I've said it before: Food history is cultural history, and that is likely most important in cultures that have been deteriorated over time.

The Irish celebrate Irish food and culture during St. Patrick's Day while the Germans celebrate during Oktoberfest, but that is not an option for some groups.

The descendants of African slaves today can struggle with heritage in ways that many likely don't understand. Before colonialism, the African continent had as many as 10,000 different groups with different cultures and distinct languages and territories. Once the continent was colonialized, it was split up by different occupying and warring nations and the boundaries were redrawn not based on the people living there, but by war between the conquering Europeans.

Slavery made this even worse, as slaves were not only taken from their homes, but were forced to breed like livestock and had their children taken from them at young ages and sent to different places. Any chance of learning their heritage the way most people do was lost as they were separated from that culture by time and distance and, of course, no written record could be left behind, because writing was illegal for slaves.

As a result, the descendants of slaves from Africa were forced to piece together a heritage or culture from what little they were able to hang on to from verbal stories from their parents (if they were old enough to learn before being sold), what stories they heard from descendants of the many different cultures who shared a living space with them, and what their history had consisted of since their introduction to the United States.

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A group of slaves on J.J. Smith's plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, liberated after Union forces captured Beaufort and surrounding areas in late 1861. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1862.
A group of slaves on J.J. Smith's plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, liberated after Union forces captured Beaufort and surrounding areas in late 1861. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1862.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

That is specifically why we have Black History Month and not Ghanan History Month or Ethiopian History Month.

This tragedy means that aside from Native Americans, the culture and heritage of those slaves' descendants is one of the few heritages that is truly United States heritages, because often they can't trace their heritage back to the original plantation that bought their family, much less to the correct culture on the African continent.

Still, one place where the African cultures survived in bits and pieces was their food. Slaves were fed "low off the hog." They were given the bits that their rich owners left behind - the feet, the intestines and similar. Of course, food might also consist of whatever animals could be caught in the wild.

Some argue that these were the same things eaten by poor white people as well, but that would be ignoring preparation as well as some of the produce that came specifically from Africa.

The traders who sold slaves to plantations also brought with them foods from Africa to keep them alive during the journey. Many southern ingredients today were brought to the United States with the slaves and did not naturally occur in North America.

Okra fruits at cutting board.
Okra fruits at cutting board.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Among them are rice, okra and certain greens. They were often cooked in ways that resemble traditional African dishes today, according to Blackfoodie.com, showing that while much was lost, not everything was.

The resulting recipes became known largely as soul food. They are often defined by having a little more hot pepper seasoning, a little more salt and pepper and more organ meat than other southern food, according to thespruceeats.com.

The term "soul food" was likely coined by 1962 civil rights activist Amiri Baraka, but it has since become a word that puts a smile on the faces of those who hear it.

In our neck of the woods, soul food isn't necessarily so common, but farther south or along either coast it is one of the great, must have cuisines right alongside dishes from around the world. Queen among soul food purveyors is Sylvia's Harlem Restaurant.

The restaurant was founded by Sylvia Woods, who has long been known as the Queen of Soul Food. It opened in 1962 and became a legendary eatery responsible for further popularizing soul food. But like soul food itself, Sylvia had humble beginnings.

She was born in South Carolina and raised by her mother, though she always dreamed of moving to New York City where she would eventually work at, then buy a luncheonette that today is a food empire with the original location, two catering halls, a line of food products and more.

Homemade Southern Hoppin John or Carolina peas and rice.
Homemade Southern Hoppin John or Carolina peas and rice.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Hoppin' John

Adapted from 1847's "The Carolina House-Wife," by Sarah Rutledge

  • 1 pound thick bacon, cubed
  • 1 pint red peas (cowpeas) or black-eyed peas
  • 1 pint (washed) rice
  • Salt and pepper

Soak your cowpeas overnight, then drain and cover with cool water before bringing to a gentle boil.

Begin by boiling the peas. After about 20-30 minutes, add the bacon. Once the peas are done (after about 45 minutes cooking time), add the rice and boil for a half an hour before removing from the heat to steam, covered. Add a quart of hot water back to the mixture, and if it boils away add a little more. Season with salt and pepper.

Chicken, sausage and okra Virginia gumbo.
Chicken, sausage and okra Virginia gumbo.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Virginia Gumbo

Adapted from Mary Randolph's 1824 "The Virginia House-Wife"

  • 2 double handfuls of okra, washed and sliced
  • 2 onions, chopped fine
  • Handful of lima beans
  • 3 young cimlin, cleaned out and cut in small pieces (small squash)
  • A fowl or knuckle of veal (1 1/2-2 pounds of meat)
  • A bit of bacon or pork (1-2 cups, cut into large pieces and fried)
  • 6 skinless tomatoes (or 2 cans peeled tomatoes)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 gallon water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, bring the water to a boil and add the okra. Boil for 10 minutes before adding the remaining vegetables and either chicken or veal before reducing the boil to a simmer for 10-15 minutes until the vegetables are tender and chicken is cooked.

Next, either make a paste of flour and butter and stir it into the soup to thicken, or in an empty saucepan (however you prefer to get one) combine the butter and flour over medium heat and allow it to cook. Gumbo today will start with a roux that is as dark as chocolate, but the 1824 recipe called for a totally uncooked roux, as suggested at the beginning of this paragraph.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve the gumbo with rice and crumble the bacon over top of it.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.