Foods Born of Heartache
Grits, jambalaya, cornbread--some of America's most beloved dishes are the products of slavery. The arrival of millions of enslaved Africans transformed the South into a plantation economy and forced a painful collision of cultures--and the creation of one indelible cuisine.
The fusion began in the plantation kitchens. Cooks, ordered to prepare traditional European recipes like meat stews, added spices and imported vegetables like okra. "When somebody is cooking for you, even with your own recipes, they don't taste the way you would do them," says Queens College food historian Jessica Harris.
Gumbo. Slaves also introduced dishes of their own. In the past few decades, linguists and cultural historians have traced the many dishes associated with the American South that come almost unchanged from Africa: gumbo (the Bantu word for okra), chilis, pilau, and just about anything deep-fried. "Actual African dishes occasionally appeared on the master's table," writes food historian Karen Hess in The Carolina Rice Kitchen. "It was this African presence that accounted for the near-mythic reputation of southern cookery."
Many of the ingredients now common to southern cooking also arrived with the slaves and were cultivated in the gardens most slaves maintained. According to Joseph Holloway, a professor of Pan African Studies at California State University-Northridge, the imports included black-eyed peas, watermelon, yams, eggplant, sesame, mustard greens, and the peanut. Rice, one of the South's staple crops, also came from Africa.
Take One Turtle ...
In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written by an American for Americans, with recipes using indigenous ingredients, including turkey, corn, and, of course, turtle:
"Mix two third parts of salt ... and one third part of cayenne pepper, black pepper, and a nutmeg, and mace pounded fine ... the quantity to be proportioned to the size of the turtle ... your meat being thus seasoned, get some sweet herbs ... let them be dried and rub'd fine, and having provided some deep dishes to bake it in ... put a quarter pound of butter at the bottom of each dish, and then put some of each of the several parcels of meat, so that the dishes may be all alike and have equal portions of the different parts of the turtle, and between each laying of meat strew a little of the mixture of sweet herbs ... boil the blood of the turtle, and ... then lay on forcemeat balls made of veal, highly seasoned with the same seasoning as the turtle; put in each dish a gill of Madeira wine, and as much water as it will conveniently hold, then break over it five or six eggs to keep the meat from scorching at the top, and over that shake a handful of shred parsley ... when done put your dishes into an oven made hot enough to bake bread, and in an hour and half ... it will be sufficiently done."
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.