Looking back, I realize that for all the business travel I’ve done, I haven’t been to many cities and towns in the American South: New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta and High Point (North Carolina)…that’s it!
And while I enjoyed the food, I never gave much thought to the role of African slaves in the development of the cuisine. Sure, I knew that peanuts (groundnuts) and okra came from Africa. And that the cooks in the great Southern plantation houses were enslaved Africans.
My eyes were opened in Charleston, South Carolina, last week at the annual Les Dames d’Escoffier International Conference.
At a daylong session at Middleton Place, we enjoyed lectures, tours and a superb Lowcountry luncheon featuring recipes of the legendary African-American chef, Edna Lewis. We learned about Carolina Gold Rice, an heirloom grain that utilized the rice management skills of enslaved Africans; it made South Carolina planters fabulously wealthy. While almost unheard of today, Carolina Gold Rice is being restored by Anson Mills and the precious rice grain can now be purchased online.
At seminars in the next days we heard about how slaves raised crops, including familiar African crops, for themselves and their masters. And how resourceful slaves learned to “make do” with whatever foodstuffs they could get. The culinary influence of Africans migrated from the slaves’ quarters to the plantation house through Black cooks. As one speaker said, “So much of the rich Southern food culture was built on the backs of slaves.”
The Southern cooking that evolved represents the merging of African, European and Native American contributions, and the fruits of the land. Southern cuisine is not one cuisine, but the cuisines of micro regions that varied by geography—mountains, tidal basins, pasturelands and more. This terroir determined what could be planted and guided the cooking.
Having whetted my appetite with a little bit of knowledge, I’m interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Southern foodways through food history books and Southern cookbooks.
The other day, I cooked up Mama Julia’s Red Rice, a recipe shared by one of our speakers, Chef Kevin Mitchell of the Culinary Institute of Charleston. It’s a small start.
Mama Julia’s Red Rice
Chef Kevin Mitchell, Culinary Institute of Charleston
Serves 4 to 6
4 thick slices bacon
2 thick slices picnic ham, chopped
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
¼ cup chopped celery
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 cups tomato sauce
2 ½ cups water
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon sugar
2 cups raw converted rice, Uncle Ben’s preferred
Salt and black pepper
Fry the bacon in a heavy-bottomed pan to render the fat. Remove bacon and reserve for another use. Sauté ham, onion, peppers, celery and garlic in rendered bacon fat for 5 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
Add tomato sauce, water, basil, bay leaf and sugar. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Add the rice, bring to a simmer, cover, and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, until rice is tender.
Remove bay leaf. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as desired. Fluff with a fork as desired.
Variation: Add sausage or shrimp.
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