Radio·Unforked

Fried eel and oxtail: How Black ingenuity shaped North American dishes

The way West Africans shaped North American cuisine is only now coming into focus, says food historian Michael Twitty. He and African Nova Scotian Wendie L. Wilson are on a mission to celebrate their ancestors’ ingenuity with food.

West Africans had a huge impact on North American cuisine, says food historian

Wendie L. Wilson from Halifax wants to bring attention to African Nova Scotians' distinctive cuisine. (Paul Poirier/CBC )

For Haligonian Wendie L. Wilson, the taste of home is eels fried up in a cast iron pan, served with cucumber, boiled potato, butter, salt and pepper.  

"My father cooked up eels every once in a while as a special treat," said Wilson. "I got older and realized that most people weren't frying up eels, but that was something that we ate readily because it was usually free and they were plentiful and they were absolutely delicious."

Wilson is African Nova Scotian, a descendant of the waves of Black pioneers who arrived in the province from the mid-18th century into the early 1900s. Waves arrived after the American revolution as loyalists to the British Crown, as American refugees after the war of 1812, and from the Caribbean to work in the steel mills in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

Wilson said African Nova Scotians have a distinct cuisine — but it hasn't always been celebrated or acknowledged as it should. 

A plate of African Nova Scotian favourites: rice and peas, oxtail, codfish, potatoes, greens, baked beans, smoked hamhocks and cornbread. (Submitted by Wendie L. Wilson)

She first started thinking about African Nova Scotian cuisine as a distinct way of cooking while visiting a multicultural food fair in Dartmouth. 

"I always wondered what would we serve at an African Nova Scotian booth … and why isn't there an African Nova Scotian booth," said Wilson, who is an elementary school teacher and artist. 

"What I ended up finding out was we, as people, have lost a lot. We've forgotten a lot. We weren't allowed to express ourselves. When we came here from the southern U.S., there [were] a lot of things we remembered through blood memory but weren't allowed to practise."

Resistance from other Maritimers

She said that even when she describes African Nova Scotian cuisine, she sometimes gets resistance from other Maritimers.

"When I first started talking about it and first started writing about it, I would hear people say that's not African Nova Scotian; that's just what we eat in the Maritimes," she said.

But Wilson says African Nova Scotian cuisine is a specific collection of recipes and methods with a range of disparate influences including American soul food, Caribbean cuisine and Maritime classics. 

"We might have the fishcakes and the baked beans, but we might decide to whip up a little curry condiment to go with it … we're really big on spices and seasoning," she said. "I would attribute that to our African ancestors and the Caribbean influence."

Other popular items include salt cod, oxtail, blueberry duff, mac and cheese, fried mackerel, and the use of organ meats like kidneys, hearts, gizzards and intestines, she said. 

Peanuts, yam and okra

South of the border, African American food historian Michael Twitty has taken up a similar mission of celebration and remembrance focused on the diverse origins of cooking in the southern U.S. 

In his book The Cooking Gene, Twitty explores how people like his enslaved ancestors — long relegated to being portrayed as silent side characters in history — were the driving force behind southern cuisine, forever changing the way we eat in North America. 

Food historian Michael Twitty reaches for pattypan squash and okra in Natchez, Mississippi. (Johnathan M. Lewis/Afroculinaria.com)

"The food and the food culture of those places would not be the same without the physical movement, the forced movement, of African descendents from the southeastern coast where they arrived from Africa into the interior and even beyond that to Texas, Oklahoma and then to the Great Migration from there to other parts of the country," said Twitty. 

The arrival of these West Africans led to the incorporation of ingredients brought over from the motherland — like peanuts, yams and okra — and farming techniques like those used to grow Carolina gold rice, a lucrative cash crop exported to Europe and Asia in the 19th century.

"There's this core that starts in the cotton belt, but then the ingenuity, improvisation and just curiosity diversifies this body of food knowledge," he said. 

Twitty, left, participates in a 'colonial Afro-Virginian barbecue experiment' with interpreter Robert Watson. (http://afroculinaria.com/)

The brutal conditions in which they were forced to work added another element of resistance and resourcefulness. For example, early enslaved people grew makeshift gardens — featuring small crops of greens, cowpeas, melons and squash — to supplement their rations.

"[This cuisine] could have only happened after the introduction and subjugation of my ancestors who, by the way, used that same cuisine to resist and revolt against enslavement," said Twitty.

'We have a responsibility to each other'

Twitty said he tries to emphasize the diversity in the origins of a cuisine and pays respect to the many people who, along the way, shaped it into what it is today.

"For me, it's seeing this incredible imaginary map in your mind of all the crossroads that were made to create this very unique approach to food," he said.

Twitty said understanding this food history will help us understand how we fit into the world today.

"We have a responsibility to each other … to learn multiple perspectives … and to enjoy the fact that we are happily contaminated with each other's cultures and worldviews," he said.

Oxtail, a popular dish in African Nova Scotian cuisine, simmers in a cast iron pan. (Submitted by Wendie L. Wilson)

Back in Nova Scotia, Wilson is trying to make the food history of her ancestors and community come alive. She helps run a summer school for African Nova Scotian youth every August, and this year, her students will be learning about their food culture and history. 

"We have a lot to do in Nova Scotia," she said. 

"We're putting the pieces back together…. Hopefully all the pieces that are being collected and documented will just become common knowledge."


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now