“Food is culture and the culture of African Americans is woven into the fabric of the American menu” – National Soul Food Month
Mac and Cheese, Fried Chicken, Sweet Potato Pie – the list of American classics goes on and on. Chances are, you’ve tried some of these delicious dishes, but do you know the story behind them? From generation to generation, African Americans and peoples from the African diaspora have contributed to the cuisine that can be found in the United States.
The heritage and foodways of African Americans started to receive attention in the 1960s, when the expression “soul food” was coined. The term “soul” is commonly used when describing African American culture. Soul food refers to the cooking and cuisine that was passed down through many generations of African Americans, specifically from the southern region of the United States. However, the history of African American cuisine goes beyond that. In fact, it is the backbone of American food itself. As historian Jessica B. Harris says, “African-American food is omnivorous and multinational. It encompasses the food of the formerly enslaved and the meals that were prepared by black, brown, and tan hands for those who enslaved them. It has taken foods from European culinary customs and the traditional ways of American Indians and adapted and inflected them with some of the tastes and techniques of the lost African motherlands.”
More recently, the heritage and impact of African American cuisine is receiving well-deserved recognition and acknowledgement. In May 2022, Netflix released a new docu-series adapted from Jessica B. Harris’ award-winning book, High On The Hog. The show traces the stories and the culinary journey behind the food that has knit generations together, revealing and celebrating how African American cuisine transformed America.
From Gumbo and Jambalaya to Sweet Potato Pie and Pecan Pie, there are many recipes worth celebrating – not just for their great flavors and craft, but also for the history of courage and resourcefulness that is tied to them. Keep reading to discover a variety of delicious, traditional recipes from African American cuisine.
Recipes with rice – Gumbo and Jambalaya
Rice is a staple in many cuisines and has a long history. The small grain is so simple, yet its nutritious value is what leaves you feeling satisfied for longer. With that in mind, it comes to no surprise that U.S. Rice has established itself in many African American recipes.
Two beloved recipes from southern Louisiana that boast multicultural Creole and Cajun roots are Gumbo and Jambalaya. Both dishes nicely combine rice with either seafood or meats, vegetables and spices. The major difference between the two is the role of the rice in the dish. Gumbo is usually served with long-grain, white rice, while in Jambalaya, the rice is not served separately, but rather a key ingredient that cooks in the pot.
Take a tour in culinary diplomacy with Leah Chase’s family and learn how American farmers and fishers contribute to a bowl of delicious gumbo.
Ready to get cooking? Here are some Gumbo and Jambalaya recipes to get you started!
This easy-prep slow cooker recipe is perfect for colder weather and delivers a filling and delicious meal!
The classic dish blends shrimp, andouille, chicken, and vegetables with U.S.-grown long grain rice. Developed by the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, this seafood gumbo is the perfect stew to warm you right up!
A convenient twist on a Cajun delight – this Chicken and Sausage Gumbo, developed by Kroll’s Korner, features U.S.-grown brown long grain rice and combines it with chicken, andouille sausage, fire-roasted tomatoes, and lots of cajun spices. And no worries, it is realistic enough for you to make for a weeknight dinner or for meal prep.
This easy-to-make Shrimp Jambalaya recipe will have you loving the quintessential creole flavors of this Cajun staple dish! The one-pot recipe comes together in just 45 minutes and is perfect for meal prep with long hold times and freezer-friendly.
This classic rice dish features U.S.-grown long grain rice and comes to us from Jamie of Dishing Out Health.
Last, but not least, we have a vegan and vegetarian take on this southern classic. While the dish may traditionally be made with meat, African American cuisine is seeing many new innovations and adaptations that also involve vegan-friendly meals. What, of course, can’t be missing is long grain brown rice, black-eyed peas, collard greens and lots of spices. This recipe is courtesy of Phoebe Lapine in partnership with The FeedFeed.
Mac and Cheese, Hushpuppies, and more
There is a long list of delicious dishes that were created and influenced by African Americans and peoples from the African diaspora. Many of these recipes are considered classic American meals, each having their own background and story to tell. The growing attention around soul food has contributed to a wider understanding of the history behind some of the most beloved American dishes.
