Louis Hughes was an African-Virginian sold into slavery in the Deep South. In his youth he was sold to Mississippi where he worked as a domestic on a cotton plantation. At Melrose Plantation, a country estate near Natchez, Mississippi I recreated the foods of Louis Hughes’ published narrative, Thirty Years a Slave, From Bondage to Freedom using local produce and meats.
OTHER FARM PRODUCTS.
Cotton was the chief product of the Mississippi farms and nothing else was raised to sell. Wheat, oats and rye were raised in limited quantities, but only for the slaves and the stock. All the fine flour for the master’s family was bought inSt. Louis. Corn was raised in abundance, as it was a staple article of food for the slaves. It was planted about the 1st of March, or about a month earlier than the cotton. It was, therefore, up and partially worked before the cotton was planted and fully tilled before the cotton was ready for cultivation. Peas were planted between the rows of corn, and hundreds of bushels were raised. These peas after being harvested, dried and beaten out of the shell, were of a reddish brown tint, not like those raised for the master’s family, but they were considered a wholesome and nutritious food for the slaves. Cabbage and yams, a large sweet potato, coarser than the kind generally used by the whites and not so delicate in flavor, were also raised for the servants in liberal quantities.
COOKING FOR THE SLAVES
In summer time the cooking for the slaves was done out of doors. A large fire was built under a tree, two wooden forks were driven into the ground on opposite sides of the fire, a pole laid on the forks and on this kettles were hung over the fire for the preparation of the food. Cabbage and meat, boiled, alternated with meat and peas, were the staple for summer. Bread was furnished with the meals and corn meal dumplings, that is, little balls made of meal and grease from the boiled bacon and dropped into boiling water, were also provided and considered quite palatable, especially if cooked in the water in which the bacon was boiled. In winter the cooking was done in a cabin, and sweet potatoes, dried peas and meat were the principal diet. This bill of fare was for dinner or the mid-day meal. For supper each slave received two pieces of meat and two slices of bread, but these slices were very large, as the loaves were about six inches thick and baked in an old fashioned oven. This bread was made from corn meal for, as I have said, only on holidays and special occasions did the slaves have white bread of any kind. Part of the meat and bread received at supper time was saved for the ” morning bite.” The slaves never had any breakfast, but went to the field at daylight and after working till the sun was well up, all would stop for their morning bite. Very often some young fellow ate his morning bite the evening before at supper and would have nothing for the morning, going without eating untilnoon. The stop for morning bite was very short; then all would plunge into work until mid-day, when all hands were summoned to their principal meal.
FOURTH OF JULY BARBECUE.
Barbecue originally meant to dress and roast a hog whole, but has come to mean the cooking of a food animal in this manner for the feeding of a great company. A feast of this kind was always given to us, by Boss, on the 4th of July. The anticipation of it acted as a stimulant through the entire year. Each one looked forward to this great day of recreation with pleasure. Even the older slaves would join in the discussion of the coming event. It mattered not what trouble or hardship the year had brought, this feast and its attendant pleasure would dissipate all gloom. Some, probably, would be punished on the morning of the 4th, but this did not matter; the men thought of the good things in store for them, and that made them forget that they had been punished. All the week previous to the great day, the slaves were in high spirits, the young girls and boys, each evening, congregating, in front of the cabins, to talk of the feast, while others would sing and dance. The older slaves were not less happy, but would only say: “Ah! God has blessed us in permitting us to see another feast day.” The day before the 4th was a busy one. The slaves worked with all their might. The children who were large enough were engaged in bringing wood and bark to the spot where the barbecue was to take place. They worked eagerly, all day long; and, by the time the sun was setting, a huge pile of fuel was beside the trench, ready for use in the morning. At an early hour of the great day, the servants were up, and the men whom Boss had appointed to look after the killing of the hogs and sheep were quickly at their work, and, by the time they had the meat dressed and ready, most of the slaves had arrived at the center of attraction. They gathered in groups, talking, laughing, telling tales that they had from their grandfather, or relating practical jokes that they had played or seen played by others. These tales were received with peals of laughter. But however much they seemed to enjoy these stories and social interchanges, they never lost sight of the trench or the spot where the sweetmeats were to be cooked
The method of cooking the meat was to dig a trench in the ground about six feet long and eighteen inches deep. This trench was filled with wood and bark which was set on fire, and, when it was burned to a great bed of coals, the hog was split through the back bone, and laid on poles which had been placed across the trench. The sheep were treated in the same way, and both were turned from side to side as they cooked. During the process of roasting the cooks basted the carcasses with a preparation furnished from the great house, consisting of butter
pepper, salt and vinegar, and this was continued until the meat was ready to serve. Not far from this trench were the iron ovens, where the sweetmeats were cooked. Three or four women were assigned to this work. Peach cobbler and apple dumpling were the two dishes that made old slaves smile for joy and the young fairly dance.
