welcome to Flavor & Soul: A Brief History of African American Cuisine. We’ll take a closer look at a dish each week and trace its roots in African-American culinary tradition.
For every significant celebration throughout the African American Diaspora, there will be greens. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas, graduation or June 17th, if that calls for a family reunion, the appearance of a large pot of leafy greens is crucial. In fact, it’s usually the only green vegetable besides okra that gains a major place on the table. Raw vegetables or salads are not that common; Mixed TV Writer and Co-Executive Producer Angela Nissel brilliantly summed up the greens as “hot black salad,” and that’s exactly what it is. It can be cabbage, turnips, mustards and sometimes even dandelions, but whatever they are, they will be served hot, seasoned and delicious.
Even though they were constantly served, I didn’t start to like veggies when I was a kid. In fact, I didn’t like to eat anything green (it’s still the color I like the least). But unlike green beans, spinach or lima beans, I felt there was a special status attached to the greens. There was a detailed process of picking, cleaning and cutting the leaves, and I watched brown, withered hands lovingly perform the task. A full pot would be cooked and reduced to a few bowls of greens that would be seasoned with salt pork and spices. It almost sounded like a sacred ritual.
I remember my great-grandmother would be so happy if I took a fork of greens, she would glow like I had somehow raised the whole family line. I once was so happy to see her face light up that I kept asking for more greens and threw them behind the heater. The pungent smell of old greens isn’t something you can hide and she wasn’t so happy when she found them. But that memory reminds me of what was so special about greens that made me want to pretend to enjoy them.
It turns out that growing, cooking and eating green vegetables is a tradition that spans centuries and continents. Collard greens are originally from Greece, but the way green leafy vegetables are prepared throughout the African diaspora is a specific process that has not really changed since ancient times. According to food historian Michael Twitty, picking green vegetables (whether wild, from gardens, or from trees) and simmering them in a seasoned sauce was a widespread practice for centuries on the African continent and it continues today. hui. One of my favorite dishes that I discovered on my trip to Ghana was kontomire stew, also called palaver sauce, which is made from taro leaves. The dark green leaves looked and tasted like tender mustard greens and with the exception of the melon seeds added to the dish, they could easily have passed as my great-grandmother’s leaves. Instead of the cornbread that we use to absorb the juice or the liquor from the pot, scoops of banku or fermented cassava and corn paste is used to scoop up the salty greens. In Nigeria, egusi stew is a similar dish, usually made from pumpkin leaves or bitter leaves, and in the Caribbean, callaloo is a staple made from taro or dasheen leaves. The type of green is determined by climate and terrain, but preparation remains constant whether you’re in Chicago or Sierra Leone. No wonder green vegetables are so important in black culinary tradition – they’ve been a familiar friend everywhere we’ve landed.
I ended up liking green vegetables around the age of 10. Now I eat all varieties, even kale, but my favorites are turnip greens, which taste less bitter and more complex than cabbage or mustard. I pick up bunches from my independent grocer and boil them, seasoned with smoked turkey. I bake cornbread in hot water and savor the slightly tangy flavor of green vegetables, just like my great-grandmother and generations of ancestors before her. Green vegetables may not be considered a root vegetable, but they certainly highlight the long roots of the African diaspora’s culinary heritage.