Black History Month: Ancestral Foodways and Culinary Legacy

In honor of Black History Month, we're sharing stories about the influential role African American chefs and farmers have played in shaping cuisine across the United States. These conversations with historians, documentarians, educators, and advocates demonstrate the power in unearthing the past and highlight the immense amount of work that remains to be done. On A Taste of the Past Dr. Jessica B. Harris says: “I think one of the things that for me is rewarding and equally fascinating is the degree to which every year, pretty much every month we’re finding something new about the culinary history of African Americans.”

Continued research is critical, as is ongoing education and reckoning. On Fields Dr. Edda Fields-Black admits, “I’m just no longer satisfied with teaching an academic version of slavery." She is reaching people outside of the higher education system with new projects including a requiem. Connecting with a broad audience was likewise a goal of the Netflix documentary, High on the Hog. Fabienne Toback, one of the show's producers shares on Speaking Broadly that she and her co-producer "didn’t know any of these stories, we were just like Oh My Gosh, like the world needs to know these things. The world needs to know about these people that are deeply woven into the fabric of our nation’s food.”

The episodes below are imbued with history lessons that span across centuries and continents from Benin, to Charleston, to New York City, to Missouri. They are a starting point in an ever-expanding landscape of Black history, which deserves to be celebrated year round. 

Fields S2 Episode 4: Dr. Edda Fields-Black on Rice, the Legacy of African Slavery, and Symphony as History: How did knowledge of grains from West Africa shape rural lands and cities in North America? Why has it taken so long for historians to address the agricultural knowledge work of enslaved persons? Dr. Edda Fields-Black, Associate Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University, joins us to discuss these vitally important questions. She tells us all about rice farming in the United States, including the agricultural traditions of the Gullah and Geechee peoples, including her personal connection to this history. We also talk about her new book about Harriet Tubman—and her symphony, Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice, which is a contemporary classical and multimedia music symphonic work and the first symphonic work about slavery. Dr. Fields-Black is the author of Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora

“I’m just no longer satisfied with teaching an academic version of slavery. I can’t sleep at night. I can’t look at myself in the mirror…I’m living this life on the back of my ancestors and they’re swimming in the graves down there in South Carolina, what am I going to do about it? The requiem was a way to take all of that pain and to take the pain of millions of people who haven’t been able to mourn their ancestors and to create something beautiful about it.” -Dr. Edda Fields-Black on S2 Episode 4 of Fields

A Taste of the Past Episode 361: Jessica B. Harris on The Legacy Quilt: African-American Foundation of American Cuisine 1619-2019: Culinary historian and foremost expert on the food and foodways of the African Diaspora, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, joins host Linda Pelaccio to talk about The Legacy Quilt, the centerpiece of a project celebrating Black contributions to American cuisine. It's all part of a major exhibition at the Museum of Food and Drink --MOFAD-- entitled, African/American: Making the Nation's Table.

“I think one of the things that for me is rewarding and equally fascinating is the degree to which every year, pretty much every month we’re finding something new about the culinary history of African Americans.” -Jessica B. Harris on episode 361 of A Taste of the Past

Speaking Broadly Episode 151: High Production Values: Fabienne Toback & Karis Jagger: High on the Hog is an extraordinary documentary that is destined to re-shape our understanding of the African American influence on food in this country. Based on Dr. Jessica B. Harris's book of the same name, the Netflix series is essential, honest, moving, painful and joyful. On this episode of Speaking Broadly, Karis Jagger and Fabienne Toback, the show's producers, give listeners behind the scenes insight into the production; from what it felt like to walk on the red clay road trod by the enslaved in Benin to pitching the idea for getting it made.

“I went to cooking school. Karis is hands-down one of the best home cooks ever. We are serious foodies and we’re Black. There was so much of this history around food, reading Dr. Harris’s book [High on the Hog] that we had no idea about. The level of our culinary knowledge is pretty darn high - that we didn’t know any of these stories, we were just like Oh My Gosh, like the world needs to know these things. The world needs to know about these people that are deeply woven into the fabric of our nation’s food” -Fabienne Toback on episode 151 of Speaking Broadly 

Beer Sessions Radio Episode 544: Unearthing New York's Long History of Milling: Host Jimmy Carbone revisits the question of ‘what came first beer or bread?’ and dives deep into the history of milling. Joining him are guests, Lavada Nahon, a culinary historian and interpreter for African American history for NYS Department of Parks; Amy Halloran, flour ambassador and the author of The New Bread Basket; and Bryan Ford, of Artisan Bryan and the author of New World Sourdough. Starting with when settlers brought wheat, barley and rye from Europe and turned New York into a bread basket, Lavada helps paint a picture of early New Amsterdam and unearth a whitewashed history that has left out the critical role enslaved people played in the grain economy. Amy and Lavada talk about the types of bread recipes that were common at the time, while Bryan shares how he is learning to break the mold we have surrounding bread today, which still uses a European standard.

