How Slaves Shaped American Cooking

Slaves planted the seeds of favorite foods they were forced to leave behind.

Growing up on Sapelo Island, Georgia, Cornelia Walker Bailey never thought of red peas as anything special. Sapelo, a barrier island about the size of Manhattan, has about 50 residents, primarily descendants of African slaves who settled here after slavery was outlawed. In Bailey's family, the tiny red legume, with its thin, firm shell; creamy interior; and sweet, buttery flavor was just another staple she and her family planted, harvested, and cooked.

This red pea, which originated in Africa and is the original ingredient in the region's quintessential rice-and-beans dish Hoppin' John, is just one of the many heritage crops from the African continent receiving new attention from farmers, chefs, scientists, and food historians. Growing numbers of researchers, many of them African-American, are bringing to light the uncredited ways slaves and their descendants have shaped how Americans eat.

Red peas are a tangible connection to her own African heritage, Bailey says, and one reason why she has started to grow the crop commercially. "Slave owners sent back and got seeds for what the slaves were used to eating, because they weren't used to the food here in America. That meant the slaves could plant for themselves," says Bailey, who has recruited other local farmers to plant the crop this spring. "We have a waiting list that's almost a yard long," she says, adding that they should have enough to go around, at least this year.

"We Eat This Back Home"

At the top of that list is Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins, who has concocted several ways to serve her peas at his acclaimed southern-upscale Restaurant Eugene, including in his version of Hoppin' John. But Bailey says her favorite way to eat the peas is in a traditional dish with stewed meat and okra, another plant that originated in Africa. "I had quite a few okra dishes when I went to West Africa. They had it in stews and stuff—very, very similar to what we eat here," she says. "The strange dishes they were serving us weren't strange to me, because I was going, 'Hey, we eat this back home.' "

Culinary historian and author Jessica Harris says food traditions hold symbols and meaning that serve as a historical roadmap. For decades she has used an image of okra on her business cards as a symbol of her family's African roots and her own connection to the continent's cuisine. But as the green, finger-shaped vegetable pops up on menus across the United States as an emblem of southern American cooking, the true narrative of the plant is at risk of disappearing, Harris says, speaking at a recent conference on food culture and history at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

"Okra is connected indelibly with the American South," says Harris. While gumbo, the flagship dish of New Orleans, is usually thickened with okra, the technique is actually an adaptation of soupikandia, a Senegalese soupy stew slave cooks prepared in plantation kitchens for both themselves and their owners. "Yet gumbo has become totemic," says Harris, "linked forever in the American mind, particularly with southern Louisiana."

Revealing Black Contributions

Her own mission is to make sure that the contribution of slaves to America's culinary traditions isn't forgotten. The primary challenge, Harris says, is reconstructing history when one group of people—in this case, white slave owners—did their best to subjugate Africans to the point where they were nearly left out entirely. "Black people have been in the room, but for so long they were so good at being invisible" that they were easy to leave out of the historical record, Harris says.

David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and an expert in early American literature and food revivals, points to Emeline Jones as an example.

Jones was a slave who started as a house servant and rose to the pinnacle of American culinary life with her extravagant multicourse meals. She earned admiration—and job offers—from Presidents Garfield, Arthur, and Cleveland, who sampled her fabulous meals of terrapin and canvasback duck, Lynnhaven oysters and crab salad, hominy cakes and fabulous confections, prepared when Jones worked as a cook at New York clubs in the late 1870s. Her story might have been lost if Shields had not dug through news articles and obituaries to re-create her life.

Researcher Alicia Cromwell says one major challenge is "studying the silences," a phrase coined by Harris, which forces researchers to engage in detective-style deductions to piece together a more complete view of history in the absence of primary documents like diaries and letters written by slaves.

When working on her master's thesis, Cromwell buried herself in documents—legislative records, tax rolls, newspaper clippings, and primary sources other scholars had reviewed hundreds, if not thousands of times before—and was able to discern that female Muslim Nigerian slaves, working as fruit sellers and market vendors on behalf of their owners, helped shape the overall economic structure of the American South with long-distance price fixing and aggressive sales techniques.

"I'm trying to teach my students, black and white, a different kind of history about slavery," says Cromwell, who is still researching the subject at the University of Georgia. "If we want to understand current relationships, then we need to go back to these very uncomfortable pasts and explore how Africans actually contributed to American culture."

Slave Farmers

Georgia chef and farmer Matthew Raiford is able to reconstruct his family's past through his farm, which has been in his family since 1874. He came to the North Carolina conference with a yellowed letter, a rare piece of history addressed from his great-grandmother to his grandmother, detailing how and where to plant corn, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and watermelon. His great-great-great grandfather Jupiter Gilliard, the man who purchased the farm, was born a slave in 1812. "It's important to continue this conversation, about who brought what [to America] and why we eat what [we eat]," he says. "Those conversations need to happen so everyone has a voice at the table."

Bailey, back on Sapelo, agrees. "Everybody needs to keep in touch with their ancestors, and through food is one of the best ways to get close," she says. "They could have been gone 300 years ago, but to say my great-great-great-grandparents used to use this and cook this and plant this, that gives you a good feeling."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Alicia Cromwell is a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina. She is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia.