead to other elements of our Ancestors lives.  Food provides a wealth of knowledge and a fantastic starting point to begin to paint a colorful picture of how our forebears lived, and by extension, resisted slavery and oppression.

Let me give you an example.  On the Southern Discomfort Tour we hope to visit several apple experts who can tell us about the kinds of apples being grown about 150 years ago or more on local plantations in central Virginia.  One of those experts is Tom Burford, from an old Virginia family–a man who has made his career on his expertise in heritage fruit!  He has the orchards, and the apples.  He can tell me what kind of apple my grandmother’s grandmother would have made fried apples with.  I’ll get my hands on some of those apples and treat people to fried apples, made according to the passed down recipe–hopefully with homemade butter to boot.

Imagine if we could all look back with that kind of specificity and pass that story down to our children.  The land itself sings with stories as do the rivers.  Maybe we can tell a genealogical story through objects–the work gloves that a migrant or immigrant wore to work in a factory.  What industry was it?  How many men and women came to that city for factory work?  What languages did that ancestor hear around them?  When my family went to the Midwest and western Pennsylvania they encountered other ethnic groups and picked up some of their words and recipes.  Ms. Matty’s Nut Roll recipe wasn’t some indigenous creation–she apparently had friends and neighbors in Aliquippa who were Hungarian and Hungarian American and they shared a recipe with her.  Despite the segregation and distance between groups–the food still migrated, and made its mark.

Sometimes food can tell us stories about migration.  Rice for example, is a major part of the African American story.  In the Lowcountry and Lower Mississippi Valley, enslaved Africans were brought with the knowledge of how to grow rice.  Rice cultivation followed their descendants in the Deep South.  Rice consumption would follows them across the map as Gullah/Geechee families migrated, taking their humongous bags of rice with them!  Rice cultivation intimately links the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia, Senegambia, southern Ghana and parts of Angola with their descendants in America, giving them serious clues to where their ancestors came from, why they were brought here, what they did when they were here and what their lives were like on both sides of the Atlantic.

In order to reach the youth of today we have to bring history and genealogy to life.  We have to get them to put themselves in the shoes of their ancestors and the ancestors of others.  With food we have an amazing opportunity to invite young people not only into the tastes, but the process and the landscape of those who came before us.  I may not be able to communicate all of the horrors and heartaches of being an enslaved person, but I can communicate the roughness and   tastes of an ashcake.  What was it like to till the soil?  What was it like to plant and tend and harvest the corn?  How was it made into meal?  What was it like to pound dried corn or hominy into meal or grits?  How did you get a fire started?  How did you cook it and what did you use?  What kind of house are you living in? Who is doing the cooking and at what time of day?  What else has to be done to get the family to a meal?

When you can answer all of those questions or more you have gone a long way to put flesh to bone and draw people in to the real lives of the Ancestors.  It’s amazing to give life to texts and stories, and even through recipes we can approach our past.  These are the heirlooms that last forever.

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