In honor of Black History Month in February, we wanted to showcase some of our members’ personal and heritage stories behindthe ingredients, dishes and cooking techniques that make up the fabric of American culinary history.
This is just a snippet of Black heritage cuisine — there are many more stories around food and culinary traditions in Black communities that need to be told. While that’s a goal for us editorially this year and beyond, here’s a start.
African American culinary history is at its core American history. This is not a new concept for Black Americans and Black chefs, but it can be overlooked by other populations. As more comes out about the African diaspora — for instance, the wildly successful Netflix series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America” based on Jessica B. Harris’ 2012 book “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” — it’s time to shed more light on how many of the ingredients we use every day have origins in Africa and came to the U.S. because of the slave trade.
What the series, book and experts have said about these “lost stories” is that they’re less documented in books, cookbooks and other forms of media because many recipes, cooking styles and traditions in Black communitieshave historically been passed down orally. Slaves were not allowed to read or write; they had to pass along their traditions by word of mouth. It’s no secret that when things were documented, they were often misappropriated.
Longtime ACF Chef Kevin Mitchell, CFSE, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston in South Carolina, has been trying to document these stories throughout his stellar career. Chef Mitchell is the institute’s first African American chef-instructor and an expert on Southern foodways, the preservation of Southern ingredients and the history of African Americans in the culinary arts. Chef Mitchell, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who holds a master’s degree in southern studies from the University of Mississippi, was named a South Carolina Chef Ambassador in 2020. He is well known for being one of the creators of Nat Fuller’s Feast, a 2015 event in Charleston that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the historic feast held by celebrated African American caterer Nat Fuller during which Black and white guests celebrated emancipation.
It was for that event Chef Mitchell first collaborated with Michael Shields, an author and professor of English literature at the University of South Carolina. “It was a no-brainer to team up again,” Chef Mitchell says, to co-author “Taste the State: South Carolina’s Signature Foods, Recipes and Their Stories.” The book, which was released last October, showcases in meticulous detail nearly 100 ingredients and dishes with African, indigenous and other origins that have become an integral part of the cuisine of South Carolina, and consequently, other parts of the United States. From Carolina Gold rice to Sea Island White Flint corn, from the cone-shaped Charleston Wakefield cabbage to signature dishes such as shrimp and grits, chicken bog, okra soup, Frogmore stew and crab rice, “Taste the State” highlights South Carolina’s rich food traditions.
From the preface of the book: “Because Carolina cookery combines ingredients and cooking techniques of three divergent cultural traditions, there is more than a little novelty and variety in our food. It has inspired praise from visitors to the state since the 1720s. Because “fakelore surrounds food that becomes important to places, we have taken care to supply the best documented information. You won’t read here that pine bark stew contains pine bark or that collards came from Africa. Other foods that were once famous have passed into legend, no longer available. We remember several of these: groundnut cakes, rice birds, and tanya root.”
The idea for the book camethrough Shields, who was approached by the publisher to write a book featuring some of the most popular South Carolina dishes. “David wanted to do something more comprehensive than that, and he wanted to write this book with a chef,” Chef Mitchell says. “He wanted someone who was heavily involved in academia and who was a culinary historian with a chef’s point of view — and he found me. There were well over 100 ingredients and dishes that we had on our initial list that we wanted to write about, but we had to cut some of those out for space.”
Chef Mitchell had three main goals for the book. “I wanted to write about ingredients and dishes that people from all across the South would recognize as synonymous with South Carolina,” he says. “I also wanted to write about ingredients and dishes that have disappeared from the culinary landscape to some degree — ingredients that were very popular at one point but that are not being cultivated anymore.” Finally, Chef Mitchell wanted to include ingredients originally from South Carolina that people not from the area would never think originated there.
As the wildly popular Netflix show “High on the Hog” showcased, there are many ingredients that arrived in the U.S. from Africa via the slave trade. Slaves stuffed rice, benne seeds, okra seeds and even African runner peanuts in whatever bag they might have been carrying — or even sometimes in their hair. The seeds were then planted and cultivatedon American shores. “Most people think of Virginia when they think about peanuts, but the African runner peanut is still being grown here in South Carolina,” Chef Mitchell says. “We wanted to give a nod to those influences, not only African Africans, but also from Native Americans, the Dutch, the English and others who brought or cultivated those particular ingredients here in this area.” For their research, Chef Mitchell and Shields scoured newspaper clippings and any recipes they could find from the 1700s onward to study the evolution of ingredients and dishes throughout history.