The crust or pastry of the cobbler was prepared in large earthen bowls, then rolled out like any pie crust, only it was almost twice as thick. A layer of this crust was laid in the oven, then a half peck of peaches poured in, followed by a layer of sugar; then a covering of pastry was laid over all and smoothed around with a knife. The oven was then put over a bed of coals, the cover put on and coals thrown on it, and the process of baking began. Four of these ovens were usually in use at these feasts, so that enough of the pastry might be baked to supply all. The ovens were filled and refilled until there was no doubt about the quantity. The apple dumplings were made in the usual way, only larger, and served with sauce made from brown sugar. It lacked flavoring, such as cinnamon or lemon, yet it was a dish highly relished by all the slaves. I know that these feasts made me so excited, I could scarcely do my house duties, and I would never fail to stop and look out of the window from the dining room down into the quarters. I was eager to get through with my work and be with the feasters. About noon everything was ready to serve. The table was set in a grove near the quarters, a place set aside for these occasions. The tableware was not fine, being of tin, but it served the purpose, and did not detract from the slaves’ relish for the feast. The drinks were strictly temperance drinks – buttermilk and water. Some of the nicest portions of the meat were sliced off and put on a platter to send to the great house for Boss and his family. It was a pleasure for the slaves to do this, for Boss always enjoyed it. It was said that the slaves could barbecue meats best, and when the whites had barbecues slaves always did the cooking.
When dinner was all on the table, the invitation was given for all to come; and when all were in a good way eating, Boss and the madam would go out to witness the progress of the feast, and seemed pleased to see the servants so happy. Everything was in abundance, so all could have plenty – Boss always insisted on this. Old and young, for months, would rejoice in the memory of the day and its festivities, and “bless” Boss for this ray of sunlight in their darkened lives.
See that thing around my neck?
It was the custom in those days for slaves to carry voo-doo bags. It was handed down from generation to generation; and, though it was one of the superstitions of a barbarous ancestry, it was still very generally and tenaciously held to by all classes. I carried a little bag, which I got from an old slave who claimed that it had power to prevent any one who carried it from being whipped. It was made of leather, and contained roots, nuts, pins and some other things. The claim that it would prevent the folks from whipping me so much, I found, was not sustained by my experience – my whippings came just the same. Many of the servants were thorough believers in it though, and carried these bags all the time.
Special thanks to Natchez community leader Ser Seshsh (C.M. Boxley), Kathleen Jenkins–Superintendent of Melrose Plantation/National Park Service for sponsoring and hosting the event. Thank you Darryl for putting us up and thank you Helen for getting us some of our eats through the farmer’s market and Alcorn!
“Negroes in the North are right when they refer to the South as the Old Country. A Negro born in the North who finds himself in the South is in a position similar to that of the son of the Italian emigrant who finds himself in Italy, near the village where his father first saw the light of day. Both are in countries they have have never seen, but which they cannot fail to recognize. The landscape has always been familiar…Everywhere he turns, the revenant finds himself reflected. He sees himself as he was before he was born…He sees his ancestors, who, in everything they do and are, proclaim his inescapable identity. And the Northern Negro in the South sees, whatever he or or anyone else may wish to believe, that his ancestors are both white and black.”
James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”
Lech Lecha! (Go forth, get you out, Go to yourself…!) to the land which I will show you….” Bereshit/Genesis 12
It’s time for a deep, deep breath. It has been a little over two weeks since our campaign closed and well, as you may well know–we were successful. The past two weeks, apart from a visit to Pittsburgh for the Slavery to Freedom exhibit planning to Phillipsburg Manor and the end of Hebrew school…well.. you get it–its been busy. I can’t be happier with the love and support of a lot of people who took the leap of 5-10-8-36-bucks and beyond. Thank you for not saying, “I don’t have any money….,” thank you for not saying, “that’s nice but I’ll spend my ten bucks on Starbucks but good luck with your project.” We donated to other campaigns, several of which were successful and hopefully those campaigns will give healing to young patients, bring a grassroots movement for peace in the Middle East an anchor, and give other people a headstart on their visions, dreams and solutions for a better future. “Good luck” is not enough these days–it takes resources, action, good wil and moral support. You will see a lot of praise for our Anonymous Angel—who stepped in at about 12 hours to go or so and saved us and made me feel like there is a G-d, and G-d moves through people to answer our prayers.
