What We Eat: Africa Foods in America - #110

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the Americas for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: West Africa and the Atlantic Islands off the coast of Africa were the staging areas for Europe’s voyages of discovery. They used the Canary Islands and Madeira, to test the plantation system and the use of slave labor. When Christopher Columbus planted the first sugar cane in the Mediterranean he also planted the idea of an enslaved labor force—a labor force that came almost exclusively from Africa.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: I believe, that a lot of what happened happened because one of the things that we don't realize is that the slave traders really did understand, however peculiar that may sound, African cultures and, certainly, the cultures of West Africa, in ways that we do not today. I mean, and if you read the logs, you realize that they knew that people from this region ate yams and they would not eat corn mush or rice or other things, even on the voyage.  And other people ate rice. And they knew what those civilizations and cultures were.  So, as they came, and as the people were brought, things to feed the people were also brought.

BURT WOLF: In the areas where slaves were allowed to grow their own food there was the question of what they wanted to plant. And what they wanted to plant was okra, bananas, watermelon, yams, rice and peanuts.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The adaptation of African foods to the Americas took place in two different stages. The first was the result of the fact that the slaves came from many different tribes with many different gastronomic traditions. And when they were brought together on the boats and in the plantations they began to exchange those traditions.

JESSSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: They didn't come from the same place.  They didn't speak the same language.  And so, what happens is, as they are juxtaposed within this New World environment, there is this trade-off and A may come with B, and B may discover C, and, so you get the evolution and the creation of what becomes, I contend, one of the world's original fusion foods, which is Creole food.

BURT WOLF: The next stage in the adaptation of African foods to the Americas involved the process of substituting readily available American ingredients for the foods of Africa that were no longer at hand. In the process, Africans played a major role in the creation of American cuisine, particularly in the Caribbean and the southern United States.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A thousand years ago the Aztecs were using a peanut paste very similar to peanut butter. But they weren’t using it as a food; they were using it to brush their teeth.

BURT WOLF: A peanut is not a nut; it is a legume like a pea or a bean. But unlike peas and beans peanuts are oily, not starchy, and they have an unusual way of growing. As soon as the plant starts to germinate it grows down into the ground where it matures in its pod.

Archaeologists report that ancient Peruvians ate peanuts as a snack food and their city streets were littered with peanut shells not unlike the stands of our modern baseball parks.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In addition to sailing down the east coast of Brazil the Portuguese were sailing down the west coast of Africa. On both sides of the Atlantic, their objective was the same—find a new route to the Far East. And as part of their plan to supply these ships they planted peanuts in Africa. And by 1510, peanuts were a major African crop.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: Well, peanuts are one of those things that for years people thought came from Africa.  Because they were confused about the route, if you will, that the nut took.  But one of the things that happened was peanuts originate probably in, in Brazil, in that area, in that whole kind of crucible, and, you know, possibly Peru; but Brazil, Peru somewhere around there.  And they go to Western Africa early.  And one of the things that happens in Western Africa is, they already have something called a Bambara groundnut.

And that Bambara groundnut is like a pea.  But is used also liked a nut, so it's a legume. Once the peanut gets there, the peanut takes over from the Bambara groundnut, and becomes the, if you will, the nut de préfèrence.

BURT WOLF: In the Bantu language the Bambara nut was known as a “goober;” Africans used the old word to describe the new food and when they traveled across the Atlantic they took the old name and the new food with them. They ate peanuts raw, or roasted, or boiled—they prepared them in soups and stews and used peanut oil for frying.

When slaves grew their own food, peanuts were always part of the crop. A few white planters, including Thomas Jefferson, attempted to grow peanuts as a cash crop. Most whites used them for hog feed, but Africans were doing the cooking in many white households, and they slowly introduced peanuts into the cuisine of the south.

HASIA DINER ON CAMERA: In early America, African women, some men but primarily women, did the cooking, in the plantation homes, the homes of their employers, owners, I guess, we have to say.  And what's notable is the degree to which they superimposed upon what were basically Anglo-American food ways, the spices and tastes and, indeed, ingredients, like rice, like yams, of Africa into the diet of people who weren't necessarily adventurous, who weren't necessarily interested in experimentation in food.  Peanuts, like rice, like yams, were products of Africa.  They did grow naturally in the American South.  African, slaves brought to the New World had a whole repertoire of recipes and knowledge about what to do with peanuts that the Anglo-American, white, both owning and non-owning class had no idea what to do with them.  So, it was an example of the Africans using knowledge that they brought with them to transform the lives of those people who kept them in slavery.

