“No man is an island” as the saying goes, and no cuisine is either. As far back as humans have roamed in nomadic cultures, marched across continents to conquer new lands, and built ships to sail the oceans, the provisions and food they carried have also made these journeys. They moved around the world, adapted their surroundings, and adapted to their surroundings.
American Foods of the African Diaspora
This is especially true of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. A staggering number of people were rounded up on their native soil and scattered throughout the world. It is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were loaded onto ships, with around 10.7 million surviving the voyage known as the Middle Passage. This practice spanned roughly 350 years and created the single largest displacement of people.
Men and women tucked away seeds before being loaded into cargo holds, and when these people were planted in new lands, so too were these seeds. Okra, rice, sorghum, pigeon peas (gandules), and black-eyed peas were all introduced to new parts of the world this way.
Enslaved people formed the foundation of entire economies, and built nations from the ground up, including agriculturally. The men and women brought their knowledge of farming, rice cultivation, fishing, preserving, and cooking to North, Central, South America, and every island colony along the way. This knowledge was invaluable to sustain a growing nation.
Native American and Mexican Influences
Still, the Africans brought to America were not an island unto themselves. European settlers who were not open to learning from Indigenous Americans about how to grow and nixtamalize corn were stricken with malnutrition. The Africans listened and learned how to coax nutrition from the kernels, and make it a staple that could last during the cold winter. Enslaved people formed close alliances with people from regional tribes, and found similarities in the food, adapting their lessons and cuisine to supplement their meager rations.
Familiar dishes came about from this alliance: grits, stews rich with hominy, cornmeal cakes, cornbread, dumplings, and many others. The borders of Mexico once stretched much farther north than the Rio Grande and the spice trade that brought chili peppers and cocoa to North America also brought other Spanish, Mayan, and Aztec ingredients and cooking techniques, teaching enslaved people how to make masa and tamales.
I spent a lot of spring breaks and summer vacations visiting with my family in Mississippi, and we were just as likely to stop at Big John’s in Jackson for pig ear sandwiches or smokes (chopped smoked sausage sandwiches) as we were for hot tamales wrapped in corn husks at my father’s favorite road-side shack. Barbacoa was as common as Bar-B-Que, agua frescas as beloved as sweet tea.
A Melting Pot of Cultures and Cuisines
Other groups were also introduced to the regions of the South in various ways, bringing their seeds and culinary customs which made their way to the hands of the people who primarily worked the land and cooked the food for the wealthier classes. French settlers came to plant their flag in the Southeast; Bengali Indian sailors jumped ship in Southern port cities; Italian, German, and Chinese immigrants were recruited for work after the Civil War; Lebanese immigrants brought goods to sell in shops; and Vietnamese citizens fleeing large-scale war settled along the shores of the Gulf region.
These groups were also outcasts of the wealthy, land-owning White society (although cast above enslaved people, and later free African Americans) and formed loose alliances. They learned from African American farmers what crops grow best in the diverse climates of the South and how to get the most out of this unfamiliar soil, where to catch various types of fish and trap local wild game and shellfish. They also taught their new neighbors how to plant and cook their new crops and they were incorporated into the broader local cuisine.
The borders that existed in the various cuisines dissolved like the cane sugar processed in the West Indies and Louisiana, and each dish’s separate parts became at times indistinguishable. Okra brought from west Africa found its way into French sauces with tomatoes to lend their sweet acidity resulting in dishes like étouffée. Enslaved people taken in West African lands from Nigeria to Senegal and Mali, replaced their Bambara groundnut soups and stews with ones made from the local peanut, cultivated by the Nahuatl in Mexico. They replaced their native yams for the local sweet potato. Cocoa from the Aztec, Maya, and Olmec civilizations was combined with French roux and sweetened with cane sugar brought to the South from the Canary Islands to make chocolate gravy.
It is a homogenous, yet regional cuisine built on different cultures but with one primarily at its core, that of the enslaved Africans whose hands folded each piece into the developing American cuisine. Even after Indigenous Americans were forced from the land, their alliance and relationships with enslaved Africans lived on through their shared cuisine.
My father grew up in Mississippi, I lived in the South for five years, and my husband is from New Orleans. I’ve been fortunate to learn of the different influences through not only research but also by experiencing them. I was curious when my in-laws would suggest Italian restaurants for dinner, ordering giant meatballs over pasta smothered in tomato gravy, and said it was as common as Creole cuisine. I wondered how a soup flavored with beef stock and soy sauce called yaka mein became a local staple. How pepperoncini became ubiquitous in Mississippi pot roast. I asked myself what’s with the similarities between comeback sauce and remoulade? Why can I order Lebanese kibbeh alongside black-eyed peas and turnip greens in the Delta Region? And what’s behind this deliciousness that is lime and chili on my crispy pork knuckles?
Just as we all grow, evolve, and change throughout our lives, our food and cuisines also have the right to reinvent themselves. Our food is a reflection of us. Each person who touches our lives has an impact big or small. We learn from others, take those lessons and become better people. We grow and evolve by pushing ourselves into new territory, and so should our cuisine.
There is love, strength, and honor in tradition. But there is also whimsy, fun, and the need to change things based on your surroundings. There is no limit on what our cuisine can become or the direction it can move in. Our present and future are gilded with influences of the past, and by learning those influences we see how much we have in common with so many cultures, just as our ancestors did. Finding familiar flavors, techniques, and textures gives us the confidence to explore, taking the seeds of our cuisine and see where we land. No man is an island, and no cuisine is either.