Almost six months ago I was sitting at a Thai restaurant and asked a close friend the question, “What do you think of this project? I’ve always wanted to go to the Deep South and see the places where my family history started and write about it all through the lens of food.” First question: “What are other people going to get out of this journey if its personal, why should they help?” I had a road atlas in hand and a .50 cent notebook and a few pencils. In between vegetable spring rolls and a rice and tapioca pudding with black sesame, we took out a pencil, and a route started to form….and a vision shaped itself around that route.
At the tail end of the campaign an Amazing Anonymous Angel stepped forward with a check that completed the amount we set our goal for. We cannot begin to thank all of you–friends like Andrew, Heather and Mark who knew me when I was 20 and always told me I had what it took to do something special with my mind and vision no matter how bad things were in life or how far away good things like this seemed. It was new friends like Rob and Megan who gave this project a major boost and provided constant support 🙂 It was long time friends like Beth and Jennica and Misty who have never stopped believing in me from the day they met me and share with me the love of bringing history to everybody. It was Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami and Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel both sources of constant support and moral care. It was master archivist Janet Stanley–who has watched me walk through the door of her library for almost 20 years. It was scholars Kym Rice and Martha Katz-Hyman my editors for World of a Slave, and anthropologist Richard Wilk, my editor for Rice and Beans who gave substantially and told everyone they knew! It was Vernice Woodand–who gave not once–but twice–just because she believed in me/us that much. Wow..It’s people like Sandor Katz, Ira Wallace and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Denzel Mitchell and Five Seeds Farm and Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Nancie McDermott, Bryant Terry, Jane Ziegelman, and other figures of note in today’s culinary world and people like Michael Pollan and the Lee Bros. who tweeted about it and gave new life to our buzz. This is for Gretchen McKay who ran the FIRST story about this project! This is for Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune, my ” sister” Brook Obie of Ebony.Com, Larry Brook of Southern Jewish Life, and for Miki Turner at Jet Magazine. It was Kat Kinsman at Eatocracy on CNN and Claire Thompson of Grist. It was the Henrique of the the Ebony Hillbillies for granting us a song to use for our campaign video and it was Joey W. for setting up my blog and getting the word out to thousands of people and being there for me every step of the way. This is for Corey W. whose pictures got people’s attention and galvanized so many! It was Andi Cumbo trying to tell the story of her home in Virginia….It was Sharon Morgan and Grant Hayter-Menzies constant posting and reposting of the news….It was all the people who liked me on Facebook and It was my so called Tweeps–you know who you are…..who constantly constantly retweeted about us. @stellacooks, @stellatex, @savoryexposure, @NEXTStepsYEP, @jwlucasnc, @virginiawillis, @megbailey, @WilliamsWrite, @ChefAmadeus, @Blackgayjewish, @superspace_zac, @Rexi44, @namoore, @blackamercooks, @Wordsmyth199, @Janenhowe, @indoorgarden_er, @LCAfrica, @sandrajlawson, @Sacredfoodguru, @Stephaniekays, @Robb4progress, @aywalton, @foodculturalist, and so so so many others who retweeted!
This is a special thank you to Tricia/Rose/Richard/Katrina of Colonial Williamsburg for being the FIRST to say–we want to be a part of this project! It is a thank you to Ser Sesh Abtu-Heru/C.M. Boxley of Forks of the Road, and Kathleen Jenkins of Melrose Plantation at and Kathe Hambrick of the River Road African American Heritage Museum for being the guiding lights for this project–and to Somerset Place Plantation, Historic Brattonsville, Kingsley Plantation, Redcliffe State Park, Historic Latta Plantation, Hope Plantation, the Hermann-Grima House, Old Alabama Town, the people of Charleston, Savannah, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, Annapolis, Baltimore, Williamsburg, Birmingham, Natchez, the Slow Food chapters of Richmond and Savannah, the JCC’s of Atlanta and New Orleans, Rabbi Michelle Goldsmith and Temple Beth El and the Jewish community of Birmingham as well as Larry Brook of Southern Jewish Life!
