Black Americans have played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s cuisine and yet they have rarely been recognized for their contributions, some of which are considered among the country’s most iconic dishes.
As conversations about racial injustice prompt a re-examination of the nation’s cultural record, black leaders are taking the opportunity to demand the exposure they deserve in an industry where many still struggle to gain exposure.
The institution of slavery definitely transformed the American culinary landscape, and its ripples are still felt today.
Take America’s staple comfort food, mac and cheese, which was popularized by slave chefs.
Other commonly found ingredients, such as peanuts, okra and watermelon, have been imported from Africa, says historian Kelley Deetz.
His 2017 book “Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine” summarizes some of America’s most enduring culinary traditions.
“It was the slave cooks who cooked on the plantations of America’s most important people,” Deetz told AFP, quoting Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
# photo1Deetz said that while slaves made European food as well, African dishes were starting to make their way into cookbooks in the 19th century.
Ingredients and craftsmanship imported from Africa introduced the American palette to complex and labor-intensive dishes like oyster stew, okra, jambalaya, and fried fish.
But slaves who worked in chefs’ aprons were systematically omitted from cookbooks in favor of white chefs in the households where they worked, added the historian.
“It’s time to give credit where credit is due,” she said.
“Black chefs have helped shape what American cuisine is,” said Jerome Grant, an award-winning Washington-based chef working at American Bistro Jackie.
“We literally built this place, so we deserve our spotlight. “
– ‘Never good enough’ –
Rarely is a black chef welcomed into the top echelon of America’s Celebrity Chefs, among internationally renowned culinary behemoths like the late Anthony Bourdain or fellow TV personality Emeril Lagasse.
# photo2Grant says he’s not shocked at the double standard, but wishes his fellow culinary artists of color weren’t continually overlooked and deemed unable to advance in the industry.
“You’ve never been good enough to run a kitchen. You have never been good enough to run a restaurant, ”he said.
Born to a black father and a Filipino mother, Grant remembers being the victim of racism in the kitchen. In one case, he was told his skills were “good enough for a black chief”.
Grant says black chefs often feel stereotypical, pressured into the hope that they will only be able to work within the parameters of a particular culinary tradition.
At work, he demands complete creative freedom but tries to honor the history of black cuisine through his creations by telling a story “of the hands that built America”.
Its menu highlights the oxtail, a cut historically considered inferior and given to slaves, who were nevertheless able to make “these great and amazing dishes” from the offal.
Grant believes black leaders are finally starting to receive the recognition they deserve, even though the equality gap has not gone away.
United by the mission of promoting black excellence in cooking, Erinn Tucker and Furard Tate founded “DMV Black Restaurant Week,” which promotes black-owned restaurants in the Washington area.
Tate, a former restaurateur, wants to demonstrate to young blacks that “it is possible to own a restaurant, it is possible to be a chef”.
– Cliches –
Tucker says the industry is still plagued by some of the most egregious clichés that have always mis characterized black cooking: that it is too oily or limited to oil-soaked ready meals.
As it turns out, fried chicken was cooked exclusively for special occasions until it was assimilated into American culture at large by fast food companies, Tucker told AFP.
Misconceptions about traditionally African-American cuisine risk discouraging black chefs from serving soul food-style dishes, which Tucker says are sometimes branded as low-quality.
Yet the growing awareness of the culinary heritage of black Americans has encouraged foodies to celebrate its heritage.
“What has happened in the last 10 or 15 years is that there is a revolution or a renaissance,” Tucker said.
A new Netflix docusery, “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” declares that black food is synonymous with American food.
The series is based on a book of the same name by culinary historian Jessica Harris, who specializes in African diaspora cuisine.
Four episodes trace the lineage of African-origin cuisine from West Africa to Texas, weaving barbecues and cowboys into the fabric of black culture.
“It struck a chord,” Harris said of the critically acclaimed film.
Harris says it is vital that films, books and documentaries address these topics because “black history is less known and not widely shared.”
The author hopes that this cultural moment is a harbinger of lasting change and recognition.
“Even we black people are learning about ourselves,” she said.
“History is still virtually unwritten. We must therefore seek, review and question everything. “
© 2021 AFP