From deprivation sprang ingenuity.
A recently released cookbook of American black cuisine is a tale of how an emerging culture defined itself partly through food.
First released in the 1950s, the newly republished “The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro” offers a “palatable approach” to 250 years of slavery. In its “heritage recipes,” it recounts how slave cooks took pig products, corn kernels and other slave-owner leftovers and made them delectable.
“We have cooked for presidents and princes and brutes and poets,” novelist Maya Angelou wrote in a blurb for the book. “We have taken the discards of well-to-do kitchens and made mouth-watering dishes … We know a lot about cooking to survive and even more about cooking to thrive.”
Today’s “soul food” is a descendent of such cooking. Squirrel, possum, pig’s knuckles, hog maws (throats) and catfish were the most frequently available meats used by slave women, all cooked in iron kettles over open fires, barbecued, roasted or boiled. Basted barbecued chicken, marinated beef jerky, jambalaya and various stuffings originated in slave kitchens. Some of the dishes even evolved into items on mainstream Thanksgiving menus.
The book allows readers to get in touch with their past by experimenting with the likes of rice waffles, venison meat loaf and sweet-potato biscuits.
“Cooking traditional dishes is a way of forging community,” said Tisha Hooks, an editor for Beacon Press, the publishing company. “In passing down cookbooks from mother to daughter, certain traditions and history are being kept.”
“My best recipes are from my family,” said Mabel Phifer, a grandmother from Upper Marlboro, Md., who regularly prepares okra gumbo, barbecued ribs and sweet-potato pie for her family. “My daughter has already passed [recipes] down to her children.”
Mrs. Phifer said traditional black dishes are seen most often at homecomings or family reunions. While teaching her children how to prepare different foods, she said, she often discussed black history and family history.
That is why the National Council of Negro Women Inc. and Beacon Press decided to re-release the cookbook this month, containing many traditional recipes that were lost over the past four decades.
“So many values are transmitted around food,” said Dorothy Height, chairman and president of NCNW. “Now, we see that young people are intrigued with how seriously people took food and how important it was in the past.”
The Historical Cookbook originally was published in 1958, well before black culture caught on, Miss Height says, adding that before the 1960s, blacks were more concerned with assimilating in the white middle-class culture.
The book hopes to reach readers through their stomachs. Vinegar pie, a sweet dessert made with cinnamon and vinegar; jolloff rice, a pilaf containing ham, ribs and shrimp; and mugwump in a hole, a dish made from flour and beef fat, were reintroduced.
Harriet Tubman’s family recipe for her favorite food, corn bread, is placed next to an anecdote about how she brought numerous slaves to the North through her “underground railroad” during the 1850s.
An “Emancipation Proclamation breakfast cake” celebrating Abraham Lincoln and a “White Butterfly Souffle,” made from turnips, honoring Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, represent other twists and turns of black history.