Nicole Moore–you are the Mother of this project you are the channel of our ancestors!
Joey W–you are the infrastructure behind this project!
Johnathan and Khi –you are the creative magic behind this project!
The entire list of donors is on The Cooking Gene website….But this isn’t about a list..this is about being grateful and not being able to work on this posting without crying and praying and knowing that what I was created to do is finally coming together…that it and of itself is a miracle I wish on everyone.
“This ain’t no dream. We ran away as slaves, but we come back Fighting Men! Go tell your folks that Kingdom come, the year of Jubilee!” Morgan Freeman, as “Sgt. Major John Rawlins”, in Glory, (1989)
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Sitting here right now its almost sunset in the DC area and this computer is about to be shut off in honor of the Sabbath. It’s been a ride like no other…..this journey to making this dream of mine to find my roots and trace them through food–and bring people together across lines of “race.” There is an old Yiddish proverb–“A man plans and G-d laughs.” I know what that means now. In less than two days time I will find out whether or not my dream was a marketable venture enough for people to want to read about our travels and watch and copy recipes as my team and I wind our way through the South.
I realize that for many people I am only as good as my bio and my “branding,” and those are just buzzwords for a public face. But let’s cut the chase here–I need you because making it to and past my goal is the only way the Southern Discomfort Tour is going to take off and be of some meaning and use to people. I had to think about it long and hard—how do I make this project NOT self-indulgent and make it complex enough to be rewarding for other people and not just me.
When I was a very little kid for some reason I had issues with being Black. My Mother tells me that I often talked about Black people as being ugly or scary or not as smart. If you’ve ever seen the “doll experiments” you can guess why what that reason was. I hated when my Mother would remind me about that…it was embarrassing–still is. Of course things haven’t changed much in some arenas, although our opinions are. That’s the weird thing about “race,” its a construct, its a thing…like gender….like sexuality…like nationality…like religion. It does not really cross most human minds that we choose to opt in or out of these social constructs. Indeed, they do give meaning and structure to our lives and human existence but essentially they are only as real as we put meaning and action behind them. I choose to be an African American male-identifying Jew. I am not inherently any of that….well the male part I can’t help–but how much of that is how I was raised and the society and culture I came through?
Point being–when I became “ethnic,” my life changed. I became ethnic because I really wanted a reason to love being part of the culture I was born into. So many negative stereotypes and perceptions born in slavery, oppression, segregation, cultural and class “tracking,” all sorts of little social beasties that we still have a lot of trouble talking about not just in America but in the entire Western world. Because my Mom taught me to count to ten in Swahili (because that was popular back then and she lived several years in Kenya as a teenager), because my Dad had a Black inventors t shirt he made and sold, because I had Black history posters on my wall and because I went to family reunions, celebrated Kwanzaa, went to museums, listened to the whole gamut of our musical legacy, and watched an all Black cast of Oedipus with Morgan Freeman….LOL…I grew up ethnically Black.
Don’t get me wrong–I think ethnic Black and genetic Black are still related. I believe DNA carries memory. You can choose not to believe that metaphysical stuff–but I do. I think we ache with stories and spells and prayers we don’t know the origin of. We pine for genealogy because we know that part of the reason and rationale behind “us,” is in them–the dead and the spirit. Every culture on earth just about has a relationship with their Ancestors. In African cultures libation is poured, memorial prayers are said, altars constructed, shrines put up. In Judaism one honors yahrtzeits and yizkor and say Kaddish and visit cemetaries and place stones on the grave to say “we still respect you, we were here.”
And then there’s that food thing. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again–food is a powerful way to bring us all together and it serves as a vehicle for our identities–not static fixed identities but how they change even while they stay grounded in specific realities. To use Annie Hauck-Lawson’s term your “food voice,” is a shifting paradigm. However, for most of us it starts and ends somewhere–kind of like our identities…”I am this—but I am not that….I come from—I am…” etc. etc. That’s our reality. We are not one thing but many things. Many things working together. Kind of like a plate of something or specific dish–different elements in concert with one another cooking into something new and complex and impossibly un-duplicated.
