Africa's imprint on America's cuisine
Celebrate Black History month with 'Nawlins Gumbo -- and a little history
I used to question the value of Black History month yet, over the years, I have seen how the 28 days of cultural celebration each year have profiled people and events in ways that have created broad, lasting impact. So, consider this article my donation to Black History month.
As slaves, Africans introduced certain food items to the U.S. and adapted certain foods to their cultural tastes. Historic ship logs also show that slave traders, in a self-interested effort to yield the highest prices for their slaves, brought indigenous foods from the respective regions of Africa from which they took slaves to ensure the slaves ate well.
One staple food for various African groups was the yam, sweeter with a different skin than the sweet potato found here. In African culture, the yam has been growing in Africa for about 8,000 years. Throughout Africa, the porridge made from yams and grains and eaten with sauce or meat is a common meal.
Peanuts were introduced to Western Africa in the early 1500s by Portuguese traders. Before peanuts, West Africans relied on the Bambara nut, a legume similar to peanuts. However, the peanut quickly replaced the Bambara nut as it was easier to grow, produced a higher yield and also generated oil for lighting and cooking.
Peanuts came to the Americas through Portuguese slave traders, and slaves in America quickly adopted the peanut to their culinary needs, eating them raw, boiled, roasted, as a flavorful ingredient in soups and stews and as oil for frying. Recipes using peanuts began showing up in early American cookbooks, and peanuts became popular as snacks among working class Americans who ate them in the cheap theater seats known as the "peanut gallery."
In the 1600s, Arab traders introduced bananas to Africa and they quickly became an important crop and food item. In fact, the name "banana" was generated in West Africa and, as with peanuts, Portugese slave traders brought the fruit to America along with their slaves. Similarly, the Spanish grew bananas in the Caribbean as food for their growing population of slaves.
Okra, native to Africa, is the most typical African food of all American foods. While okra was originally brought here as food for slaves, it has become closely associated with Southern cuisine, especially the Creole cuisine of Louisiana. Okra stews, later called gumbos, were creative blends of okra, meats, fish, vegetables, rice. In fact, "gumbo" comes from the word for okra in Ghana's Twi language.
The watermelon originated in Africa over 5,000 years ago but the fruit arrived in America via the Spaniards and was grown in New England by the early 1600s. A fruit familiar to slaves, Africans grew it and made it popular throughout the Southern U.S. Because of slavery, the watermelon leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouths of some, yet its origins are positively African ... and it has become an American iconic food.
Rice has been cultivated in West Africa since 1500 B.C. In the lowlands of Senegal and Gambia, rice was grown in a wetlands system similar to the paddy system of Asia. Initially grown as food for slaves, South Carolina plantation owners produced and exported rice throughout North America. Africans brought both the rice growing expertise and slave labor that fueled the "Carolina Rice" export business and the creation of wealth among rice plantation owners.
As Africans from many different tribes arrived here in America, they were exposed to the foods and culinary traditions of other tribes. Rice eaters met yam eaters, meat eaters met fish eaters; hence, many foods and recipes were shared among tribes. On some plantations, slaves were allowed to grow familiar foods: okra, yams, watermelon, rice, bananas, peanuts, etc., but they did not always have control over their own crops or meals. Instead, they adapted to their surroundings by altering how they cooked the foods they were given.
Moreover, slaves began substituting American ingredients for items no longer available to them, thus creating whole new cuisines. In fact, what we call "Southern cuisine" was primarily created by those who did most of the cooking: black slave cooks who labored in the kitchens of Southern aristocracy, putting their own personal cooking style into the foods that were eaten in those households. Watermelon, fried chicken, flaming bananas foster, peanut butter sandwiches, rice and beans, sweet potato pie ... all American foods ... foods all influenced by African Americans.
The recipe for Gumbo includes several of the ingredients introduced into American cuisine by slavery and is a wonderful example of the many dishes created from an African-plus-American culture. It's also a delicious, heart-warming dish your family will undoubtedly love. Note: You can halve the recipes but don't fret about the large quantity ... gumbo always tastes better on Day 2 and makes for a great leftover for lunch!
'Nawlins Gumbo(serves 16 or 2 meals for 8)
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
6 large onions, chopped (about 12 cups)
6 red bell peppers, seeded, chopped (about 7 cups)
8 celery stalks, chopped (about 3 cups)
16 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped fresh thyme
6 bay leaves
2 - 28-oz cans diced tomatoes with juice
4 - 8-oz bottles clam juice
4 cups low-salt chicken broth
4 pounds andouille sausage, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices
3 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 - 16-oz packages sliced frozen okra
4 pounds peeled deveined medium shrimp
Salt and pepper
Minced fresh Italian parsley
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat until very hot and almost smoking. Add flour and stir constantly until the mixture is dark reddish brown, about 5 minutes (this is the critical "roux").
2. Add chopped onions, chopped bell peppers, and chopped celery and cook until onions are soft and brown, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes. Add garlic and cayenne and stir 2 minutes.
3. Add wine, thyme and bay leaves; bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes with juice, clam juice, broth, sausage, and chicken; simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes.
4. Add okra and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Cool slightly; chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. This gumbo base can be made two days ahead.
5. Bring base to simmer before continuing. Add shrimp to pot and cook shrimp until just opaque in center, stirring often, about five minutes. Season gumbo to taste with salt and pepper.
6. Garnish with minced parsley and serve with steamed rice alongside.
--Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes.