Several books on African-American cooking tempt me right now, all brilliant in their own way. See Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power, by Psyche Williams-Forson; Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food, by Andrew Warnes; African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture, edited by Anne L. Bower; and Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860, by Sam Bowers Hilliard (an oldie, based no doubt on the author’s Ph.D. dissertation, but still of interest).
And then there’s Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, which does for African-American cooking what Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari’s Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History did for, well of course, Italian cooking. Like a gardener digging for the root source of a fairly large plant, Dr. Opie – an associate professor of history and director of the African Diaspora Studies Program at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York – goes straight to the dirt and isn’t afraid to plumb the depths, so to speak. Sometimes the truth isn’t pretty, but that’s usually the way it goes with the truth.
Building on the “pioneering work of Helen Mendes, Verta Mae Grosvenor, Sidney W. Mintz, Karen Hess, Howard Paige, Jessica Harris, and, most recently, Psyche Williams-Forson,” Opie concludes that soul food means many thing (spirituality, wisdom, rural folk culture, simple delicious food made from inexpensive ingredients), but the most true aspect of it lies in the fact that it is “an amalgamation of West African societies and cultures, as well as an adaptation to conditions of slavery and freedom in the Americas.”
Of the various West African cultural groups brought to the New World as slaves, the Igbo and Mande cultures represented the largest proportion of the slave population. Opie relies on the accounts of admittedly Eurocentric contemporaries, but agrees that such accounts provide some information that’s better than nothing at all. Of interest here is The Carolina Journal of Dr. Francis Le Jau 1706-1717, as well as Dutch factor William Bosman’s A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, Divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory Coasts (1705) and Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. Opie filters and shares the observations of Le Jau, Bosman, and Park, as well as many others, thus spicing up the narrative a great deal. There’s something about reading the words of people long-dead, who experienced a world that we will never see, except through their words. These accounts testify to the truth that “the culinary transition that came with slavery in America was not drastic,” for people ate rice or couscous on a daily basis. Grains like corn no doubt seemed familiar to the slaves.
Hog and Hominy traces the rest of African-American food history from the slave period to modern-day eateries. Although many African Americans have rejected “soul food” for many reasons, including the belief that slave holders imposed the diet on their chattel, poor whites also ate the same food. Today, the health aspects of “soul food” trouble many in the African-American community, with the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure taking a terrible toll on the African-American population.
© 2008 C. Bertelsen