Ever since I was a little kid this identity thing has been important to me. We pretend that culture is just coincidental–but its not. It’s not like a food preference or a fashion–even though that’s what “ethnicity” means to a lot of people. Culture is always there–its this language I’m typing in–its my thoughts on how the world is ordered and what’s right and what’s wrong. It isn’t something that ever truly goes on the back burner. We do ourselves a great disservice in the modern West pretending that one’s culture is waiting for us on a hook at home while everything else is the “real” us. Nope. You are not your suit tie skirt or pantsuit. You are not your gym. You are not any of those things. You are first and foremost a complex human animal with a complex thing balanced between nature and nurture called culture living inside of you.
I know that for some people this project is a little perplexing. I know some people won’t get it. I hope that people will get it. I want you to understand that I really want to know where I come from because it effects my cooking and food and scholarship. I want to know where I’m “located,” in the very culinary history I write about. I’ve been envious for years of people from Italy or Greece who can tell you about an olive or something from their region and why they love it so much and how what they do is different and irreplaceable. Those types always seem to be able to point out the antiquity of those foods and traditions. All I want is to be able to have the keys to do the same. The full story of Southern food has not been told.
Do you know what it was like to be an enslaved cook?
Have you ever seen anyone like me–a Black American male under 36 put on the funny clothes and cook and do the tasks of slavery to educate and motivate others?
Do you know the songs we sang when we cooked? Do you know the special tools and techniques that have been forgotten? Do you know the prayers and spells our grandmothers used to make things come out perfectly?
Do you have any idea of what its like to go to a Southern plantation site and see your culture and history marginalized, annihilated, obfuscated, removed, unremarked?
Do you know why we put the plates of our loved ones on our graves? Sang poetically about the gourd? Marked our bowls with sacred signs, and scratched secrets into the shells of turtles?
Can you name a single enslaved cook?
Do you know what those women and men went through from day to day? Do you know what they saw and experienced?
And then there is Africa….its my dream to know where my family comes from in Africa. Millions of people are watching “Finding Our Roots,” and “Who Do you Think You Are?” these days. I dream of that…being able to watch that tree grow and use genetic research to go where records can’t. I dream of being able to trace my Ancestors story in the flow of American and World history. This means the world to me–giving honor to my Ancestors and celebrating them and their stories and reaching others and saying hey–because of this dish or this food– we are essentially, “related.” We are one people. One humanity with many Ancestors–and what they left binds us and makes us whole.
Getting on the road means learning and listening to people even as I present what I know and share my learning with younger people. I don’t think one can truly know anything until they’ve traveled. For me–my family history goes back to six places–Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. The first four contain the most leads and its my hope that I can see the plantations or the remnants thereof–of the land my forefather’s worked. And if you’d like to volunteer–just say so–and I can put you to work 🙂
I want my Ancestors to be at peace, and I want me to be at peace. Even more so I want us all to be at peace.
I’m almost up to 1600 words…So here goes.
I love you. Please help me live this dream. Please.
We need you–I know I’ve bugged some of my readers by saying this for three months, but this is the nature of crowdfunding—and its an opportunity for those of us without grants, loans or bank accounts above month to month survival to work for our public and pursue the dreams and Big Ideas that we hope will make the world a better place.
If I am engaging you, contributing to our project is a very small price to pay in order to keep enjoying the history, research and recipes I’ve worked hard with my friends to present to you here.
To my fellow African Americans–we complain a lot when sites and shows and movies and the like don’t reflect our history or experience. We want them to tell it like it is…but many of my colleagues have complained that so often we don’t empower each other to tell our won stories. “Them,” don’t owe us our story well told. “We” certainly do. We can take responsibility and ownership so that the world receives responsibly communicated narratives about the African American experience. It’s your choice. This is an opportunity to help a fellow African American teach our culture and share information about our culture with a lot of people and provide a lot of free content and information about our contributions to American civilization for the world to see. I need to know my community supports me and isn’t just giving lip service to the idea that Black history is important. I need to know that the same people who will rally in times of rain will rally in the sunshine too. And that day is today–but the clock is ticking.
I can’t do anymore, can’t say anymore, can’t think anymore. It’s up to G-d and you.
Claire Thompson did a very nice interview/write up on The Cooking Gene–Southern Discomfort Tour for Grist.Org! We have SIXTY SIX HOURS TO GO at this point—so I wish I could say I wasn’t worried but I am–and we really need your help–this is extremely important to a lot of people and I don’t want to let anyone down. Please make a contribution today—-http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour If we can get 160 people or so to each donate 18$ by the end of today we can rest assured the project is fully funded and we don’t have to worry about cutting things, etc. So please contribute and share and dialogue with us about the tour!
