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The BSJ’s Food Column: Exploring Black Culinary Heritage in America

As a person of Afro-Caribbean, African American, and Japanese descent, cooking has been an integral part of engaging with my family history and paying homage to my intersectional cultural heritage. Throughout the years of sitting in my grandma’s kitchen, whether it be to help clean the collard greens, cut up the yams, or roll out mochi dough, I have learned that storytelling and collaboration are essential components of the cooking process. The nostalgic aromas of traditional dishes wafting out of my grandfather’s kitchen in Martinique are pungent reminders of the legacy of the peoples and cultures that coalesced to form Caribbean cuisine. Martinican cuisine is a mélange of African, French, Indigenous Caribbean, and South Asian Traditions, and the recipes reflect a complex and rich history of cultural heritage on the island. The amalgamation of my experiences growing up in a multicultural kitchen are why I find cooking to be the most cathartic and fulfilling wellbeing practice that I can engage in – it enables me to explore my heritage, simultaneously connect with my loved ones, and communicate my appreciation for others. Cooking and interacting with food are valuable tools to connect with family history; they can serve as potent portals into the past.

The foundation of American cooking rests on centuries of agricultural and culinary labor by African people and their descendants. The canon of these recipes and foodways emerging from descendants of the African diaspora in America has amalgamated into a valuable lens through which to view the exploration of African American heritage and culture. Visionaries such as Hercules Posey, James Hemmings, Zephyr Wright, Edna Lewis, and Leah Chase have had enormous impacts on American culinary history, and paved the way for generations of Black chefs. Hercules Posey and James Hemings were enslaved chefs for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, and are not only responsible for establishing the concept of catering, but are also known for their immense impact on fine dining in America. The great Zephyr Wright, Edna Lewis, and Leah Chase are some of the most influential figures in modern Southern cooking, and all played significant roles in the Civil Rights movement. Zephyr Wright, the personal chef for President Lyndon B. Johnson, was thought to have influenced his signing of the Civil Rights Act by sharing her experiences of discrimination with him. Duchess “Charity” Quamino was originally enslaved in Newport; yet, as a chef with a catering business, she was able to purchase her freedom in 1780. Multiple accounts mention that she was known as the “pastry queen of Rhode Island” and is one of the many free or enslaved African Americans throughout the state who used cooking not only as a form of entrepreneurship, but also as a method of revolt against colonial society. Along with these great chefs, countless underacknowledged home cooks and small restaurant owners formed the backbone for the culinary scene in America and are some of the most impactful carriers of black history and heritage. 

Cuisine holds the power to inform us of the histories of foodways that have existed for centuries and answer long-held questions about how and what we’ve come to be. In order to honor and celebrate the complex and rich legacy of black culinary history in America, we must acknowledge the recipes that have been passed down through generations, and uphold the black chefs, culinary pioneers, and home cooks that have come before us. No matter our background, we all have a deep connection with food because cooking and consuming are inherently collaborative processes that commemorate the ancestry, culture and passing down of generational knowledge.  

With this introduction into why I find culinary history and food creation to be one of the most potent modes of communication and collaboration, I would like to welcome all readers to continue to follow the journey and evolution of this column section as it continues to grow with the Black Star Journal. With each new edition, I will be discussing black culinary history, publishing a new forum of recipes, and providing recommendations for local Black-owned restaurants. For all the foodies out there, and readers interested in culinary history in general, I hope to provide a regular platform to read about Black culinary culture, look at recipe inspirations, and even share recipes of your own.  

*Here is my culinary website if you would like to get a sense of my inspiration for this column:

https://helenabates415.wixsite.com/manyroots

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