8: Ummm…, so, ok, this is going to be awkward. Remember South Park’s “Chef” character, voiced by the late Isaac Hayes? It was a natural part for him. In real life, Hayes was considered a good cook, and even published a cookbook in 2000.
But from South Park to Aunt Jemima, one of the oldest stereotypes is that African Americans have almost magical cooking abilities. It’s reflected in the choice of advertising icons like Aunt Jemima. One writer in 1880 said, “The Negro is a born cook.”
Really? As with every stereotype, there is an underlying element of truth. Under slavery and Jim Crow, cooking was one of the few non-farm jobs open to African Americans. Then add in the reality that enslaved were kept illiterate, and even after slavery, education could be spotty. Thus, culinary knowledge could only be passed along by oral tradition and hands-on training. Naturally, a tradition of strong cooking skills developed in some families, so that their kitchen sense and skills may have appeared to be a genetic gift.
But there’s nothing inherently unique in that. Most white families were in the same boat. Most couldn’t afford a slave or the services of a paid cook. Housewives had to fend for themselves, and were often just as illiterate as the slave in the kitchen next door. The average white household likewise relied on mothers passing down their knowledge to their daughters.
We see it in the cookbooks of the 1800s. There was no such thing as an 1854 edition of Cooking for Dummies. Cookbooks assumed that the reader was already an experienced cook. “Cook in a medium oven till done” was a typical instruction. Today, a cookbook couldn’t be published unless every recipe has a temp and a time and, preferably, a color photo of the desired result. In short, the average little white girl (or boy) learned to cook from an early age too, like they were born to do it.
So why the stereotype? It may be the product of a corollary stereotype; namely, that white folks eat bland food, because either we won’t, or don’t know how, to season anything. In social media, there’s a cottage industry producing images like this one:
Of course, I’d be lying if I pretended that there’s no truth to it. A standard explanation correlates seasoning preferences to the climate. The liberal use of hot peppers, for instance, is found in warm climates around the globe. It may seem counter-intuitive, but highly-spiced food can have a cooling effect on the body. In short, it can make you sweat, and perspiration is your body’s natural air-conditioning system.
On the other hand, 3/4ths of my genetic pool was brewed north of the 55th latitude, and the remaining quarter wasn’t far behind. My biological instinct is to stay as warm as possible, not to break a sweat and cool down.
There may be something to this, but the reality is more complex. My theory is that the supposed superiority of African American cooks stems more from the differences between traditional English and African cuisines, and how those cuisines became blended into a new American cuisine.
Colonial English settlers ate vast quantities of meat. Some of this was the product of superstition: In the 1600s, the English thought raw vegetables were dangerous, and would eat fruit only in pies or jams, never fresh. They thought white potatoes (still a new item) were poisonous. Some of it was theological and political: Puritans and Quakers believed that simple, bland food was a sign of virtue and piety, while Francophobes rejected fancy European dishes as unpatriotic. (Never mind that the Bible itself tends to describe Heaven as a rich banquet, not a blah one. cf. Isaiah 25:6-9)
This 1585 painting by the Dutch artist, Antoon Claeissens could just as well be an English dinner: Two gigantic roasts, some bread, and not a vegetable or fruit anywhere in sight.
By contrast, the enslaved brought with them an African cuisine rich in fruits and vegetables, and meat was used mainly a seasoning (think of collard greens cooked with a ham hock, or the bacon found in nearly every southern vegetable dish). They introduced foods like okra, and learned to use New World foods like sweet potatoes, peanuts, and peppers that reminded them of similar foods they had eaten in Africa. They also learned from the native peoples, whereas the white settlers saw the native peoples only as “savages,” and largely ignored their cuisine.
Tiep Bou Dienn: A modern Senegalese dinner. There’s fish in there somewhere, but it’s not as obvious as the meat would be at a typical American seasonal feast.
(Photo Source: audaciousfaith.files.wordpress.com)
So naturally when the enslaved cooks brought their African-based skills into the Big House, their white masters often enjoyed the better-tasting dishes. George Washington, for instance, loved Caribbean-style pepper pot soup.
There was also the necessity of forced ingenuity. Whether it was the enslaved trying to supplement the starvation diet provided by slave rations or poor sharecroppers trying to make do, traditionally, many African American families had to discover ways to turn inferior foods into something edible.
For instance, even the freshest collard greens, for instance, are a little bitter, and must be seasoned to be more palatable (As a point of reference, think of what many white folks have to do today to obscure the inherent awfulness of broccoli). While Massa is slicing into a rich ham up in the Big House, you’re stuck trying season up a bucket of guts (the chitterlings) to taste like anything. Miss Ann’s juicy steak will taste great on its own, with only a dash of salt and pepper, but a side of ribs is edible only if it’s smoked low and slow, and seasoned with rubs and/or a spicy sauce.
So, no, Virginia, Aunt Jemima doesn’t have a cooking gene. Like the old ad said, you can learn to make a stack of pancakes just as good as hers, especially if you use her mix! Flavortown doesn’t have to be segregated.
On the other side of the coin, do I even need to say that some folks can’t cook a lick, no matter what’s in their DNA? Every amateur cook (i.e., me) knows the secret glee that comes in a restaurant when you taste a dish and realize, Hey, mine’s better. (For the record, I’m pretty critical of the sides in most BBQ joints)
All Americans have benefitted from the culinary traditions that the enslaved and their descendants have added to our national stew, and we should be thankful that these traditions were passed along and preserved. Much of the American diet, from a rich bbq sauce to the trendiest vegan dish, owes a debt to Africa, to those who were forcibly taken from there to work in our kitchens for free, and to their descendants in every generation.
Nonetheless, the stereotype needs to be retired. It sounds benevolent and harmless, but in reality, it helps pigeonhole contemporary African American talent. People assume that they can only cook great southern/soul food, and not the trendy kind of dishes that the most sophisticated (and best paying) restaurants demand. In an age when every chef seems to want a TV show, African American faces don’t appear as often as you might think. Here’s the network’s “featured chefs” list for January 14, 2016. I’ll let you make your own assumptions about their ethnicity, but let’s just say that it looks about as diverse as the Oscar nominations:
Nobody is born to cook. With the proper training, formal, informal, or self-taught, some people can learn to cook. Anytime we press it beyond that, we’re asking for trouble.