We have four days left to raise some 3,000 plus for our campaign. Over 600 people viewed this blog yesterday. If only 180 had made a contribution to our Campaign of 18$ or more, the Campaign would have been an overnight success…We need you—Now. Please contribute 18 or more today: www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour
Climate change is real. While we are still on land we need to figure out how to use this warm spell this year to our advantage. You might just get eight months of reasonably warm or frost-free temperatures if you are not living in those coastal extremities that favor 8-12 months per year of growing time.
A lot of you have written to me concerning healthier eating and heirloom vegetable gardening, etc. Let me say this first–in the African, African Diaspora and African American cultural traditions have long embraced the kitchen garden as an essential piece of daily life. Don’t let the new crop of food advocates and activists fool you–this is a tradition that our Ancestors established, cultivated and fought for…Before anyone ever heard of a Victory Garden we had our truck and huck patches, which served as a means of cultural, economic and social power in the slave quarter through the age of the Freedmen and segregation. While Europeans had their kitchen garden tradition, it is unique that enslaved Africans expected and promoted the idea that they were in fact “owed,” garden space to cultivate their own food. In West Africa, enslaved and indentured persons had that right and it is likely that in the Americas, this was insisted upon by those who found themselves in exile. Slavery was always colloquial and discretionary—gardens provided a means of self-reliance that cut down on the overhead costs of large planters to feed their workforce and reinforced–perhaps always subconsciously–African dietary traditions, African dietary adaptations and the establishment of Afri-Creole landscapes in the Caribbean, South America, and the Southern United States and eastern seaboard. Our ancestors did not see gardens as a “dainty,” or a “hobby,” they were utilitarian and symbolic of their presence on the land. I repeat–don’t let people fool you–we don’t need to be taught anything about the power of our traditional gardening culture–we just need to remember where we came from in order to facilitate the journey to where we need to be.
While the thrust of this post is about creating a garden that will help you “eat to live,” it goes without saying that we have lost a lot in the African American, West Indian and African Immigrant communities that could benefit their development and growth. I encourage all of my readers who are of African descent to study gardening, get into a Master Gardener program, learn about urban farming and see if there are any local programs to facilitate that process or even establishing urban farms; and if you are still on land in the Deep South–DO NOT SELL ONE INCH OF GROUND–KEEP IT, IMPROVE IT THROUGH ORGANIC MEANS AND GROW OUR HEIRLOOMS AND RAISE OUR HERITAGE BREEDS.
Why so stern? If you want sparkling wine, you can get sparkling wine. If you want a salt and air cured meat product, you can get that. But if you want to champagne, you have to go to people from a certain locale with a specific terroir in France to obtain the real deal. If you want proscuitto or Spanish jamon Serrano, there are specific places and sources from which the real deal is obtained. Why is this not the case with plants familiar to the African American, African Immigrant and West Indian communities? You would not believe how many of our distinctive crops and foods are “outsourced,” and are losing ground as products and productions of our community. It’s an outrage for which we have only ourselves to blame. Other ethnic communities take great pride in the monopoly and artisan production of their unique foods. Once upon a time we did too. We were “chicken merchants” of the Chesapeake; we were the Haitian emigrees who took over produce markets and established catering businesses, we are women who bought their husband’s freedom with tomatoes, we are the produce makers in central Virginia who bought gunpowder, lead shot and padlocks with their greens, cucumbers and cottton. We are all those specific historical examples of ways Black women and men of old took the matter of self-preservation and self-determination into their own hands and used the earth they were bound to as a means to make way for freedom.
Don’t get me wrong–I am not a purist for “cultural ownership,” I’m just saying that anybody CAN make anything they like, but the descendants and heirs of a tradition should take the kind of pride and initiative to reintroduce and market those traditions so they can be culturally and environmentally sustainable. The women of the Lowcountry have certainly done this with grass baskets from Charleston to Savannah. Their children are partnering with state and local organizations interested in replanting sweetgrass and saving it from extinction while preserving a craft unique to the Gullah-Geechee nation. Look no further than the Native American fishery projects from the Northwest to California to Virginia with its shad restoration. In an age where Food People will pay top dollar for quality food—it is critical that we stay in the game and become our own best customers as we strive to find new ways to put our community back to work and our historic culture back to use. Not only do we need to grow these crops, raise these animals and fish and have an informed stewardship of unique wild foods, but we need to encourage a broad and informed understanding of what our community can offer others in the marketplace of American food ingredients and ideas. This is a call to action…So the first action is to grow what you can.