BURT WOLF: In 1791, a slave rebellion in Haiti sent hundreds of French planters and their household slaves to Philadelphia. The household servants brought a taste for peanuts with them and peanut recipes soon began to show up in early American cookbooks.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Low budget theatergoers would munch peanuts during a performance and litter the seats around them with peanut shells. Critics began to complain about the “peanut eating geniuses” in the cheap seats, and the idea of the “peanut gallery” was born.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: Peanuts became part of Southern cookery during the American Civil War.  At this point, the Northern blockade of the South prevented normal food products from getting into the South.  So, Southerners all of a sudden, discovered this new product called peanuts.  They immediately substituted ground peanuts for coffee.  They immediately used peanuts as a snack food.  They used peanuts in virtually every capacity that you can think of, including oil, which they used to grease their artillery and grease their locomotives.  At that point, whale oil, the main oil used in America …they were not able to get access to it and hence, peanut oil was substituted for that.

Northerners, of course, were not exposed to peanuts until the Civil War, when Northern armies marched into the South and found this whole new food now not only consumed by African-American slaves but also consumed by the white aristocracy of the South. And consequently, Northern troops took their excitement about peanuts back to the North and demanded peanuts after they returned home.  So, peanuts really become an important snack food in America after the American Civil War.


BURT WOLF: George Washington Carver was born in Missouri in 1864 and for 50 years was the head of the Department of Agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute. He was also the greatest champion of the peanut in the history of the U.S.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: The interesting thing about George Washington Carver is that he really didn't know much about peanuts.  He ran into them quite by accident, in 1916.  He came out with a little booklet that had a few things about peanuts and the home economics department of Tuskeegee University came through with 101 peanut recipes.  And all of a sudden, this little booklet put out by the experiment station in Tuskeegee became famous all over America.  And so, he said "This is a great idea.  I'd better do some experimentation with it."  And that's virtually his beginning.  He had to put out a booklet because they were required by their grant to do that.  And all of a sudden he became associated with peanuts.  And because he was very good at what he did, he became very popular.  He was among the first African-Americans to address all white audiences in the South: agricultural conferences and programs. He was one of the most popular African-Americans in the south.

George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter as frequently said in many books.  However, he did invent over 300 ways of using the peanuts.  And henceforth, he became a major popularizer of peanuts and not only among African-American farmers but also among Americans in general. 

Ground peanuts have been a product that had been used both in South America as well as Africa as well as the American South. Of course, no one got credit for it until a great white man, John Harvey Kellogg comes through with grinding peanuts and makes the decision that this is the health product of America.  He of course was a vegetarian.  And his interest was to create a substitute for cow's butter. And consequently, began grinding all sorts of things.  One of the things that he ground happened to be peanuts.  He invented the term "peanut butter," which was initially a vegetarian conspiracy.  Vegetarian groups throughout America all of a sudden adopted it and took it to their non-vegetarian friends and said, "This was the great food of the future." 


BURT WOLF: Arab traders who made their way to Malaysia in the 1600s were the first to introduce the banana to Africa and early on, the banana became part of Islamic legend. Koranic scholars identified the banana—not the apple—as the forbidden fruit in Paradise. According to their interpretation, Europeans, in their translation of Genesis, may have confused the banana with the Middle Eastern fig and—if Adam and Eve were looking for something to cover their nakedness, a huge banana leaf made more sense as a loincloth, than a fig leaf.

Bananas spread quickly across the African continent, and became an important food crop wherever they were grown. It picked up the name banana in West Africa. And that’s where Europeans had their first significant contact with them.  Even though the banana plant can reach a height of 30 feet, it is not really a tree. It’s actually a gigantic herb, related to the lily or the orchid. The “trunk” of the banana plant is no more than a bunch of tightly rolled leaves. It’s a tropical plant and refuses to bear much fruit in any area that is north of 30º latitude, which is about level with New Orleans.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In West Africa the Portuguese began to understand the importance of the banana and brought them to their sugar plantations on Madeira.  The Spanish followed suit and planted bananas on the Canary Islands.  As the European powers began to move their plantations to the Caribbean they brought along the bananas and the Portuguese provisioned their slave ships out of West Africa with bananas.  Bananas loved the Caribbean, the tropics were perfect for them and soon they became a staple crop in both South America and Central America.

BURT WOLF: A group of fruit merchants based in the United States began importing bananas from Panama, Costa Rica, and Jamaica and introduced them to the North American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. At first it was a luxury item but as shipping methods and refrigeration improved and prices dropped the banana became equally popular with the working classes.

HASIA DINER ON CAMERA: Bananas were, interestingly, one of the first foods that immigrants from Europe talked about as strange, not knowing what to do with it, not even sure what class of thing it was.  Immigrant memoirs are full of encounters with bananas, particularly Northern, Central, East European immigrants. They don't know, "What do you do with the skin? Is that edible or not edible?"  A woman who came to America, after her husband had been in the United States for a few years, recalled how he had played a trick with her and put a banana on a plate with a knife and fork on either side of the plate and a salt shaker and a pepper shaker next to it, and she thought you were supposed to sprinkle these on the banana.  And she said, "I'd never eat a banana after that.  I was so humiliated.”

