An Exploration of Decolonial African American Food Culture and Cuisine
By Berlin Reed
This FUSE article from issue 36-4 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure.
When gastronomy, the study of food culture, began as a concept in France 200 years ago, the Atlantic Slave Trade was still depositing Africans about the Americas in exchange for exotic ingredients bound for the kitchens of rich Europeans. As colonies across the Eastern Hemisphere likewise bulked up and diversified their pantries, elitist epicurean culture spread across the world with the French (and other colonizing nations) values of exacting standards. Dining and food culture became the ultimate exercise in capitalist elitism, and in turn traditional food cultures across the globe were devalued and dismissed while European tastes became known as “classic” and “refined.” Today, through the bustling growth of upscale comfort food in newly gentrified neighbourhoods across the Americas, descendants of colonizers are profiting from the appropriation of Soul Food, Afro-Caribbean and other African-influenced food cultures. These establishments, predictably, succeed at the cost of those who created these food cultures in areas of cities once deemed too dangerous (read: black and poor) for moneyed diners. As so-called urban renewal pushes poor people out of their homes and businesses to make room for people who will pay higher rent, the subsequent effects of prolonged cultural suppression and subservience are often overshadowed by the more obvious issues of food justice. Contemporary culinary culture is a perpetuation of the colonial ideal of perfection, even as the gleaming façade crumbles before us.
As generations of African slaves hid their gods and masked their dances, when left with refuse to fill their bellies they created dishes as heartwarming as mofongo and chit’lins to heal and restore their bodies from the harsh realities of slave life. Many of these dishes still nourish their descendants, who continue to suffer under the weight of a more covert master. One simple ingredient, the yam, tells the delectable story of a resourceful and defiant resistance that has fed us since the Middle Passage. The yam (ñame in Spanish, inhame in Portuguese, yamn in Haitian Creole) may be the most ubiquitous food transported with, by and for African slaves, from their homes throughout Africa to the American plantations and townships to which we, as slave descendants, now trace our lineage. The many ways that this simple food has been used is inspiration not only for the kitchen, but for an exploration of our varied colonial histories and our unified decolonial future.
African-born slaves were faced with a range of influences on the cultures they brought with them. They were displaced and dispersed across lands and subject to various slavery systems with specific colonizing methods of assimilation. They found differing climates and native plants, and encountered Indigenous peoples who were struggling with the same colonizers. African slaves across the Americas and the Caribbean used a lot of yams in their cooking and these influences contributed to the development of varied food cultures and traditions. In the Southern US, slave owners’ dependence on natural-born replacements for their labour force — as opposed to continually importing new bodies like most colonies did — meant that slaves lost their connections to African traditions quickly and formed a cuisine that was much more dependent on the practices of their colonizers. Accordingly, sugar-sweetened pies and casseroles reflect the typically sweet-leaning Southern palate. Hotter climates, higher rates of slave importation and later abolition dates led to a much closer connection to African roots and a diet more heavily influenced by African traditions throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. As a result, we find savoury yam-based stews such as the Haitian bouillon, a succulent mix of beef, chicken and a range of vegetables, and Jamaican Saturday soup, a brightly coloured, golden chicken and squash combination, both of which capitalize on the sweet earthiness of the yam. The myriad versions of sancocho, a stew found everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Colombia, often begin with a base of yam and plantain or cassava, and the Brazilian Bobó de inhame similarly builds flavours of seafood, spices and tomato on a foundation of yam. Drawing on their familiarity with the yam, African-born slaves were able to make use of new and unfamiliar foods found in the Americas to create hearty meals.
Just over a century since the last emancipation in the Americas (Brazil in 1888), we have reason to celebrate the postcolonial identities of Afro-Cubans, Texans, Haitians and Palenqueros, but those identities also reinforce our separation. Marcus Garvey is often quoted as saying “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Decolonial thought connects the tree to the roots severed by the Atlantic Slave Trade, used to colonize the Americas. The yam is but one root among the many we have to thank for our survival of this atrocious and long-lived offense of the Western capitalist, imperialist system. Two equally satisfying bean dishes, the American Hoppin’ John and the Brazilian feijoada, would usually be seen as unrelated within current food culture that encourages a postcolonial identity in its defini- tion of traditions by nationality. However, an Afro-futuristic concept of decolonial lineage extends from Africa across the Atlantic, and touches every port from Halifax to Buenos Aires. Since decolonial African American cuisine rejects delineations created by colonizers, those two bean dishes are, in fact, of the same culinary repertoire.
When we begin to see our seemingly disparate present-day cultures and political and socioeconomic realities through a decolonial lens, we can reclaim traditions by reconnecting our endurance of five centuries in the Americas to our future, ultimate liberation. Decolonial African American cuisine is an ownership and a repossession of African food history, and it unapologetically positions the Atlantic Slave Trade and its pervasive legacy as a central point of the global decolonial discourse.
Yam Biscuits with Ginger Syrup
Yams are a sweet, nutritious relic of our history. With so many uses, it was difficult for me as a chef to choose just one recipe to share. This is my favourite weekend treat. Don’t worry, it’s easy to change to fit all sorts of food sensitivities we’ve deve- loped in the “New World.” Feel free to experiment with cow’s milk, gluten-free flour or sugar alternatives!
Combine two parts maple syrup, one part blackstrap molasses and one part lemon juice in small pot over low heat. Add a pat of butter and a generous amount of grated ginger. Keep warm while biscuits bake.
3/4 c cooked mashed yam (or sweet potato) 1/2 c whole milk
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small bits
Preheat oven to 425 ̊F. In a small bowl, whisk yams and 1/3 c milk. Set aside. Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter. Add yam mixture to dry ingredients. Mix together using splashes of remaining milk as needed until dough is thoroughly moistened. Knead biscuits two or three times on floured surface. Cut with floured cutter or rim of cup. Bake on greased baking sheet for 11–14 minutes.
Serve with syrup and soft butter.
Berlin Reed is a food warrior, radical food theorist and queer artist bent on decolonizing cuisine. After training as a butcher in Brooklyn in 2008, he began a life of continuous travel, bouncing around the continent as a community chef/ butcher, before finally settling in Montreal in June 2013. He shared his experiences as a nomadic ex-vegetarian butcher and renegade chef in a food memoir titled The Ethical Butcher: How Thoughtful Eating Can Change Your World (Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2013). He has written for OP Magazine and is currently working on his next book, a decolonial cookbook.