Gardening and Urban Farming:
- puts our people back in touch with nature
- gives us good exercise
- teaches delayed gratification to our young people
- encourages patient, loving and unconditional inter-generational learning between age groups, most saliently–the elderly and the middle and high school aged youth.
- gives us access to our own self-provided part of the food supply
- gives us stewardship over treasured cultural heirlooms, herbs and ingredients we need to define our historic and contemporary role in influencing American and global food culture. EMPOWERMENT EMPOWERMENT EMPOWERMENT.
- Connects us with our Ancestors.
- Gives a fuller and better life to those who work and eat in concert with the seasons, absorb nature’s natural blessings and can eat in sustainable ways that are good for the balance of nature.
Forget the free range Ossabaw hogs, today we are hear to all about what plants will keep you and your families and friends who want to live well, alive:
Here’s the shopping list for seeds–tomorrow we talk health benefits:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Green Pepper
- Summer and Winter Squash
- Garlic and Onions
- Dandelion Greens
- Mustard Greens
- Snap Beans
- Potatoes (in moderation)
- Red Pepper
- Parsley, Thyme, Sage, Rosemary, Mint, Oregano, Marjoram (all have medicinal qualities)
- Swiss Chard
Please keep your eye posted for my essay on the African origins of rice and bean dishes in Rice and Beans by Berg press, 2012!
We have four days left to raise some 3,000 plus for our campaign. Over 600 people viewed this blog yesterday. If only 180 had made a contribution to our Campaign of 18$ or more, the Campaign would have been an overnight success…We need you—Now. Please contribute 18 or more today: www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour
The Manding call them “soso,” and the Wolof call them “nyebe.” An ancient staple of the diet in Senegambia and its hinterlands, the black-eyed pea grows well in hot, drought-conducive conditions and is a symbol of resilience, mercy, and kindness. Nyebe are the kind of cooked food one gives as sadaka—righteously given charity—to beggars on the streets of Senegal. In Maryland, black-eyed peas can be traced back to the mid-18th century, when it was a field crop, and was exported from the Chesapeake region to theWest Indies. They continue to be seen as a sign of blessing and are paired with greens as good luck food on New Year’s Day. As a child I remember not only eating black-eyed peas, but putting them in everyone’s wallet or pocketbook so that they would have money for the entire year. Black eyed peas are one of the good-mazal foods we Sephardim eat on Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish new year. The cowpea is native to West Africa. It has been grown in the South since at least the 17th and 18th centuries, with archaeological evidence pointing to its cultivation in enslaved communities going back to the mid-18th century. It was adopted by my Creek/Muskogee ancestors as well and was grown in their towns in the 18th and 19th century.)
Black eyed pea leaves can be eaten! Sweet potato leaves, okra leaves, are also edible! In West Africa cassava leaves join these as traditional vegetables along with wild and other cultivated greens!
Black eyed peas symbolize the eye of G-d.
Black eyed peas are a food given to the poor to inspire them to survive and thrive.
Black eyed peas are a symbol of fertility.
Black eyed peas are symbol of multiple deities and spiritual force in West Africa.
Black eyed pea in Yoruba is ewa. Change the tone and its the word for beauty and the word for tradition. To ingest black eyed peas is to become filled with beauty, and ancestral tradition.
1 pound of dried black eyed peas
a ham hock, a piece of salt pork or bacon, or salt fish (my favorite pot-meat are smoked turkey wings)
1 cup of chopped onion-optional
a crushed fish or cayenne pepper
(a few teaspoons of molasses—optional)
fresh herbs of your choice
Sort your peas, making sure you check for pebbles or bad peas. Soak the peas for several hours or overnight, or if in a rush, soak them in boiling hot water for 30 minutes before cooking. Prepare a stock of salt meat and onion and season with salt and a hot pepper. Boil these together for 15 minutes and add the black eyed peas. Add enough water to cover. If you like you can add some molasses for more flavor, or the fresh herbs. Cook for and hour and a half. Pair it with corn pone or rice for semi-hoppin john.
Symbolizing cash, the number of greens you throw in symbolizes the number of friends you will make, and the color green (in leaves and plants) symbolizes vitality, opportunity, happiness, and growth in several West and West Central African cultures.
