Cornbread in cast iron skillet
In honor of Black History Month, we’re exploring the impact African-Americans have had on Southern cuisine. African-Americans are the most responsible in helping shape the Southern dinner table as we know it today. While these cooks haven’t always received credit, the works of writers Adrian Miller, Michael Twitty and John T. Edge have brought to life their contributions.
Southern food has transformed over the past 200 years and is continually being influenced by different cultures today. We are still using techniques in Southern cooking that were primarily used by enslaved people as a form a survival. Much of this food was and is today based around simple, plant-based foods. Yes, you'll still find plenty of pork and fried foods on any Southern menu today, and yes, those foods have been around a long time, but that is far from the full story. Here are three of the most influential ways the foods of enslaved Africans have shaped the Southern table.
The Importance of Potlikker
The diets of the enslaved were based on survival. Meals rarely included meat and consisted mainly of vegetarian ingredients. If meat was used, its main function was as seasoning in dishes like stewed greens, and it was rarely the centerpiece of a dish. Unbeknownst to slave owners, they were leaving the most nutritious parts of some meals — most notably potlikker — to be consumed by the African-Americans who prepared the meals.
“You took a pot of greens — could be collards and mustards — and cook it down, low and slow, with pork hocks or pig tails. And the liquid that remains at the bottom of that pot, the distilled essence, is the potlikker,” Edge explained in an interview with National Public Radio. “During the days of enslavement, slave masters would often retain the greens for themselves and deign to give the potlikker to the enslaved, not knowing that the nutrients leach out of those greens and remain in the potlikker. So the slaves were left with what was truly the nutritious part of the dish.”
Today, chefs across the South are still cooking collards using similar techniques. Chef Dadisi Olutosin, an Atlanta native, continually incorporates aspects of African culture into his cooking. To pay tribute his ancestors, he uses West African and Caribbean ingredients, such as peanuts, in his collards.
Grains and Starches
In an interview with Epicurious, Miller, a self-described soul food scholar, explained that slave rations consisted mostly of grains and starch, using what was readily available to make up the rest of a meal. “Once a week, the enslaved got five pounds of some starch — that could be cornmeal, rice, or sweet potatoes; they got a couple of pounds of smoked, salted, or dried meat, which could be beef, fish, or pork — whatever was cheapest — and a jug of molasses, and that was it.”
With the rations they were given, the enslaved still could not live off what was provided, Miller explained. “The enslaved had to figure out how to supplement their diet, so they gardened, foraged, and fished to get extra food. But for a lot of them it was really just eating a lot of vegetables.”
Using hominy and cornmeal, they made grits, which is similar to the African dish eba, and ash cakes, a precursor to today’s cornbread, and other dishes inspired by African food. Flour-based biscuits did not become popular until the 20th century, when the price of flour became more affordable. Sweet potatoes were used as an alternative to flour, but the enslaved usually relied on cheaper grains, like cornmeal, as a staple starch.
Heirloom cornmeal, rice and grits are making a resurgence in the South with farms like Anson Mills dedicated to reintroducing diverse Southern foods into Southern kitchens.
Foraging, Preservation and Gardening
The enslaved ate meat and fish when they could catch it while hunting or fishing. On his “Southern Discomfort Tour,” Twitty traveled the South and recreated meals like this to show how slaves ate during enslavement. One meal he recreated at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, consisted of okra soup, hominy and rabbit. NPR called it “a typical meal for an enslaved person — different versions of okra soup were eaten throughout the South, corn was a staple and rabbit would have been hunted by slaves and shared among dozens of people.”
Of course, Southern food is influenced by other cultures, including that of Native Americans and people of European descent. These techniques, notably salting and pickling, were incorporated into the cooking done by enslaved Africans.
In an interview with Deep South Magazine, Atlanta-based chef Todd Richards said that “salting and frying meats and vegetables were simply preservation methods [enslaved people] learned from the Native Americans. They adapted to survive, while in the process, unknowingly transform[ed] the Southern diet with the ingredients they brought with them from Africa.” These techniques also introduced new depths of flavor into Southern diets, and we're still experimenting with pickles today.
In Savannah, The Grey's Mashama Bailey adds pickled ingredients into dishes every once in a while. Currently on The Grey's dinner menu is an octopus dish that is topped with lima beans, harissa and pickled celery. At Richard's Southern Fried in Atlanta, you can find pickled cucumber rounds and chow chow on the signature fried chicken sandwich.
Photo credit (Collards and Grits): Ramona King
Photo credit (Pickles): Virginia Willis