Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Celebrating Black History Month – African Contributions to American Cuisine

February is Black History Month. Last year, to celebrate, I introduced myself to blogger Courtney Nzeribe from Coco Cooks and interviewed her about her cultural identity, her cooking style and her favorite childhood foods. This year, I chatted a bit with my buddy Donald Orphanidys from Mr. Orph’s Kitchen on how being black has influenced his culinary identity (not much), where he learned to love food (his Grandma’s house), and how food in Philly differs from food in the South (wildly). His experience growing up on “helpers” (of the hamburger and tuna varieties) and gub’ment cheese are familiar to me, as are the Southern inflections to his cooking that stem from his time spent stationed (and later living) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Like me, Don finds inspiration in many places, and this year, to reflect on the contributions black people have made to American culture, I was inspired to create a celebratory meal, with a soundtrack. And I’m so pleased that our friends at Foodbuzz wanted to support my celebration by accepting my proposal for their February 24, 24, 24 event.

As they have with music, black people have informed the American culinary vernacular by bringing elements and ingredients from their homeland in Africa to the genesis of their tumultuous history in North America. Many ingredients heavily associated with the South – black-eyed peas, watermelon, greens, sweet potatoes, okra and peanuts – were brought directly to the US by slaves. As a German-American, my perspective on African-American culture and cuisine is based almost solely on the experiences of other people, and over the past few months I’ve begun to explore the African roots of some of my favorite foods. I wanted to share my newly-gained insights with some old friends. The menu I created is an attempt at honoring these contributions:

Green Tomato and Watermelon Pickles
Black-eyed Pea and Corn Fritters with Sweet Pepper Chutney
Duck and Shrimp Gumbo “Ya-Ya” with Okra
“Smothered” Pork Chops with Caramelized Onions and Tomato Gravy
Swiss Chard with Braised Pork Hock
Spicy Sweet Potato Fries
Hominy Grits Pudding with Bananas Foster and Peanut Praline

The pickles were fast fridge pickles, in a sharp brine of white and sherry vinegars, shallot, salt and sugar. The watermelon rinds took sweet spices like star anise and fennel seed, while the tomatoes got a little hot chili and coriander. Both were bright and acidic, cutting through the rich, fatty meal and cleansing the palate. Mike (writer and occasional artist of film review blog and occasional webcomic Culture Pulp) kept grazing on them after the meal, plucking juicy spears from the chilly jars, happily crunching and regaling us with stories of Ravioli Day.

The fritters, based on the west African succotash adalu, were simple and delicious: black-eyed peas (also called cowpeas), corn, a couple eggs, S&P and a pinch of sugar, and a dusting of flour to stick the batter together. Fried in a little oil until browned, they were perfect with the sweet pepper chutney (minced yellow and red bell peppers and a cayenne chili slow-sautéed with onions and a pinch of my seven spice, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a little salt and sugar). The Swiss chard was braised in a splash of red onion vinegar (homemade from red onion pickle) with a pork hock, cooked until the greens were tender.

The gumbo is worth a post on its own. Being roux-based, mine is Cajun. I made a roux from duck fat and flour, cooked for two hours until rich caramel-brown and fragrant. I scored the skins on four duck legs and pan-fried skin-side down until the fat was rendered out, then flipped them and roasted them in the oven until tender. Meanwhile, I removed the heads and shells from two pounds of spot prawns and got some stock started. When the duck legs were done, I pulled out the bones, cracked them up and tossed them into the pot of vermilion stock. The next day, I started the gumbo by sautéing the Holy Trinity until glossy, then adding bay leaves, the roux and the stock (stirring to dissolve the roux), a can of chopped tomatoes, lots of chopped garlic and thyme, cayenne and S&P. I tossed in the shredded duck meat and let the whole thing cook low and slow for a couple hours until the duck was nowt but tender, filamentous hunks. When we were all ready to eat, I added the prawns and okra to cook for five minutes. Technically, gumbo yaya doesn’t have okra, but I like okra and wanted to enrich the dish with an egg. I poached the eggs in the hot gumbo broth until the whites were set. David (the mastermind behind BadAzz MoFo and writer/director of such cinematic classics as Black Santa’s Revenge) was reluctant to try the gumbo – being unfamiliar with some Southern ingredients, he mistook the okra for jalapeños and was getting heartburn just looking at it. It didn’t take much convincing to get him to taste it once the confusion had been cleared.

The pork chops (from our quarter hog) were slow-braised in chicken stock amended with crushed tomatoes, caramelized onions and ginger, with a few shots of Maggi sauce and a few spoonfuls of my homemade Berbere spice mix. They braised for about three hours until the meat was falling from the bone.

Awhile back I made the dish kelewele, a spicy fried plantain from Ghana. This time I adapted it to a sweet potato fry, and it definitely translated well. Chopped ginger and Berbere spice, salt and pepper and a massage in some oil, then into the oven until crisped on the edges. This afforded me time to bake some cornbread (baked in cast iron, greased in bacon fat). Tanya (my beautiful, pregnant Scandinavian princess from Madison, WI and the joyful wellness diva behind Recess and frequent diner at Casa de Voodoo and Sauce) had a southern grandpa and was eager to expose her spawn to some of his/her culinary roots. I was happy to oblige.

The dessert was a new creation, fudged on the fly. My friend Eric (a doughy Jewish kid from Maryland) told me about grits pudding he’d had once, and I wanted to figure out what that should taste like, and how to make it. I started by making basic grits, whisking stone-ground cornmeal into simmering cream (to which I’d added sugar and homemade bourbon vanilla). When it had set up moderately well, I added two whisked eggs (tempered to avoid an omelet) and spooned it into a buttered souffle dish. I baked this for awhile, covered, at 350, until the edges were set up and slightly browned. I spooned it into little serving dishes and topped it with sliced bananas (browned in a hot pan with butter and brown sugar, flambeed with bourbon), vanilla whipped cream and some crushed peanut praline. I guess it worked pretty well, but next time I’ll add more eggs to and bake it in a shallower pan to get more of a spoonbread consistency.

I’m having a hard time concluding this post. I’ve been away awhile on a conference and a broken toe, and two days of cooking is exhausting. So I hope you enjoy this special food-based mixtape I made for you in lieu of a proper closer. It consists of R&B and jazz greats of the 1940s and 50s, and like with food, proves that pretty much everything good about America is because of black people.