How To Teach Black History Through African American Cuisine

Soul food is good for the spirit, but we rarely talk about its origins, which tie Black Americans to a long, rich culinary history.

Senior woman cooking food with her grandson
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One historical American delicacy many tend to overlook is pot liquor aka "potlicker" aka "pot likker." It's the broth at the bottom of a pot of greens, and it's arguably the best part. Pot liquor is at its finest when it contains the smoky essence of ham or turkey hock, which enslaved Black Americans discovered as they sopped it up with cornbread.

Plantation owners kept the leafy greens for themselves, while the pot liquor and cornbread were sometimes the only nourishment enslaved Blacks received during the week, say experts, which is likely why some are reluctant to celebrate it. But Erick Williams believes it's important to honor because the rich broth sustained African Americans during the country's most difficult era.

"[Pot liquor] has the most nutrients and fiber, and without it many enslaved people would not have survived," explains Williams, the chef/owner of Chicago's Mustard Seed Kitchen and Virtue Restaurant. "That goes to show you just how much is in that pot."

Such poignant backstories of African American heritage cuisine motivate Williams, a James Beard Award finalist for the Southern-inspired Virtue, to pass on the knowledge to his 5-year-old son, Langston. He wants Langston to understand that the history and legacies of the food is as important as learning about the American civil rights movement, African American pioneers, and more.

"I like to talk to him about our contributions as a culture and how the many culinarians, farmers, agriculturists, and scientists were able to take products and create better growing conditions and nutrient-rich dishes," explains Williams.

He emphasizes that learning about African-American heritage cuisine should start at home. With so many influencers in the food space, there is a tendency to overlook parents, grandparents, and other elders, who hold a wealth of knowledge from a perspective one cannot learn in a book or class.

"In most homes, [children] have access to a historical database of oral history that relates to how people fed themselves, how they sustained themselves, and how they were affected in their communities when there was plenty and when there wasn't much," Williams continues. "Having trivial knowledge about Black culinary history is fine, but what my family taught me were survival skills."

They also left him a significant number of recipes, which gives him a sense of nostalgia and help him to sustain his restaurants.

"I earn a living sharing [my grandmother's] cornbread with people for a fee," says Williams. "I think it's pretty amazing that in our culture, our families have left such treasures that allow us to navigate the challenges of life."

Reclaiming Soul Food

It's a tradition that the award-winning author Adrian Miller—aka. The Soul Food Scholar—is 100% behind. "Recipes are a great entry point for educating kids," he says. "Much like food itself, these recipes tell a story. This is another teaching point about slavery and how plantation owners purposely kept enslaved Black people illiterate, and that was a way to keep them from resisting."

Miller believes that African American heritage cuisine, which is mostly comprised of soul food, gets a bad rap. He wants Black people to reclaim it, and not be ashamed of its "slave" origins.

"When you look at magazines, books, television shows, movies, and things about Black history, often it's food that is always left out," he says. "I think it's because there's a stigma that's been placed on our food culture because of the associations with slavery. It's important to learn about this food, Black cooks, chefs, and all of the creative people in this food space because they have helped shape American cuisine and American history."

He's worked especially hard to tell these stories through his three books, most recently publishing Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time (2013).

Through his books, Miller examines the complexity of the cuisine and how it's an "interesting fusion of West Africa, Europe, and the Americas." He adds, "It's a melding of the culinary traditions, the ingredients, all of that coming together."

He also pays tribute to the 150 African American men and women who have nourished the country's First Families, from President Washington to President Biden. These are important public figures, he says, who parents can learn about with their children. That includes Hercules, the enslaved chef for George Washington; James Hemings, the enslaved chef for Thomas Jefferson; and Zephyr Wright, who cooked for Lyndon B. Johnson. Miller says Johnson used her Jim Crow experiences to lobby for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But the best way for children to truly understand the cuisine is to have an interactive experience, Miller maintains. He recommends introducing them, through cooking, to the various ingredients that make up African American food traditions.

