AFRICAN AMERICAN CUISINE
Once referred to as ‘soul food’, the cuisine that has enriched black households throughout Detroit has roots that delve deeply into the American South, throughout the Caribbean and across the sea to Africa. Derived in part from ‘scrap’ items, including traditionally tough cuts of meat, vegetable cast-offs and the meager ingredients available to slaves and sharecroppers, the sheer inventiveness of the recipes and the richness of the flavors is testament to the ingenious methods of African American cooks in years gone by.
Many of the foods that form the foundation of African American cuisine are native to Africa, brought over by slaves who may have secreted seeds as they were torn from their homes. Later, those who were taken into plantation homes as cooks began to incorporate some of these unusual ingredients into the household diet, doubtless to the delight of plantation owners. Items l ike yams, watermelon, okra and black-eyed peas, now staples of Southern cooking, had their origins in Africa. Meanwhile, slaves not fortunate enough to share the scraps of the Big House tables began to find ways to cook those foodstuffs that were jettisoned entirely; pig snouts, ears, feet, tail, hock and intestines could be slow-cooked or fried to wonderful effect. Equally, the tough leaves of the collard plant, fried and slowly tenderized, made creative use of a weed-crop that otherwise would have been tossed away.
A menu born of privation and resourcefulness grew up to be an indispensible foundation of American culinary history.
Starchy African staples like rice and yams found an ideal climate in the South and the Caribbean; beans, which formed a major component of the African diet remained popular here, especially simmered with meat. Likewise, chicken was a traditional African protein source, although ironically, the practice of deep frying chicken was a European invention intended to preserve the meat on long journeys. Still, it was quickly adopted and integrated into the ever-expan ding repertoire of African American cooks nearly everywhere they went.
It wasn’t ingredients alone that laid the groundwork for African American cuisine; cooking methods played as important a role. Perhaps the most well-known hybrid of Africa, the South and the steaming islands of the Caribbean is barbecue, which combines African basting methods with West Indian open-fire techniques and the Southern staple, pork. Gumbo depends on the thickening power of okra and file, which require slow cook times and a patient chef. Corn, otherwise fed to livestock, was ground for cornmeal, creating the emblematic ‘bread of the South’ as well as its close cousin, the hoe-cake, so called because industrious slaves could cook them in the field on the blade of their hoes.
The preservation of these methods and flavors has transcended slavery, urbanization, northern migration and a thousand other variables, largely because of the savory homespun n wholesomeness that surrounds African American cuisine. It is the tie that binds many extended families together, keeps memories alive and stomachs full; simple recipes that are endlessly adaptable, much like the folks who created them.