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The African Influence on Southern Cuisine

By Patricia B. Mitchell

John L. Beaver at Boone Hall Plantation slave cabin

John L. Beaver (the author's father) stands at the entrance to a slave cabin at Boone Hall Plantation, near Charleston, South Carolina, during December 1963.

“Some owners, it is said, required their slaves to whistle as they carried platters of venison and fish, syllabubs, and rich plum cakes from kitchen to dining room to ensure that no sampling occurred along the way,” reported Mimi Elder in an April 1989 Gourmet magazine article about Charleston, South Carolina. And who would not be tempted to snatch and taste examples of Southern plantation cooking, most of which was created by able-spooned black cooks!

The slave trade brought approximately half a million Africans to the United States. These people arrived, stripped of their material possessions, but possessed of a distinctive cultural heritage, and various talents and skills. One outstanding characteristic was a seemingly innate ability to prepare food well. As Charles Gayarre stated in an 1880 issue of Harpers magazine, “The Negro is a born cook. He could neither read nor write, and therefore he could not learn from books. He was simply inspired; the god of the spit and the saucepan had breathed into him; that was enough.”

The southern states of America were blessed with an influx of such expertise, for the agricultural economy of this region required much manual labor. Africans could fill this need; and, happily for well-to-do Southern landowners, head-ragged black cooks filled many a platter and stomach.

Africans were accustomed to large quantities of greens and vegetables in their diet, so black cooks incorporated more of these sorts of foods into the daily fare of the white man. Some historians say that the addition of such vitamin- and mineral-rich food plants saved white slaveholders from nutritional deficiencies.

The diet in Africa was centered around stews served over a starchy base such as rice; or “fufu,” a pounded mass of boiled yams, cassava, or millet. The effect of this food habit is today especially evident in Louisiana-style cookery in which chicken or seafood is served with a sauce over a bed of rice. Cajun dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya also demonstrate the African hand.

Ofttimes people destined to become slaves in the United States passed through the way station of the West Indies. Here the Creole islanders' spicy cuisine might add inspiration (and unwritten recipes) to the African cooks' repertoire. Soon Southland plantation families were enjoying black creations of cornbread, “African” vegetables, pot liquor, and sweet potato puddings; and experiencing somewhat different cooking techniques, for the Africans were fond of deep fat frying and grilling. Thanks also to black influence, certain foods were introduced to this country, or utilized to a greater extent. Black-eyed peas, hominy grits, okra, eggplant, benne (sesame) seed, sorghum, and melons were emphasized by cooks of African origin.

Elizabeth Swanson, wife of Pittsylvania County, Virginia's Claude A. Swanson (Governor of Virginia, U. S. Senator, and Secretary of the Navy), spoke in 1911 of the continuing influence of the black kitchen queens: “It takes a big, fat negro mammy with a round shiny face to cook a ham, and the secret she can never impart. It is a sort of magic … and when you get some of that kind of dainty [a sliver of cured Virginia ham] you are eating indeed.”

A satisfying Southern / “Soul Food” - style menu of this age, featuring fried chicken, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, cornbread, and sweet potato pie is the direct outgrowth of plantation/African cooking.

One would probably agree with David Hunter Strother, a mid-19th century traveler who informed the female tour group which he was leading, “Girls, we will be well fed here; we are fortunate. I have just seen the cook: not a mere black woman that does the cooking, but one bearing a patent stamped by the broad seal of Nature, the type of a class whose skill is not of books or training, but a gift both rich and rare; who flourishes her spit as Amphitrite does her trident (or her husband's, which is all the same); whose ladle is as a royal scepter in her hands; who has grown sleek and fat on the steam of her own genius; whose children have the first dip in all the gravies, the exclusive right to all livers and gizzards, not to mention breasts of fried chicken ….”