Enduring Influence Of Early African Farmers And Cooks
October 15, 2003 --
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 historian at the University
of Virginia 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.
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 create new cuisine. To their
yams, sorghum, peppers, rice and other staples they soon experimented with
such New World crops as sweet potatoes, peanuts, beans, chilies, pumpkins,
squash, papayas, sugarcane, tomatoes and other foods, many of which we enjoy
variants of their African cooking styles.
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.
the views of some historians, the arrival of this New World crop, which was
productive in years with good weather, delivered insufficient nutrition to
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
preceding the earliest mentions of the disease in Europe by more than a century.
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.
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:
African women, guardians of family health and cautious experimenters
kitchens and gardens, played a major role in this gradual
but global exchange in foodways.
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
from Jamaica and Brazil.
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 have historians have maintained.
in the late 15th century, African farmers near Portuguese
strongholds along the Gold Coast, in what
is now Ghana, began
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.
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?” La
Fleur says. “It seemed strange that no one
really knew this for West Africa. I certainly don't
think we would write the history of ancient Rome,
in general, without knowing all about wheat, or
Asia and rice.”
curiosity was sparked when he was translating and editing an
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.”
Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856