Exploring the African Influence on Virginia and American Cuisine

Food is an important part of family, memory and tradition. We center our lives and love of family around food. The sight, sounds, smells and tastes of food evoke our most passionate emotions, foster a sense of family and connect us to our history and culture. As families move and grow, cultural connections are maintained and transferred to younger generations through culinary traditions. Examining a meals’ ingredients and preparation methods can yield forensic-like information about a recipe’s history and provide a historical roadmap about the migration of peoples who were part of the American experience.

In Virginia we have a robust culinary history that is heavily influenced by West African traditions. Virginia is where the first Africans arrived in English North America. The pivotal moment when African culture became an integral and indelible part of American culture occurred nearly 400 years ago in Point Comfort (today’s Hampton). Records show that the “20 odd Africans” who arrived aboard a ship called the White Lion, were forcibly landed and traded for food and supplies. These first Africans, and those who followed, brought with them rich culinary traditions from their homelands, which have direct ties to today’s Southern cuisine. The West African tradition of adding large quantities of greens and vegetables to meals certainly stepped up the English colonists’ diets, with some historians asserting that the addition of these nutritious food plants saved white enslavers from nutritional deficiencies.

As enslaved Africans were transported beyond Virginia into other parts of the South the West African influence on American cuisine continued to grow. The prominence of one-pot cooking, stews, gumbos, jambalaya, thickening with okra or nuts all trace their roots back to Africa. West African cooks also prepared greens by laying meat on top, and without that influence the Southern tradition of using smoked meats as seasoning may never have begun. Plantation families also began enjoying the creations of “African” vegetables, seeds and starches including rice, black eyed peas, couscous, okra, gumbo, watermelon, collard greens and sesame seeds to name a few.

According to culinary historian, Michael W. Twitty, Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet he points out that the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. It is widely accepted that African American cooks have not received the credit they deserve for their contributions to American cuisine. Throughout American history white enslavers or employers have regularly taken credit for meals their black cooks had prepared and recorded these recipes, only to present or publish them as their own.

As Americans we are deeply connected to our nation's history. American culinary traditions are a core part of that history. Over the next 24 months the Commonwealth of Virginia is hosting the 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, which commemorates the 400th anniversary of key historical events that occurred in Virginia in 1619 that continue to influence America today. These formative 1619 events include the arrival of the first recorded Africans to English North America, the First Representative Legislative Assembly in the New World, the recruitment of English women in significant numbers to the Virginia Colony, the First Official English Thanksgiving in North America and the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the Virginia Colony. Featured events, programs and legacy projects inspire local, national and international engagement in the themes of democracy, diversity and opportunity.

Kush and greens, An Afternoon of Cultural Cuisine, American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Kush and greens; photo courtesy of Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

On April 28, 2018, American Evolution is partnering with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation to host An Afternoon of Cultural Cuisine at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The event will explore the multicultural heritage of Southern cuisine through cooking and conversation with Michael W. Twitty, African American-Jewish culinary historian and author. In addition, American Evolution will host its premiere culinary event, the Customs, Cultures and Cuisine Festival, Nov. 8–10, 2019, in Williamsburg. This multi-day signature event honors the early beginnings of America and showcases the culinary contributions of the three cultures (Virginia Indian, African and English) present in 1619 Virginia.

Visit AmericanEvolution2019.com to learn more about American Evolution and the Customs, Cultures and Cuisine Festival. You can also stay updated on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @Commemorate2019.

Professor of History at Norfolk State University | + post and articles by this author

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