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Seeds of influence
Doctoral student’s research finds slave trade flavored foods on both sides of Atlantic

By Robert Brickhouse

James D. LaFleur
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
James D. La Fleur

It’s well known that much traditional American cooking, epitomized by “soul food,” has flavorful African influences. But as the 400th anniversary of the first Africans’ arrival at Jamestown approaches, research by a University historian shows that the continent’s role in shaping American food and agriculture was one of the most dynamic and complex results of the so-called “Columbian exchange” of plants, animals, diseases and ideas across the Atlantic.

The research by James D. La Fleur, who received his Ph.D. at U.Va. in May and is currently a visiting lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands, describes how skilled West African farmers and cooks carefully took advantage of multiple “cultural cross currents” between the Americas and Africa after Columbus’ voyage to find the best plants, foods and recipes and to create new cuisine. To their yams, sorghum, peppers, rice and other staples they soon experimented with and added such New World crops as sweet potatoes, peanuts, beans, chilies, pumpkins, squash, papayas, sugarcane, tomatoes and other foods, many of which we enjoy today in variants of their African cooking styles.

The Atlantic food trade during the slave era was more than a one-way street, according to U.Va. alumnus James D. La Fleur. While African food found its way to the New World, American crops such as peanuts and pumpkins also reached West Africa.

It was the introduction of one of these new crops — maize — that helped accelerate enslavement (and African culinary ideas) because droughts often ruined harvests and produced refugees for sale, La Fleur believes. Contrary to the views of some historians, the arrival of this New World crop, which was productive in years with good weather, delivered insufficient nutrition to bolster African populations, he said. He has found in contemporary accounts of West Africa what is believed to be the first mention of the maize-caused deficiency known as pellagra, preceding the earliest mentions of the disease in Europe by more than a century.

Forced to migrate as slaves from the Gold Coast to the New World, Africans contributed not only what they had discovered about cultivating and cooking the new and old foods, but also used their farming expertise and deep knowledge of specific crops to make American plantations thrive. La Fleur’s research, drawing on early records in Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and other European languages; African linguistics and oral accounts; archaeology; nutrition; and botany, is the first comprehensive history of agriculture on the western coast of Africa in the Atlantic slave-trade era of 1450-1850.

pumpkinsAmong his assertions, which he will present this month to the African Studies Association in Boston and next March in Williamsburg at an international conference on Jamestown’s significance, La Fleur contends:

• West African women, guardians of family health and cautious experimenters in kitchens and gardens, played a major role in this gradual but global exchange in foodways.

There was no “immediate revolution” when high-yielding starches such as maize and cassava from the Americas reached Africa, but a slow and careful adoption process by Africans. “The early Atlantic world was no one-way street,” La Fleur says. West Africans borrowed seeds that Portuguese explorers brought from around the world, drew on ideas from other parts of Africa, and learned exotic new recipes from freedmen returning from Jamaica and Brazil.

The long history of African agricultural knowledge, going back to the first foraging of wild yams, contributed the skills to adopt the new foods. But slaves developed American plantations using new experimental knowledge about crops, not through “traditional” and “tribal” methods of agriculture, as some historians have maintained.

Beginning in the late 15th century, African farmers near Portuguese strongholds along the Gold Coast, in what is now Ghana, began experimenting with the new plants from faraway places that the Europeans used for their own provisions. The local farmers simply appropriated the seeds of what looked promising, La Fleur says. Women tested the foods extensively in their kitchen gardens before adopting them.

La Fleur was able to present a full picture of these African fields and gardens by asking a simple, direct question: “What did people grow and eat?”

“It seemed strange that no one really knew this for West Africa,” La Fleur said. “I certainly don’t think we would write the history of ancient Rome, or Europe in general, without knowing all about wheat, or Asia and rice.”

His curiosity was sparked when he was translating and editing an early Dutch traveler’s journal about Africa and discovered all sorts of plant and food names that were no longer used and weren’t from any other European language. As he looked for answers, he saw little about the history of African agriculture, specific crops or culinary traditions.

Most accounts simply spoke of the “spread” of new crops without asking “the basic questions of historical research.” The Gold Coast farmers, he found, engaged this new world of food “not with passivity, but rather as full partners with those on neighboring continents whose histories have enjoyed longer, and greater, scholarly attention.”


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