The Legacy of African American Cuisine

Popular southern foods, such as the vegetable okra (brought to New Orleans by African slaves), are often attributed to the importation of goods from Africa, or by way of Africa, the West Indies, and the slave trade. Okra, which is the principal ingredient in the popular Creole stew referred to as gumbo, is believed to have spiritual and healthful properties. Rice and seafood (along with sausage or chicken), and filé (a sassafras powder inspired by the Choctaw Indians) are also key ingredients in gumbo. Other common foods that are rooted in African-American culture include black-eyed peas, benne seeds (sesame), eggplant, sorghum (a grain that produces sweet syrup and different types of flour), watermelon, and peanuts.

Though southern food is typically known as "soul food," many African Americans contend that soul food consists of African-American recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation, just like other African-American rituals. The legacy of African and West Indian culture is imbued in many of the recipes and food traditions that remain popular today. The staple foods of African Americans, such as rice, have remained largely unchanged since the first Africans and West Indians set foot in the New World, and the southern United States, where the slave population was most dense, has developed a cooking culture that remains true to the African-American tradition. This cooking is aptly named southern cooking,

A major ingredient in cuisine of African origin, okra traveled to the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia, and India long before it came to the New World with African slaves. The thickening characteristic of its sticky substance is put to good use in the preparation of gumbos and stews. [Photograph by Robert J. Huffman/Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.]

A major ingredient in cuisine of African origin, okra traveled to the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia, and India long before it came to the New World with African slaves. The thickening characteristic of its sticky substance is put to good use in the preparation of gumbos and stews. [Photograph by Robert J. Huffman/Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.]

ritual: ceremony or frequently repeated behavior the food, or soul food. Over the years, many have interpreted the term soul food based on current social issues facing the African-American population, such as the civil rights movement. Many civil rights advocates believe that using this word perpetuates a negative connection between African Americans and slavery. However, as Doris Witt notes in her book Black Hunger (1999), the "soul" of the food refers loosely to the food's origins in Africa.

In his 1962 essay "Soul Food," Amiri Baraka makes a clear distinction between southern cooking and soul food. To Baraka, soul food includes chitterlings (pronounced chitlins), pork chops, fried porgies, potlikker, turnips, watermelon, black-eyed peas, grits, hoppin' John, hushpuppies, okra, and pancakes. Today, many of these foods are limited among African Americans to holidays and special occasions. Southern food, on the other hand, includes only fried chicken, sweet potato pie, collard greens, and barbecue, according to Baraka. The idea of what soul food is seems to differ greatly among African Americans.

fat: type of food molecule rich in carbon and hydrogen, with high energy content fiber: indigestible plant material that aids digestion by providing bulk processed food: food that has been cooked, milled, or otherwise manipulated to change its quality cuisine: types of food and traditions of preparation

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