BURT WOLF: Eventually, the fruit merchants joined together and became the United Fruit Company. During the first half of the 20th century, United Fruit exercised tremendous influence over the nations of Central and South America.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: Although they had been slave food fodder, they become virtually and certainly, in the case of Jamaica, the post-Emancipation salvation after cane pretty much goes bust with the sugar beet in Europe; and so you'll find that what you've got is this banana that now is growing in Jamaica, growing in Cuba.  A sea captain, I think it's 1866, comes and is going to Cuba to get a load of bananas but stops in Jamaica and picks up Jamaican bananas, takes them to Boston.  Suddenly, you end up with the fruit company which becomes the United Fruit Company, and you've got bananas as the monoculture that then supplant cane and become part of the history of the Caribbean.


BURT WOLF: The watermelon was first domesticated in Africa, probably in the region around the Kalahari Desert. Wall paintings of watermelons, along with actual watermelon seeds, have been found in Egyptian tombs that date back over 5,000 years.  Filled with both water and nutrients, watermelons became nature’s canteens throughout Africa and Arab traders spread watermelons wherever they traveled including India and China.

The Moors cultivated watermelons during their occupation of Spain, and by the early 1600s watermelons were being grown in European gardens as far north as England. Unlike some of the other plants imported to Europe, the watermelon was widely accepted.  Around the same time that the watermelon was becoming popular in Europe, it was introduced to the Americas. The Spanish were growing watermelons in Florida as early as 1576, and 50 years later they showed up in Massachusetts.

Africans spread the fruit throughout the South, the Caribbean, and South America.  In the Southern United States, watermelons became stereotypically associated with enslaved African-Americans.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: People sort of think watermelon, and they see mentally all of those hideous images of early 20th century, late 19th century, African-Americans being lampooned, being denigrated in print, in image, with, you know, watermelon.  And, and yet watermelon certainly started out as something so positive.  Because watermelon was liquid, it was what you needed, it was what you craved, if you worked in the sun.  It was a simple, easy functional way of getting the liquid that you couldn't survive without.  The other thing though, is it originated in Africa.  So it's one of those things that really is ours, no matter how denigrating it may have become. 

BURT WOLF: Despite this legacy the watermelon, indisputably African, has become essentially American; an enduring summer dessert for Americans of every racial and ethnic background.


BURT WOLF: About half the world’s population depends on rice. It’s thought to have originated in India, and has been grown in China for some 3,000 years; cultures all over Asia began growing rice soon after it reached China. In Europe, rice has been known since Alexander The Great returned from India.

In West Africa, a native rice species, was domesticated independently of the Asian varieties, and has been cultivated there since 1500 BC—hundreds of years before its Asian cousins were grown in China. In the tidal lowlands of the Senegal and Gambia Rivers, an area that became known as the “Grain Coast” or “Rice Coast” African farmers developed a system of wetlands rice cultivation that resembles the paddy system used in Asia. On the Rice Coast, men did the heavy work of building the irrigation systems, but women were responsible for planting and raising the rice.

In the Americas, colonists began growing rice on dry land that was only irrigated by rainfall. At first it was food for the slave population, but they soon began growing it for export. South Carolina emerged as the center of rice-growing production in North America. The plantation owners were well aware of African rice-growing traditions. The rice economy that developed in the American South was almost totally dependent on African labor and African technology.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: From southern Senegal to Liberia is rice growing.  There is an indigenous African rice, that is a wet rice.  It is grown in water, according to a certain system.  The good Carolina planters knew that.  And went and specifically and particularly got those folks.  And those folks built the rice of Carolina.  So you find the Mande, the Vai, the Diola, all of those people out of those areas were brought, and were valuable slaves, valued at another rate because of their know-how.  And so the entire rice system of Carolina is based on an African task system of labor.

BURT WOLF: In the process the slaves made “Carolina Rice” an important export for Europe; they also made the South Carolina planters some of the richest people in North America. Europeans were so enamored of Carolina rice that when the British took Charleston during the Revolutionary War, they removed the entire rice crop and shipped it back home to England.

Rice and beans, fried chicken, gumbo, peanut butter, watermelon, sweet potato pie, and a banana split…

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What could be more American? 

Nothing as long as you remember that an essential ingredient in each of those dishes was brought here by African slaves.  As American cooking developed, a lot of that cooking was done by Africans and the hand that stirs the pot has a lot to say about what goes into that pot and how it’s cooked.  Today’s American food owes a lot to African ingredients and African-American cooks. For WHAT WE EAT, I’m Burt Wolf.