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Tastes Like Africa To Me

Before this blog post is finished, you'll be hearing about Featherlite Pancakes and their surprising 1/3 cup peanut butter, a recipe recently made public as part of an important American's papers. But first...

Photo: Library of Congress, from the Rosa Parks Papers

Photo: Library of Congress, from the Rosa Parks Papers

Let's learn a bit more about African foods and their influence on what we eat in the USA. In The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking (1995), Dr. Jessica B. Harris, authority on African foodways and their global importance, includes a list of "seven culinary tendencies that traveled from Africa to America and are emblematic of African-inspired cooking in the United States." During last week's Hot Water Cornbread radio show (listen here), we talked through this list. In the deep South, it's hard to imagine any table that would not feature some foods included in these categories.

Here's Dr. Harris's list. The examples are mine.

  1. The preparation of composed rice dishes: Hoppin' John or Red Beans and Rice
  2. The creation of various types of fritters: hushpuppies, corn fritters, chicken and salmon croquettes
  3. The use of smoked ingredients for flavoring: hmmmm--bacon, perhaps? Ham hocks in bean soups and country style green beans. From my childhood kitchen I call to mind the many dishes that benefited from just a small spoonful of saved bacon grease: fresh cream-style corn, fresh green peas, hash-browned potatoes, wilted salads, cornbread, pan-fried tender squashes, and, of course, popcorn.
  4. The use of okra as a thickener: gumbo, vegetable soup and stew
  5. The use of leafy green vegetables: cooked greens: mustard, turnip, collards, kale
  6. The abundant use of peppery and spicy hot sauces: nearly all foods currently. Nashville chicken, anyone?
  7. The use of nuts and seeds as thickeners: peanut sauces and tomato-peanut based stews

Even in Kentucky, where our foods reflect some southern influences without being limited to them, we embrace many of these flavors and ingredients, and their importance keeps expanding. Recently, for example, along with the rest of North America, In Kentucky we see an increase in smoked ingredients, leafy greens, and spicy-peppery tastes and sauces.

According to Dr. Harris, foods that likely were available in Subsaharan Africa before European contact include millet and sorghum grains, pumpkins, okra, leafy greens, black-eyed peas and other legumes, melons, cucumbers, eggplants. She also seems to include onions and garlic, certain peppers and ginger, though that set of references is a bit less clear.

On the other hand, corn (maize), peanuts, tomatoes, cassava and chiles came to Africa from the New World, in some cases on slave ships' return voyages. These ingredients quickly found homes in the cooking of differenet parts of the African continent, and then came back around to us.

By 1824, when Mary Randolph published The Virginia Housewife, she includes dishes that use okra and tomatoes together. She also includes cornmeal-based quick breads.

And now about that hand-written recipe in the photo above. Peanuts, which deserve their own library and cooking institute to continue building to the crucial work George Washington Carver, showed up last week in this Food52 story about Civil Rights leader Ms. Rosa Parks.

Ms. Parks's papers have just become available to the public at the Library of Congress. They include an endearing back-of-the-envelope recipe for "Featherlite Pancakes" so sweetly familiar in style, so reflective of cooking confidence it's easy to imagine Ms. Parks utterly at home in her kitchen, making these pancakes for breakfast.

Including a bit of peanut butter in the batter strikes us as unusual in Kentucky, but likely was less so in Ms. Parks's Alabama. Ms. Parks was born in Tuskegee in 1913, and in 1916, Mr. Carver, who headed the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute, first published his most popular bulletin, "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption."

While peanut pancakes do not appear in this useful bulletin, the recipes for peanut tea cakes, layer cakes, ice cream, muffins, cookies and doughnuts make it plain how perfectly peanuts take up residency in pastries and sweets of all kinds. In spite of their likely origins in South America, their journey to Africa and then back to the southern United States, it's hard to imagine a food that seems more American than the peanut butter slathered inside our PB&Js.

Okra may have gone about as far as it can in the American diet, but peanut butter is a different matter. Perhaps, thanks to Ms. Parks and the Library of Congress, and with ongoing gratitude for the foods of Africa, we are on our way to expecting peanut butter in our pancakes just as we now rely on PB&J or Fluffernutters to fill our family lunchboxes.

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