"Tell them about the foods that came from West Africa to the United States, such as okra, black-eyed peas, watermelon, sesame seeds, rice," he says.. "That's the starting point."

Embracing the Foods of the African Diaspora

During her on-site and virtual "I Need Love" cooking classes, Maya-Camille Broussard makes a point to teach children about the origins of various foods and dishes. Justice of the Pies, Brossard's pastry-centered company has a mission to nourish underserved and food-insecure communities.

She says her students appreciate learning new words and techniques during her classes that feature sweet and savory dishes. She also teaches them Black-centric recipes.

"When we make sweet potato pie or anything that's sweet potato-related, I talk about the importance of sweet potatoes in our culture," says Broussard, who stars on the hit Netflix Bake Squad series. "I also talk about the relationship of ingredients within the African diaspora," which includes plantains, yams, and how rice connects West Africa to Gullah-Geechee and Creole cultures.

Parents, she says, can take an active role in teaching their children about foods of the African diaspora simply by dining out. "I advise them to step outside their comfort zones to explore other Black cultures," says the Chicago-born chef. "Try Ethiopian food and talk about the benefits of eating with your hands. Google and find out why in many African countries it is considered beneficial to eat with your hands to improve your gut and increase your body's immunity."

African chefs are also sharing their stories, such as Eric Adjepong, a first-generation Ghanaian-American from New York. He is most notably remembered for putting traditional Ghanaian fare front and center as a finalist on Top Chef in season 16. That was in 2019, and since then, Adjepong has used his immense platform to keep West African cuisine in the spotlight.

Adjepong operates Pinch & Plate, a full-service dinner party and event company with his wife, Janell. He serves as host on the Food Network series, Alex vs. America, in which culinary professionals from various backgrounds dare to compete against Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. And this fall, he is set to release two books.

Sankofa will be Adjepong's first cookbook, a collaboration with food writer and A Hungry Society creator Korsha Wilson. It connects food from West Africa to the American South, Caribbean, and South America. The yet-unnamed second book is for children, featuring two kid-friendly recipes, and is loosely based on his childhood growing up in New York in a traditional West African home.

It is dedicated to his 3-year-old daughter, Lennox, who he says eagerly soaks up information about her heritage cuisine.

"She's just very hands-on in the kitchen," says Adjepong. "She has her own little step stool, and she always wants to be in the kitchen. She's asking questions and she has a little apron."

Though he does his best to pass on the history of his native food to his daughter, Adjepong says it's a "travesty" that it is still relatively unknown.

"We really need to have our educational institutions, culinary schools, and those who are leaders in the industry speak more about these ingredients [originating from West Africa] and dishes that have strong roots," he says. "We talk about gumbo, we talk about shrimp and grits, but we don't talk about where they come from."

Teaching Culinary History Through "Black Food Fridays"

That's where former educator KJ Kearney hopes to fill a void. His 60-second Black Food Facts and Black Food Fridays episodes garner thousands of views on Instagram and TikTok, educating viewers on all things Black culinary-related. From the origins of the ice cream scoop (Alfred L. Cralle, 1897) to where to support Black-owned restaurants all over the country, his engaging content attracts a diverse audience.

Kearney offers tips on how parents can get their children excited about Black culinary history: "The quickest tip is how can you make this fun?" asks the Charleston, South Carolina native, who boasts more than 130,000 followers on TikTok and 45,000 on Instagram. "You first must have a good relationship with your child, so you know what their idea of fun is… tailor this lesson so that it's fun for them."

Another idea, he says, is to participate in Black Food Fridays by actively supporting Black-owned restaurants and food-related businesses.

"If you're blessed to have restaurants in your area ran by Black people, then make it a point that after school on Fridays, you're going to go to that Black-owned ice cream shop or that Black pizza place or burger joint or soul food restaurant or even a Black-owned sushi restaurant," says Kearney. "Make it a big deal, so that on Fridays your kids look forward to the occasion. Then they'll start telling their classmates."

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