african cuisine in the americas -- 2/11/20

Today's selection -- from Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan. The cuisine of enslaved Africans in the Americas:

"Enslaved Africans were the single largest group of immigrants to the Americas­ -- three out of four prior to the 1820s. Sugar plantations required about one worker for every acre. To staff them and other agricultural enterprises, as many as twelve mil­lion Africans were forcibly moved to the New World between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most to the lowland tropics, about half to Brazil, and a high proportion of the rest to the Caribbean. In Africa, the enslaved would have depended on one of two overlapping major cuisines. ... In the Sahel, the savannah region in a belt from the Senegal River to the tropical forests, the typical cuisine was based on steamed grains or fermented grain porridges, including rice, millet and sorghum, beans, vegetables, and a little meat. In the tropical forests that stretched to the Gulf of Guinea, the cui­sine was based on mashed cooked yams, bananas, beans, vegetables, and a little meat. Contemporary drawings of a flourishing market at Cabo Corso on the coast of what is now Ghana suggest a standard of living similar to that in rural Europe.

"In the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish empires in the Americas, Africans, like other migrants forced or voluntary, tried to replicate their cuisines. Maroon communities of escaped slaves perhaps came closest. On the plantations, the slaves had to depend on rations handed out by slave owners and on what they could grow in their gardens. Many of the available plants were unfamiliar. To import and naturalize plants familiar to them in Africa was more or less impos­sible. Insofar as these plants arrived in the Americas, they were probably sal­vaged from leftover ship's provisions. The slaves worked long days in the field, leaving little energy for the laborious, time-consuming processing methods needed to prepare, for example, American cassava. Yams and bananas, high yielding and less laborious to process, crept into the slave gardens. Africans from the rice belt made their traditional pestles and mortars for pounding rice and other grains, their winnowing baskets, and perhaps even their cooking pots. They prepared couscous. Those from the tropical belt made a pounded root dish (now known as fufu in Nigeria).

black-eyed pea fritters

"This might be eaten with sauces of palm oil, dried fish, sesame, and hibiscus or the native American amaranth leaves. Stews of meat or fish with okra (called callaloo, or gumbo) accompanied rice. On the Brazilian plantations, Africans had rice, beans, manioc meal, and dried beef (carne sêca or charque), and were given the last even on fast days, to fuel them for the hard labor.

"African cuisines (like indigenous cuisines or humble European cuisines) had little appeal for the slave owners, given the prevailing belief in culinary determin­ism. The African women who cooked in the kitchens of the great houses on the plantations were taught to prepare Catholic or Western cuisine, depending on the owner and the location. Even so, certain dishes did cross the boundary through the kitchens of plantation houses or through purchases of street food. The dishes of rice cuisines, because they were based on grains, probably crossed over more frequently than the pastes of the root cuisines. The many rice-and-bean dishes in the Americas are almost certainly of African origin. Pilau-style rice steamed in an aromatic liquid in Mexico and South Carolina may have had an origin in the ancestor of today's jollof rice of Nigeria or in Mediterranean rice dishes, or both. Tamales in former plantation regions, such as Puerto Rican pasteles, have Afro­-Caribbean elements. Infusions of hibiscus flowers probably had a West African origin, while those of tamarind pulp might have reflected the same, Mediterra­nean, or Asian origins. Black-eyed pea fritters (called akara balls in Igbo-speaking parts of Nigeria) became street food in Brazil and elsewhere. In the Bahia of Brazil, in Columbia, and in Panama, African women mastered Catholic egg yolk and sugar confectionary, selling it in the market. In South Carolina, they created the sesame seed benne wafers that became a favorite in the region."



Rachel Laudan


Cuisine & Empire


University of California Press


Copyright 2013 by Rachel Laudan


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