“Greens,” to a Southerner in the 18th and 19th centuries could mean lamb’s quarters, young poke leaves or wild mustard or it could have been the collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, cabbage, kale, or chard grown in truck patches or kitchen gardens. Other times, when all else was scarce, it might be dandelion greens, purslane, young oak or hickory leaves or blackberry leaves.
The green season began in the early spring when fresh leaves sprouted on branches and from the ground. Beets, turnips, mustard, and other spring greens would be planted for a late spring and early summer harvest. By late summer a second garden was planted with beets, turnips, mustard, collards and cabbage—enough to last through the winter. How did collards and cabbage and other greens make it through the winter?
George McDaniel, author of Hearth and Home, interviewed McKinley Gantt ofCalvert County,Maryland and got the following answer:
Cabbage was persevered through the winter in “cabbage pens,” an easily made shelter that protected the cabbage from the frost…Gantt remembered how they were made. His parents first uprooted the cabbage from the garden, dug a shallow trench, and transplanted the cabbage into the trench, covering the roots with dirt. Close to that was dug another trench, and row after row of cabbage was transplanted to form a square, which was then enclosed by a low fence of wooden rails, “like a hog pen.” Logs or boards were laid across the rails, and over these were placed thick pine boughs to keep the frost off the cabbage. “They’d keep all winter. I don’t care how cold it got, you could go out there and get a head of cabbage.” (231)
Sometimes greens were boxed in the field with straw and hay and wooden boards. That way they were likewise protected from the winter frosts and snow.
Greens were typically flavored with salt pork or middling meat as they cooked down. Again, the salty protein rations were not generally consumed on their own, but used as a flavoring and relish for other foods that enslaved people grew or acquired for themselves. The resultant “pot liquor” or “pot likker,” was a very important and nutritious part of the dish. Leonard Black, a fugitive from Maryland slavery and author of an emancipatory narrative wrote:
I was not allowed to sit down while I ate my meals. For my breakfast I had a pint of pot liquor, half a herring, and a little piece of bread. Whether this would stay the cravings of a young appetite or not, there was no more to be had. For my dinner I had a pint of pot liquor, and the skin off of the pork. I must say as the colored people say at the south, when singing to cheer their hearts while under the burning sun, and the crack of the whip, remembering what is placed before them every day for food–“My old master is a hard-hearted man; he eats the meat, and gives poor nigger bones.” (8)
The recipe is simple. Clean your greens well, removing bugs, dirt or any other debris. Have a pot of wild or yellow onions and one or two quarts of water boiling with bacon or salt pork. Some people added a crushed hot pepper to their greens (especially turnip or collard greens) or a splash of apple cider vinegar. Each traditional green has it’s own unique special requirements:
Lamb’s Quarters: (Chenopodium album)
The young fresh leaves and seeds of lamb’s quarter’s or “pigweed” are edible. Considered “weeds” by many, lamb’s quarters were a Godsend to enslaved Blacks. Charles Ball remembered an enslaved family whose only dinner was a pot of boiled lamb’s quarters. The ideal edible lamb’s quarters are less than a foot tall, and the young leaves are the best.
You can boil them or fry them up with wild onions, salt and vinegar.
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
Pokeweed or pork salad was popularly eating in the 19th century. Many African American families, and families of Appalachian origin know this vegetable for its rich taste and long-suffering cooking method. Because poke is poisonous, only the young tender shoots are edible. Even then they must be boiled twice for ten minutes in several changes of water before they are fried in bacon grease or added to domestic greens to flavor the pot. When you pick poke, there should be no traces of red in the leaves or stems, and the plant should not be taller than 6 or 8 inches.
Turnip greens, collards, mustard greens, and cabbages are prepared in the traditional way. The salt pork or smoked turkey and onion makes a stock in about 15-20 minutes. The chopped greens are added and cooked down for 15-30 minutes to an hour or two depending on how Southern you are.
We are really going for the gusto on the Southern DIscomfort Tour. We have about 18 days left so we really need your support and 5-10-18-36 bucks really helps us out if not more. We can’t get on the road for less than our goal so we are humbly asking for your support so we can bring this story to a mass audience. We love you! http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour
So its really hard to run a fundraising campaign and blog at the same time!
We will be back full force on Monday. We are going to be posting every day through the remaining month of our Campaign. We have so many stories to tell, and now that the route is more concrete, we have more to say about how all of this will look in the end. We appreciate your patience and your questions and emails. G-d bless!