Black History: A Dive Into Black Food and Its Impact
Black history is more than just a month-long remembrance and celebration, more than a 28-day occasion to bring light to troubles and triumphs of Black people. Black history and its impact are engraved into our society, culture and so much of our local community… it is yesterday, today, tomorrow and always. Part of that history is that of Black food and the innovators and chefs who have equally shaped this country and what we eat every day. It’s time they get credit for monumental contributions.
Indeed, foods like mac and cheese (James Hemings), whiskey (Nathan Green), ice cream (Alfred Cralle), gumbo (Leah Chase), potato chips (George Crum) and several applications for peanuts (George Washington Carver) would not fill our bodies if it weren’t for the Black food leaders of yesterday. Nor would we have the things we use to store and prepare food: refrigerators and stoves (John Standard), stand mixers (Joseph Lee); or even the way we farm our food: crop rotation (George Washington Carver).
Let’s take a step back and truly understand how Black chefs created culture, honored and continued heritage and innovated through food. It begins with slavery: it was the enslaved cooks who created the meals that made the South known for its culinary fare (think soul food and creole cuisine) and hospitality. Documents throughout time, be it archaeological, found receipt books (now known as cook books) or stories passed down over time, show us that enslaved cooks molded their heritage into the foundation and being of our culinary culture. They created and were renowned for the mixture of European, African and Native American foods that defined Southern food. After all, an elite household in the South was always judged on the quality of their food and dining experience.
These incredibly talented chefs did more than mold different cuisines into a culture. They further developed it by defining its unique styes and flavors with ingredients like peanuts, okra and greens, even hot peppers. Jambalaya made its way to the tables – similar to Jolof rice. They brought gumbo to the forefront, which is an adaptation of West African stew. These recipes wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t traveled on slave ships from West Africa to the South.
Closer in history (but not really that long ago), so many Black food innovators have defined our food system AND fought for equality along the way.
- In the 1820s, the “Oyster King of New York,” Thomas Downing (a free man), used his basement as a key stop in the Underground Railroad. He helped countless people escape the South to freedom.
- Abby Fisher published one of the first cookbooks ever authored by a Black woman in the early 1880s.
- George Washington Carver was a huge advocate of racial equality, the first Black man to earn a Bachelor of Science and the recipient of the first-ever national memorial to a Black American after his passing.
- Larry James and Jereline Bethune – the founders of Brenda’s Bar-Be-Que Pit in Montgomery, AL that opened in 1942 – were on the front line of the Selma to Montgomery march. They also used their restaurant to organize boycotts and taught reading lessons so Black Americans could pass literacy tests to vote.
- Zephyr Wright – the personal chef for President Lyndon B. Johnson – is thought to have heavily influenced Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She let him know of the injustices she faced while traveling through the South; he used those stories to convince Congress to sign the bill.
- Leah Chase – “The Queen of Creole Cuisine” – started and oversaw the famed Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans where races were allowed to mix. Because police would not bother patrons, Civil Rights leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., would strategize there.
So, you see, Black food (and its creators) is not just innovative, it is liberation that is timeless and will forever define culture; it honors its origins, it remembers its leaders’ history, it helped fight for freedom and most of all, it shaped this country.
Black food innovators continue to emerge every day. Honoring them, recognizing them and their heritage is just as important as remembering those who fought to pave the way for them to shine. It is on folks like us to continue to open space for Black food to grow, but this time around, give it (and the creators) the justice they deserve. The way we do that at Nuts ‘n Berries is by carrying Black brands and consistently shining a light on those brands. As a leader in our local community, we must commit to raising the bar in providing equal access for these brands into retail stores and ensuring equitable shelf space, promotion and awareness so that Black-owned businesses may grow and thrive.
Some brands in our stores that represent the “yesterday, today and tomorrow” of Black food and are:
- Annabelle’s Mac and Cheese only started after the creator was determined to bring his grandmother’s recipe back to life. Honoring and reviving her tradition was only possible through trial and error as she did not leave a recipe behind.
- Val’s Kale Chips: Val reinvented the way chips, namely kale chips, are crisped to perfection (much like George Crum in1853) – and made them healthy.
- Community Sea Moss is a co-op between Align Minerals and Community Movement Builders, which is a non-profit collective of Black people building sustainable, self-determining communities through economic platforms and collective community organizing.
- Taste of Satira: Pamela honors her Gullah heritage through her cuisine. Gullahs are direct descendants of West African slaves, who established communities primarily in rural and isolated parts of the Lowcountry.
- Suga’s Pimento Cheese is quintessentially Southern and known as “The Caviar of The South.” Chef Suga trained with some of the top chefs in the country and perfected her own Southern recipes before starting her pimento cheese business.
Please take a moment to look at a majority of our Black-owned vendors HERE. But we want to do more.
So, this month – and every month – we call on our local food partners and ourselves, “What are you doing year-round that supports the Black food community?”
TOMORROW AND ALWAYS
Because Nuts ‘n Berries is striving to be the leader we want to be in our multi-cultural community, we must challenge ourselves to continue to expand our diversity program. That’s why we commit to bringing in at least a dozen new Black-owned businesses in 2022. (If you’re a Black or minority-owned vendor, please email us: [email protected] )
As John Lewis encouraged us, get into some good trouble and ask, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
(P.S.: Neighbors: we’ll have more coming in the week to follow detailing our Diversity Program. Stay tuned!)