Today, many cooks and restaurants in the U.S. are highlighting soul food recipes and dishes from African American cuisine as well as recreating and adapting them with a modern twist. Take Mac and Cheese for example. Cooked macaroni pasta with a creamy cheese sauce is a childhood favorite in the States and an established classic. However, not everyone may know that the dish was actually honed and perfected by James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef. Over centuries, the comforting meal of creamy and cheesy macaroni has been passed down and enjoyed throughout the States.
Want to give the cheesy delight a try? Sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen, owners and founders of Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie bakery in Brooklyn, have developed a spin on the soul food staple! With cheddar and ricotta cheeses, sour cream and cavatappi noodles, this macaroni and cheese is extra creamy, extra creative and extra delicious. Sprinkle with a mixture of blended pecans and cheddar cheese to add a crunchy finish to this family favorite dish.
When looking at soul food in particular, there are a few common ingredients that can be found throughout the cuisine. One of the key ingredients is cornmeal, which leads back to the limited foods provided to enslaved people during chattel slavery. Hushpuppies, Southern cornbread, and fried fish are all recipes that developed with this essential ingredient.
A southern treat and a soul food classic – these deep fried delights are exemplary of culinary creations made with the help of cornmeal. Hushpuppies are in fact made from a cornmeal-based batter and enjoyed in the form of crispy, deep-fried balls and often a side to seafood dishes. Fried fish, such as this U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish, is a traditional dish that is commonly found in southern states, but can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere.
For the Love of Pie
It is no secret that sweet dessert pies are a part of American cuisine. Whether for holidays, as a sunday church treat, or simply dessert, pie is undoubtedly a baked good found throughout the United States. But did you know that some of the most old-school, sweet classics are in fact shaped by African Americans?
Regional crops and produce have a major impact on the development of traditional recipes. The same can be said for pie and other desserts known in the United States. The first pies in the Americas actually appeared when the English created new colonies. The English pie is known to be savory, but new versions of the recipe were created from the locally available crops. The shift from savory meat pie to sweet dessert pie can be linked back to the sugar industry, which exploded in the southern part of the country around the 19th century. It should not be forgotten, that this sugar boom was made possible by the heinous slave trade at the time. Enslaved cooks in the south played a major role in developing a wide variety of sugar crusted dessert pies using ingredients that were accessible in the region. Two very classic pies were created with such locally available crops: Sweet Potato Pie and Pecan Pie.
“For many African Americans, sweet potatoes hold a story of resilience and culinary mastery.” – The Greatist
The sweet potato, which is native to the Americas, is said to have come from Peru to North America. Due to the ideal climate for growing sweet potatoes, the southernmost region of the United States became an area known for growing the bright orange tuber. Back in the 18th and 19th century, it was black people doing the planting, harvesting, and cooking. Before long, many American sweet potato recipes, including sweet potato pie, were created and developed by black people.
A closer look at the history of sweet potato pie is likely to lead you to an African American scientist and inventor named George Washington Carver. In the early 20th century, Carver developed more than 100 uses for sweet potatoes, including a recipe for sweet potato pie. Through his research and push to black farmers, Carver helped popularize American sweet potatoes, with many recipes spreading across the country.
Often prepared using various warm spices, sweet potato pie is known as a rival to pumpkin pie during fall. Sweet potato pie has been a centerpiece at family gatherings and community events amongst African Americans for generations and is a tradition that lives on decades later.
The traditional pie gets a bit of a modern twist as this recipe is vegan-friendly all the way up to the unique addition of vegan marshmallows. It may take some time to bake, but it is worth every bite. Enjoy!
American pecans, which are native to North American, originally grew along areas watered by the Mississippi River. As the cultivation of pecans spread towards many of the southern states, baking with the native nut soon followed. Pecan pie dates back to the late 19th century, and is a recipe that has remained largely unchanged since its creation.
Today, pecan pie is considered a classic must-have dessert at Thanksgiving and other holidays throughout the year. This recipe holds true to tradition with buttery pecans, and is simple to make.
“Pecan pie demonstrates how Native horticulture, African American ingenuity, and European cooking all came together, across time and place, on the Southern plate.” – Red Dirt Productions