African-American’s culinary contributions to the country started on plantations. In the South. In the nation’s Black Belt Region. Black slaves made time-honored meals out of mere scraps — early kitchen creations that are now respected and appreciated across homes, dives and diners today.
As far back as the 1820s, black entrepreneurs and cooks have written housekeeping and recipe guidebooks for America to follow. African-American cooks — many birthed and cultivated in the Black Belt Region — have supplied, nourished and serviced the United States since slavery.
Over time, their detailed cookbooks have served as agricultural digests to achieving mouth-watering, timeless dishes. These five fares rooted from Southern fields and black farmhands are still part of modern tables and remain culinarily adored throughout the nation:
OKRA GUMBO: The African diasporic cuisine — also called “Gumbo of Okra or Filee” — acquired its name from either Kikongo or Bantu origin. As mentioned in academic book “Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning” by Rafia Zafar, the veggie medley is primarily associated with Louisiana and New Orleans. However, it incorporates ingredients from Native American, European and African cuisines, too. Further noted in Kelley Fanto Deetz’s book, “Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine,” okra became “one of the most prominent legacies in Southern foodways.” An enslaved cooks’ key food thickener.
HOPPIN’ JOHN: The peas and rice medley is pure rural American soul food. Hoppin’ John is also a meal agricultural expert George Washington Carver helped introduce to the average Southern, farming family through his country bulletins and coursework. As early as the 19th century, hoppin’ John became a New Year or “good luck” cuisine, form of culinary expression and signature recipe of African-American identity.
SWEET POTATOES: This sweet veggie treat often appeared in cookbooks south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Before it gained such popularity in the dessert department, sweet potatoes were grown regularly by slaves in plantation gardens. This Southern food cultivated from both Native American and African practices as well. A quick cook, sweet potatoes earned recognition as one of America’s favorite last courses during the holidays thanks to enslaved African-Americans in the Black Belt. These masterful cooks transformed the starch into what’s now a pop culture pie in the states.
COOKED GREENS: A cornerstone to Black Belt Region cuisine, greens are tradition to rural African-American Southerners. Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris confirms in “Recipes for Respect” that the leafy vegetable is “undeniably one of the United States’ best-known, African-inspired foods.” The popular dish has satisfied taste buds from slavery and oppression to more liberated times. Enjoyed as collard greens, mixed greens and pot likker, the veggie is known beyond nutritional value. The side dish is a long-standing savory symbol to the Black American struggle.
PLANTATION CORN BREAD: A mixture historically cooked on a hot griddle, corn bread or hoe cakes have cleaned up many Southern plates. A suppertime supplement to any dish, its variations — sweet or savory, fluffy or brittle — have been a satisfying way to soak up the last traces of a meal’s sauces, crumbs. It became a primary and easy-to-prepare provision for the Black Belt Region’s enslaved. Its demand still remains today. A rural ration traditionally complementing greens and soups, especially during the holiday season.