By Karen A. Mills, JD, RDN, LD
The national theme of Black History Month this year is The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity. This theme not only recognizes the history of the African diaspora, but also pays homage to the complex cultural and ethnic origins of the American Black community. This intricate history is also realized in Black food traditions. Many may assume that Black food means soul food, however that over-simplification fails to acknowledge the vast ethnic diversity of not only the foods and food traditions of Africa, but the impact of the foods and rich traditions of the Caribbean and other countries as well.
The African diaspora impacted primarily the central and western regions of Africa, and resulted in African diaspora populations in over 65 countries. There are thousands of ethnic groups in Africa, each with its own culture and food traditions. Many ethnicities, foods, and cultural traditions in those areas travelled with those people and then merged with the available foods and flavors of their destinations. When further emigration happened from the diaspora destinations to the US, those merged foods and flavors came as well.
A prime example of diaspora food migration can be seen in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, African, European, East Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern foods and flavors were combined with locally available fruits and vegetables. Curries, achiote, thyme, allspice, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika, hot peppers, and coconut, were used to flavor tropical fruits, vegetables, and grains such as papaya, guava, ackee, cassava, callaloo, plantains, breadfruit, rice, beans, and chickpeas. Black people who emigrated (either willingly or forcibly) to the US via the Caribbean brought with them the unique flavors and foods of that region adding to the Black food tradition tapestry.
Soul food has its roots in the American Deep South and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, including the African diaspora pathways. It is a cuisine that evolved from the limited rations given to slaves (often comprised of starches like cornmeal, rice, or sweet potatoes, a small amount of preserved meat or fish, and molasses), the crops that migrated with the slaves (such as rice, okra, black-eyed peas), the fruits and vegetables they were able to farm or forage (such as corn, greens, squash, nuts, and berries), and American, African and European cooking techniques. In its beginning, soul food was mostly vegetarian.
Over time, Black food traditions have evolved based on food availability, the influence of the African diaspora’s many paths, religious choices (such as Islam and Seventh Day Adventist), and food trends. To further understand the diversity and complex history of Black food traditions, check out some of the resources below.