Relationship to the Land
"We grew what we ate"
Rex Gorleigh, Planting, 1943
African Americans have a history of strong agricultural roots. "Their ancestors claimed, cleared, and worked the land in the beginning, turning a vast and inhospitable swamp into astonishing fertile land." Their strong connection to the land provided over time a deep respect placed on food within African American culture. Prior to enslavement, African Americans subsisted upon the land for thousands of years, and continued to uphold the tradition within the confides of slavery.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves dispersed in many directions, but their lives still revolved around the land. Some chose to stay where they were while others ventured their hand at sharecropping if they could find available land. African Americans used the land for self sufficiency, and it served as the primary resource for their lives.
In the South, the need for basic nutrition kept African Americans close to the land. But this relationship grew much closer through the process of cultivation. Through cultivating the land, African Americans felt their food through all the senses, and respected its humble origins back in West Africa. This agricultural lifestyle, cultivating foods such as corn, greens, okra and melons, unconsciously reinforced a traditional heritage, and centered life around the cultivation and preparation of food.
George Ackerman, Durham County, North Carolina, September 1933
Collard greens also signify another example of a food that has familial heritage. Traditionally prepared in in the basic "one pot" style, cooks boiled collard greens with a bit of ham hock or salt pork. But collard greens also have traditional value and wealth of folklore associated with them. Served with black-eyed peas and hog jowl on on New Year's Day, they promise a year of good luck. And leaving a leaf hanging over your door will ward off ward off evil spirits. They also promise to cure a head-ache if a fresh leaf is placed on the forehead. Thelonius Monk, the famed jazz musician, wore a collard leaf in his lapel when he played the New York City clubs. These two dishes exemplify the African Americans relationship between food, tradition, culture, and ultimately the land.
Walker Evans, Faulkner's Mississippi, 1948
|African Americans in the Delta invested their time and energy into the land and gardens. They planted, harvested, cooked, baked, canned and preserved. It was a cycle of utilization and renewal through which they gave and took from the earth, taking pride and satisfaction in their work. It is no surprise that food plays a central unifying role within African American families. This rich agricultural history has given deep significance to the food itself, its preparation, and the mealtime. For rural African Americans the dinner table is a time to appreciate what you have before you.|
The Loss of Land in the North
Those who chose to migrate north from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago abandoned their agricultural roots. In the crowded and bustling city, migrants found little time or space for farming. African-Americans in Chicago did not grow their own food, and as a result, certain aspects of their diets significantly changed. This transformation did not affect food preparation or the cultural elements within their foods, for this remains an intrinsic element of African-American culture.
A study undertaken in 1929, examined
the dietary habits of fifty African-American families in cooperation with the Welfare Society of Chicago. There
were two hundred and eleven individuals studied within the fifty families, ranging in economic status. The study
gave good insight into the differences in African-American diets after they migrated north to Chicago, as 89% of
the group had migrated from the South. Of the 89%.
The data of the study was collected from the mother's of each family, who were asked to give in detail each item and size proportion of food served to all family members during a period of twenty four hours. The collected information revealed that staple foods the families had eaten were fairly simple and similar to foods found in the Delta during the same time period. But it was clear from this study that there were a few specific foods that did change in African-American's diets following their migration to Chicago. The major difference was the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which do not even appear in the top 10 list.
Top 10 List: # of Times Appeared
1. Meats................................86 (54% salt pork)
2. White Bread..................... 50
5. White Potatoes.............. ...32
10. Bacon............................. 17
In the Mississippi Delta, where vegetables were plentiful in rural homes, the decrease in both vegetable and fruit consumption proved most outstanding. Collard greens, a traditional southern favorite appeared only once, while macaroni and cheese appeared five times. This was not to say that African Americans eliminated vegetables from their diets, but due to accessibility certain foods were not readily available. Tomatoes, onions, and carrots appeared 6, 7, and 8 times, but were more traditional vegetables than collard greens. Salt pork remained a strong similarity between the southern and northern diets. Of the fifty families, meat appeared 86 times, and salt pork constituted 54% of the meat served signifying continuity between the North and the South. Peaches, apricots, string beans and collard greens traditionally grown on the family farm seemed eliminated. As a result of this seemingly slight change in diet, the study revealed that only 17% of the 211 individuals studied had adequate food according to national health standards.
In the South Side, African Americans
did not have space to grow food. Lena Vaessar of Greenville, Mississippi, migrated to Chicago in 1941, stated that
there "wasn't usually space for the old gardens." When questioned about the difference in food between
the Delta and Chicago,Vaessar noticed that her "there was much more garlic in the country," and with
large grocery stores available she no longer lived on basic staple foods from the country store. She noted that
her essential foods in the South were cornmeal, lard, baking soda, rice, canned goods, canned salmon, and salt
pork, which she got once a month. Although Vaessar and many other migrants did not tend gardens in Chicago, they
continued to eat much as they had in the Delta. Many migrants continued their interest in the art of cooking by
"keeping up" with the Chicago Daily Defender which published "The Culinary Department."
This section provided many African American women with recipes and suggestions for the home, proving the continual
importance of food in family life after the transition to northern life.