I love food and consider myself a foodie. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and baking.
For me, food has always been about love. Not so much the love of food, that definitely plays a role, but the love of family and friends. I come from families that get together for holidays and just because and barbecue, fry fish or whip up a pot of spaghetti or chili to show how much we love each other. Food is our love language.
I grew up with family members who couldn’t just cook but could throw down in the kitchen. My maternal grandma’s cooking is legendary in my hometown. Many of my cousins are following suit and creating a name for themselves as well. So, I know good food.
What I don’t know, or at least I didn’t until recently, is just how connected our food is to Africa. I watched the four-part Netflix documentary “High on the Hog: How African Cuisine Transformed America” recently. The first episode starts in Benin. Okra and yams are all-important staples in this country, and I came away with a new appreciation for two foods I’ve never liked much. I can eat okra in a stew or soup, but I don’t eat it by itself. I don’t like sweet potatoes — at all. However, yams aren’t sweet potatoes! Sweet potatoes are often called yams, and since I don’t eat them I never investigated the difference. I’m now thinking of giving yams a try and eating okra by itself. I also learned more about the food culture in Benin, the West African country from which many were stolen. If you’re of a certain age, images of starving children with distended bellies come to mind when you think of Africa and food. The scarcity of food is often the image of food from African cultures, not the beauty, flavor and ingenuity. It was beautiful to see food from this African country given the same treatment as food from any other travel show.
Much like the Transatlantic Slave Trade made its way to what would become America’s shores, the second episode travels to the Carolinas where we learn rice was a wealth-building crop well before cotton. In fact, South Carolina was the largest producer of rice — Carolina Gold — and it was the enslaved Africans and African Americans who labored in the rice fields. According to the documentary, once slaves were emancipated rice production declined by 80% in the lowcountry.
I don’t want to give it all away because I want you to watch the documentary, but episode three highlights renowned enslaved chefs, Hercules and James Hemings (Sally’s brother), who cooked for presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. We learn how these chefs cultivated fine dining in America as well as an American staple of comfort food: macaroni and cheese. We travel west to Texas for the fourth episode, which features barbecue, cowboys and cowboy stew and Juneteenth.
My daddy always says you can tell when someone cooks with love. This documentary was made with love, and I felt it from start to finish. The way it intertwined our food with our history left me with a sense of pride. When my grandmother used to cook dandelion greens, chitlins and pig’s feet, etc., I used to tease her about us being free and no longer needing to eat slave food. That was nonsense on my part. I understood the ingenuity, but I didn’t appreciate the love that went into these dishes.
I’ve also decided to denounce any negative connotation related to soul food. For years, soul food has been blamed for our health disparities. The documentary noted how the cuisine of Black Americans is called soul food — it’s literally named for something you can’t see but can feel just like love. I also began to think about how everyone all over the world eats fried foods, but it’s only considered a negative in this country. Now, maybe we don’t need to fry everything. Frying butter, Kool-Aid and Pepsi is a bit much, but I’ll take my Snicker’s at the state fair, please! And we should participate in physical activity as well, but I’m done with the idea that soul food is bad for me.
Soul food doesn’t get the props it deserves. “High on the Hog” proves our food is just as important as we are to this country and should be a source of pride.