For that surprise element, Chef Mitchell points to the humble asparagus (aka the Palmetto), the very first ingredient in the book. “As a French-trained chef from the CIA originally from New Jersey, there was no way I thought asparagus would have ties to South Carolina,” he says. “But South Carolina is actually a major growing state for the crop that’s shipped north.” According to the book, Manhattan millionaires of the Gilded Age made asparagus the country’s most cherished vegetable in 1880. South Carolina’s signature plump Palmetto asparagus was favored prior to the rise of skinnier spears in the 1920s. The Palmetto variety was discovered almost by accident by a New York seedsman who dispatched a vegetable grower in South Carolina to plant the crop, noting that it yielded better in the temperate climate of the Southern state.
The South Carolina origins of oranges also surprised Chef Mitchell. “I don’t think about South Carolina in the same sentence as oranges; I always thought about Florida, the sunshine state,” Chef Mitchell says. “It’s our hope that when people read this book, they will get some of those surprises I did and say, ‘Wow, this is fascinating.’”
(Reprinted from “Taste the State: South Carolina’s Signature Foods, Recipes and Their Stories” ©2021 with permission from the University of South Carolina Press)
No ingredient epitomized the return of classic flavor to southern cooking in the 2010s more than the revival of benne. Benne biscuits appeared in a multitude of restaurant bread baskets. Benne oil once again lubricated southern greens thanks to Oliver Farm Artisan Oils. Benne and oyster stew sprang from the pages of antique cookbooks to the center of Lowcountry cookery. Gullah Geechee cooks reclaimed parched benne seed as a condiment for rice and for cooked greens. And the traditional benne wafer, a cocktail party fixture in Charleston throughout the twentieth century, was joined by traditional confections such as benne brittle, benne sticks, and benne cakes. I suppose the dirty little secret of the benne revival was that some were using modern crop sesame (cheap and abundant at your local groceries) rather than the original heirloom benne.
Benne is a Mende word for sesame (Sesamum indicum). But the sesame that crossed the Atlantic as part of the African diaspora in the seventeenth century differs from that grown by modern farmers for market and oil processing. Benne is a landrace, tan hulled sesame with an oil content of approximately 45%. Its seed pods ripen at variable times from the bottom to the top of the plant and the pods shatter when ripe, broadcasting the seed. Modern sesame produces seeds with an oil content nearing 60% that is derived from non-shattering pods with a more regulated ripening to enable industrial harvesting.
African peoples of the Gold Coast and Slave Coast used benne seed in myriad ways: as a source for culinary oil; parched and mashed as a condiment; in stews as a flavoring; and milled into flour as a thickening agent and an element of flat breads. Enslaved Africans brought benne seed with them during the crossing and began cultivating it in huck patches for food and medicine (steeping the green leaves in cold water forms a mucilage that soothed gastric upset, particularly in children). Its use as a source of culinary oil immediately attracted the attention of European settlers. Lard, because it entailed the raising of hogs, was expensive. Experiments in olive planting in the American Southeast—and South Carolina particularly—failed because periodic cold snaps killed off olive trees. The need for an inexpensive salad oil and frying medium was great.
Sesame oil, with its long shelf life and high smoke point, became the focus of experiments, and in the 1810s, the basis of oil production that endured until David Wesson refined the stink out of cotton seed oil in the 1880s and created odorless, tasteless Wesson Oil. For sixty years, from 1830 to 1890, cold pressed sesame oil was a Carolina kitchen staple. Now if one asks for sesame oil, one is directed to the Asian food aisle in the grocery and shown dark brown, parched sesame seed oil with a pungent flavor — not at all like the sweet, mellow nuttiness of benne oil.
The sole commercial, cold pressed benne oil producer in the United States is Oliver Farms of Pitts, Georgia, which uses landrace benne supplied by Anson Mills of South Carolina.
In 1820, John S. Skinner, editor of the United States’ most important agricultural journal, The American Farmer, observed that “The Bene vine or bush, has been produced for some time, in small quantities, in the south- ern states, from seed imported directly from Africa . . . Many of the blacks of the Mississippi have continued the propagation of the seed of the Bene, and make soup of it after parching. The seed may be procured from them and from the blacks in the Carolinas and Georgia.”
The sole surviving recipe for benne soup appeared as a variation of groundnut soup in Sarah Rutledge’s 1847 The Carolina Housewife. Though attentive to local vernacular cookery, Rutledge’s collection was intended for a White readership with meat and seafood at its disposal. Oysters are added to benne and flour to make a dish that survives in Lowcountry cuisine as “Brown Oyster and Benne Stew.”
This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the full issue.
To learn about historical Black farming practices, also covered in that issue, click here.