Slaves Shaped American Cooking


Scholars are “studying the silences” to trace the rich history of slave and African American contributions to American cuisine. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to better understand how immigration shapes national cuisine.

Tropical fruits and vegetables are cultivated by farmers in the Caribbean. These foods reflect the cultures of the islands—indigenous, African, European, Asian. Photograph by BJ Arnold, My Shot
Tropical fruits and vegetables are cultivated by farmers in the Caribbean. These foods reflect the cultures of the islands—indigenous, African, European, Asian.
Photograph by BJ Arnold, My Shot

Discussion Ideas

  • Researchers in the Nat Geo News article are forced to “study the silences” in order to “piece together a more complete view of history in the absence of primary documents like diaries and letters written by slaves.” Can you think other American cultures whose culinary contributions may not be widely recognized? Why do you think these contributions exist in “silence”?
    • Many, many cultures have spiced up American cuisine: Filipino lumpia, Japanese sushi, Indian naan . . . . But we can start with the original American cuisine: Native American foods are as varied as Native American cultures, from acorn-based stews of the West Coast to dried salmon of the Pacific Northwest to cultivated corn of the East Coast. Today, foods associated with Native American culture includes fry bread and the “three sisters” of corn, squash, and beans.
    • Many subcultures exist in “silence” as a result of lack of primary documents. Some cultures, such as Native Americans, did not have a written tradition in which to record their history (and recipes). Other cultures, such as those created by slaves, did not have wide access to education, which would allow them to write and define their own history. Sometimes, cultures were dismissed for racist or economic reasons, with writers and researchers finding it difficult to publish documentation of these experiences.
  • Like the metaphor used for the United States itself, American cuisine is a “melting pot” where different culinary traditions adapt and reflect new landscapes and communities. As the Nat Geo News article explains, the legacy of African slavery is reflected in many traditionally “Southern” foods, such as “Hoppin’ John” and red beans and rice. Read the short section on “cuisine” from our encyclopedic entry on food. Can you think of other “foodie mash-ups” created by immigrants? Our blog entry “Crazy for Cronuts” might help.
    • Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, is a variation on a traditional French soup, pot au feu.
    • Chicken tikka masala, an “Indian” dish, may have been developed by a Pakistani chef in Glasgow, Scotland.
    • New Orleans’ famed cuisine is a result of a long history of cultural interactions:
      • beignets, one of New Orleans’ signature treats and the state doughnut of Louisiana, are a delicious reflection of immigrant culture: from scriblita of ancient Rome to choux pastry of France and Acadia, to Cajun doughnuts to French Quarter delicacy. Read about beignets here!
      • gumbo incorporates spices and ingredients from European, Caribbean, and African stews.
      • jambalaya has its roots in both Spanish paella and West African jollof rice.
      • for years, New Orleans was the “beer capital of the South,” a result of a wave of German immigrants to the city.
      • Latinos, mostly from Central America, are the latest wave of immigrants to the Crescent City. “We haven’t had crawfish tacos yet,” says one expert quoted in our article, but “[i]t’s inevitably coming.”
    • Hong Kong’s foodie culture is also a reflection of the city’s bustling history of immigration:
      • Hong Kong milk tea and baked goods are a variations of English breakfast tea and pastries, a legacy of the city’s long history as a British territory.
      • the city’s signature egg tarts are a twist on traditional Portuguese pastries.
    • the “traditional” Irish food that will be celebrated next week on St. Patrick’s Day . . . is much more Irish-American than Irish. According to our “This Day in Geographic History” article, “Potatoes, native to the Americas, were introduced to Ireland in the 1500s. Corned beef and cabbage are Irish-American foods. Irish communities in places like New York City adapted recipes from the traditions of their fellow-immigrant neighbors—Jewish delis and Eastern European families.”
    • As the Nat Geo News article makes clear, it’s difficult to track down the history of a dish. The popular story that chop suey was invented from leftovers in a Chinese American restaurant is probably an urban legend, for instance. The dish most likely has its roots in tsap seui, an everyday dish in regions of Guandong, China.

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