A new exhibition at The Africa Center in Harlem spotlights the ongoing but often-overlooked contributions of Africans to culinary culture.
Africans have been instrumental in shaping the cuisine of America and the rest of the world for centuries — from the slaves who were forced across the Atlantic and brought with them unique foods, culinary traditions, and technologies, to the later African American chefs, farmers, innovators, and businesses who have profoundly impacted the way we eat and think about food. The Africa Center’s exhibition, titled African/American: Making the Nation’s Table, curated by Dr. Jessica Harris, a leading expert on the culinary culture of the African diaspora, seeks to honor those individuals and their legacy.
In numerous fields, such as literature, art, business, and medicine, the achievements of Black people often go unacknowledged. The food industry is another sector where people ignore or may be unaware of these contributions. This is why the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) is hosting the exhibition at The Africa Center; to bring attention to the contributions that Africans and African Americans have contributed to American culture over the last 400 years.
Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, the Nigerian-American CEO of The Africa Center and author of Beasts of No Nation, tells OkayAfrica that there is a lot we don't know about the food we consume. "Most people don't realize that the majority of rice grown in the United States comes from Africa and that the technologies for cultivating it were developed by enslaved people who were brought over to the United States and were specifically sought out and enslaved because of that knowledge," he says.
The Legacy Quilt depicts the people, places, and movements that have influenced American cuisine.
Photo: The Africa Center
The Legacy Quilt, a major highlight of the exhibition, seeks to fill up these knowledge gaps in our knowledge by recognizing the heroes of African American culinary culture, from enslavement to the present. A 14-foot-tall and almost 30-foot-wide handmade tapestry composed of 406 illustrations (printed and appliqued onto a variety of fabric) that depict the people, places, and movements that have influenced American cuisine, The Legacy Quilt also exists online, where stories can be added by those who’re not able to visit the exhibition in person.
One of the blocks on the quilt features Augustus Jackson, an African American and former White House cook in the 1820s who is known as “the father of ice cream” for his efforts in developing new flavors and figuring out the best way to transport the dessert. Another block tells the story of Nearest Green, the first African American master distiller on record in the United States, who taught Jack Daniel how to produce whiskey and helped to perfect an innovative whiskey manufacturing technique in Tennessee.
The quilt also features current food and drink producers, writers, like Kwame Onwuachi, a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient whose work celebrates Afro-Caribbean cuisine.
“We’re hoping that more people realize and appreciate the immense contribution that people of African descent have made in the culture and economy of America and the world at large,” says Chef Pierre Thiam, one of the advisors for the exhibition. "Those recipes, which are treasures of our culture, would have been lost if it hadn't been for our ancestors and their tradition of passing down recipes from generation to generation. The agricultural methods and ingredients that were brought to this nation like rice, black-eyed peas, and okra, would be forgotten.”
The connection between African and American cuisine is evident when you consider the origins of many of the foods symbolic of American culture. “Gumbo is a famous meal in Louisiana that comes from the African continent, where it is known as okra soup [in Nigeria] and soupou kanja in Senegal. Jambalaya is another traditional Louisiana meal that we know as jollof rice. There’s also hoppin' johns, a black-eyed peas and rice dish known in Senegal as thiebou niébé," Thierre says. “And that's the beauty of food, it transcends borders, because you always crave it, and then you bring it with you as you travel from place to place.”
These influences may be found all across the world, not only in the United States. Many African cuisines are popular in nations, from Mexico to Brazil, Ecuador, and the Caribbean region. "There's a huge African diaspora community in Castro Alves, which is a town in Brazil, and there's a popular meal there called acarajé, which is similar to akara in Nigeria but done a little differently," adds Iweala.
Another highlight of the exhibition is the Ebony Test Kitchen, where the first African American food editor at a major magazine, Charlotte Lyons, tested recipes.
Photo: The Africa Center
In African/American, these ties in the African diaspora are highlighted, allowing people to see the importance of African heritage and tradition, as well as how they integrate into society. The exhibition presents a history of food and drink, and the many ways that African Americans have shaped American culture, from enslaved cooks like Abby Fisher, who later published the second-known cookbook by a Black woman in the United States, to free people who became farmers, chefs, brewers, food writers, and more.
In addition to the quilt, another highlight of the exhibition is the Ebony Test Kitchen, a psychedelic kitchen designed in the 1970s, where Ebony’s food editor -- the first African American food editor at a major magazine -- Charlotte Lyons tested recipes for the magazine’s “Date with a Dish” column. These recipes would have an indelible imprint on American cuisine for decades to come.
The exhibition is a testimony of the skill and innovation of African and African American people who have influenced the customs of people in America and the rest of the world. “There's been a constant exchange of ideas, traditions, and cultures that impacts how African and African American groups function in the United States and across the diaspora,” Iweala says. “Our vision for this exhibition was to highlight the conversation and the creativity that comes with it.”
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