Black Heritage Cuisine

In honor of Black History Month in February, we wanted to showcase some of our members’ personal and heritage stories behind  the 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 communities  have 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 came  through 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 cultivated  on 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.’”