“Enslaved history…has been taught around the 19th century; it has been taught around the antebellum in the South, Civil War, and reconstruction. Most people did not learn about enslavement in the North. It just wasn’t there. So a lot of people are really frustrated…we have owned our knowledge for so long and then people like me are standing in front of you telling you what you know is not true. So people get really defensive and I think that that’s playing into what is happening in our country right now. A lot of people really just don’t know the depth and breadth of enslavement in this country. We’re talking 400 years.” -Lavada Nahon on episode 544 of Beer Sessions Radio

Eat Your Heartland Out Episode 5: African-American & Appalachian Migration Influences: Host Capri Cafaro is joined by Donna Pierce, writer of the syndicated column "Black America Cooks" & author of a forthcoming book on Freda DeKnight, Ebony Magazine's first food editor. Cafaro also interviews Bruce Kraig, professor emeritus at Roosevelt University. Kraig speaks about Appalachian migration and its impact on Midwestern food.

“I remember the saddest looking shrimp that my mother would buy at the A& P for shrimp creole, and then the canned beans that she would buy -or the dried beans that she would bring up when they would go down to visit -and then they would use that. And share with each other! Whenever anybody went on a trip south, the trunk would come back filled with the dried beans, and filled with spices, filled with any kind of spice that was very difficult to find here [Southern Missouri].” -Donna Pierce on episode 5 of Eat Your Heartland Out

Item 13: An African Food Podcast Episode 62: Ancestral Food Ways with Abena Offeh-Gyimah: Abena Offeh-Gyimah is a writer, a researcher, a business owner, and an advocate for an indigenous food sovereignty system. She's worked at Black Creek Community Farm as a coordinator for the youth farming program, with Building Roots as an urban gardener coordinator, with North York Community House as a Strong Neighborhood Coordinator, and currently project co-lead with the Jane Finch Community Research Partnership. Her food business, Adda Blooms, seeks to work with small scale farmers to bring ancestral foods worldwide. Her blog seeks to explore the intersections between food, culture, and equity. Abena’s passionate about preserving indigenous plants, seeds, and seeks to work in collaboration with small scale African farmers to grow and preserve ancestral foods. 

“Ancestral food is about DNA. It’s about culture, it’s about tradition, something that is native…something that carries my story before I even existed.” -Abena Offeh-Gyimah on Episode 62 of Item 13: An African Food Podcast

The Farm Report Episode 419: Fighting for Black Farmers’ Land: The American agricultural system was built based on the enslavement of African people, and since emancipation, systematic discrimination against Black people within agriculture has persisted. In 1920, close to 1 million Black farmers made up about 14 percent of America’s farmers. In 2017, less than 50,000 Black farmers remained, making up just over 1 percent. In this episode, Dania Davy joins host Lisa Held to talk about the impacts of land loss, her work helping Black farmers and families keep their homes and land, and whether new policies in Washington will have a meaningful impact on the ground. Davy recently joined the Federation of Southern Cooperatives as the director of land retention and advocacy.

“From emancipation 'til 1910, 218,000 Black  farmers accumulated 15 million acres of land. By 1992 we saw that 1,000 Black farmers owned 2.3 millions acres of land, which represents over a 90% decline in both Black farmers and Black owned farm land … What I'm excited about .. is there’s a lot of education and awareness that what we’re really seeing a resurgence of the fact that we never adequately as a country addressed Jim Crow and the enslavement of African Americans and so because of that history and because our legislation has never appropriately cut root what were seeing is the branches of all that white supremacist oppression  for the farmers persist to this day.” -Dania Davy on episode 419 of The Farm Report

Soul by Chef Todd Richards Episode 6: Chef Kevin Mitchell: Todd Richards welcomes Chef Kevin Mitchell to the show. Appointed South Carolina's State Chef Ambassador, Kevin is also a culinary historian, soon-to-be author, and instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. Join us for a deep dive into Kevin's knowledge of Soul food as a way of life and a religion.

​​“We can talk abut the atrocities and the downtrodden things of slavery until we’re blue in the face, but for me it’s important to share the stories of these cooks, formerly enslaved who rose to own their own businesses in the city of Charleston, pastry shops, hotels, so on and so forth.” -Kevin Mitchell on Episode 6 of Soul by Chef Todd Richards

Time for Lunch Episode 31: Okra!: What’s green, prickly, a little slimy, and utterly delicious? On this episode of Time For Lunch - HRN’s podcast for kids - we’re celebrating Black History Month and learning about okra. Hannah and Harry talk to food writer, former attorney, politico and certified barbecue judge Adrian Miller (A.K.A. The Soul Food Scholar) about how ingredients and techniques originate in Africa came to the US and shaped the heart and soul of American cuisine. Plus, fourth-generation farmer Felicia Bell teaches us about agricultural and food traditions that have shaped her life.

“The story that's really interesting is just how certain African ingredients make their way to this side of the Atlantic. And so examples would be Black Eyed Peas or okra or hibiscus. There were certain types of rice. There was a type of sesame seed watermelon…. Africans who were enslaved at the time took those ingredients and started melding it with other stuff that was available here…We see the ingenuity of enslaved Africans and later enslaved African-American cooks taking all of these ingredients and putting them to something that's really delicious.” -Adrian Miller on Episode 31 of Time For Lunch

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