While interest in plant-based eating has had a steep growth curve over the past several years, it is certainly not a new phenomenon. Veganism in the United States is often viewed as a lifestyle primarily accessible to affluent white people, but plant-based eating goes so much deeper than green juice and beautifully crafted avocado toasts.
Though veganism is not generally associated with Black Americans, we traditionally ate primarily plant-based diets. This type of eating was born out of necessity. Up until fairly recently, meat was an expensive luxury that was used in small quantities or for special occasions.
The African American story in the United States begins with slavery in the Deep South, where Black people subsisted on farming and rations that included produce, grains, and a small portion of undesirable cuts of meat. Working with traditional methods of frying, drying, pickling, and seasoning, Black Americans worked with what little they had to create a unique African American food culture.
After emancipation, these food traditions continued to blossom and evolve and eventually morphing into the soul food cuisine that populated the country during the Great Migration.
Many of the crops available in the South today are either approximations of or direct descendants of West African plants. Europeans brought crops to the New World, and African women even braided rice and seeds into their hair to preserve a little bit of home.
Sweet potatoes, greens, and groundnuts are three key non-native ingredients that have staple foods for centuries. While this piece centers on the history of Black folks in the American South, there are also incredible plant-based food traditions in the diaspora, including Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa itself.
Though Africans and African Americans lived all over the United States for centuries, the core of our cultural traditions originates in the Deep South: Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Some of the staple foods include rice, beans, okra, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and that ever-present stronghold: greens.
The wild greens of the South were bitter, abundant, and generally undesirable; this made them a great candidate to round out sparse diets. Black Americans slow-cooked bitter greens like collards, turnips, or mustards until they were soft and palatable. While many recipes include a bit of ham or other animal fat for flavor, these are easy to omit.
As many of us are eager to tackle the urgent problem of food waste, modern cooks can learn from the sustainability inherent in Black heritage cooking: instead of discarding the greens from your root vegetables, consider tossing them in a vinegary dressing or simmering them with vegetable broth, onion, garlic, and spices. My favorite simple way to cook greens is to sauté them in olive oil and finish with a bit of balsamic vinegar or hot sauce.
Acidity cuts through the bitterness of the greens and the sweetness of balsamic vinegar helps to balance the flavor. Peppery turnip and mustard greens and the more bitter collards and curly kale are the most typical varieties used in Black Southern cooking, but feel free to experiment with whatever varieties of wild greens are plentiful in your local market. The core of this practice is in using all the plants available to you.
Another amazing way to cut down on food waste is through pickling. For centuries, Black people have preserved both meats and vegetables using this time-honored method. It not only extends the life of produce, it also adds a kick of flavor to food that may otherwise be bland. You would be remiss to see a fish fry without a side of pickles. Although cucumbers are the vegetable (actually a fruit!) most often pickled in American cooking, other candidates include carrots, onions, and peppers.
Quick Spicy Pickle Recipe
This recipe is great to create an easy, flavorful condiment. Keeps refrigerated for 1-2 weeks. The most fun thing about pickles is that once you have your base of vinegar, water, and salt, you can season them however you like.
- Your choice of cucumber, carrot, red onion, mild peppers
- Red chili flakes or whole red peppers to taste
- 1tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 cup vinegar (distilled white vinegar and apple cider vinegar are both great choices).
- 1 cup water
- Chop or slice your vegetables into your desired size and shape. Tightly pack in mason jar, leaving room for brining liquid.
- You can pre-mix the water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and red chili in a small bowl, this allows you to adjust the ingredients to taste. I prefer to pour all ingredients directly into the jar and give it several good shakes. Ensure that the pickles are completely covered.
- Secure lid on your jar and refrigerate until ready to use.
When is the last time you truly savored a meal? In our fast-paced lives, we often lose sight of the small things that bring us joy. Food is not merely for sustenance, but also holds the potential for connection, contemplation, and contentment.
Rituals surrounding food give us the opportunity to slow down and can even be meditative. One such ritual is the Southern tradition of cooking black-eyed peas on New Years Day, dating back to the Civil War. Though a humble food once eaten primarily by slaves, their ability to sustain people through harsh winters has made black-eyed peas a symbol of good fortune and prosperity.
Cooking a pot of these hearty beans is a comforting winter meal and an opportunity to gather with friends and family and share intentions for the year ahead. There are many variations depending on the region and unique family traditions, but black-eyed peas are typically served with cornbread and greens.