The African and African American Influence on American Seafood
By: Michael Twitty, culinary historian and author of, The Cooking Gene
The American relationship with shellfish would not be the same without the African and African American presence. How the enslaved and free people of color survived their oppression was their greatest form of cultural and culinary capital—and their way with shellfish was one of the brilliant highlights of their contributions to the American table. It never fails to shock my readers and listeners when I regale them with tales of lobsters being used to feed the enslaved in the early Northeast and mid-Atlantic in a time when the king of crustaceans was not a prestige food. Equally strange is the way that people assume their minute cousins, the red swamp crawfish was somehow discovered by the Acadians when Africans had been in the bayou with the indigenous people, the Choctaw and Chitimacha, long before their arrival, pairing the mudbugs with the hot peppers and rice, which were emblematic of their West African homelands. Yet before they even arrived, lobsters, crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans, mollusks, and other fruits of the sea were an ancient part of the coastal African diet.
Before we come back to the eastern seaboard, and Gulf Coast of the U.S. let me take you to the Kermel market of Dakar, Senegal. Its surrounded by cats ready for tidbits of meat or a bit of fish ready to fall. The market stalls where the Atlantic gives up its best have marble tops cooled with bags of ice. This is tropical Africa, and the ice is more expensive then some of the catch. Flapping in trays of water are brick red slipper lobsters and nearby, speckled spiny lobsters both relished for their sweet flesh that will absorb the little sharp tomatoes, ginger, garlic, habaneros, and sea salt that form the staples of the stews and braises and rice dishes for which Senegal is known.
There are freshwater shrimp with claws almost like crawfish that come from the river (Africa doesn’t have any indigenous crawfish,) and there are big blue and brown polka-dotted crabs that the grandmothers who come to shop here pick up fearlessly. Go a little further south to Sierra Leone, and the shellfish end up in spicy okra stews that are the ancestors of Southern gumbo. Scoot down the coast to Ghana and the tasty little lobsters plucked off the coast where some of my Ancestors were taken away to Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, are split, quickly roasted or boiled and devoured with raw shitor, the Ghanaian answer to a hot sauce or chow chow freshly ground by wooden pestle in a traditional bowl called an asanka. Down along the coast of Benin, they esteem gambas, gigantic African shrimp whose tail spans the length of a dinner plate.
Centuries of knowledge and shellfish literacy came with our Ancestors to early America, and it manifested in everything from the way they cast their nets to the baskets and weirs they caught their catch, to the dishes they developed over millennia. Mounds of shells and scales hardened preserved in ancient middens have been found by archaeologists along the Ghanaian coast. In the shadow of exile and trauma, this long term relationship with these creatures would provide some sense of connection and comfort, reminding the Ancestors of their ancient homelands and the foods that not only gave satisfaction but reminded them of proverbs, stories, sayings and symbols of their time-honored spiritualities, wisdom traditions, and oratory. For example, the lobster or crab claw was depicted in Akan gold weights from Ghana to communicate power in verbal conflict or the proverb that says, “A crab does not beget a bird,” which means children are not copies of their parents. The crab or lobster is carved into the Ifa divination board to represent the gift of being able to move between worlds, water, and earth, thereby demonstrating for us our potential to transcend realms.
It is no accident that the early centers of culinary excellence in the American South-Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans- were ports of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade-in which fish, oysters, clams, shrimp, crabs, and the like were prepared by cooks born into centuries of nations who knew just what to do with them. The waterways from which they were taken were not merely a source of food, but sources of a wider world where freedom could be attained in many ways but at a cost. It was the men and women who caught their catch and plied those waters which gave themselves and those who were able and brave enough to make their way out of bondage. Others would use their culinary brilliance to seek their liberation and bought their freedom; still, others courageously escaped to the North and used their skills to open catering businesses that featured their gifts with seafood, and other chefs ran oyster and seafood houses that gave them celebrity status like Virginia-born restauranteur Thomas Downing of New York City.
And still, that dark time in our history doesn’t define this love affair in the cultures of the African Atlantic. From the century and a half following the Civil War to Civil Rights gently spiced lobster chowders in the North to roast oysters in Philadelphia to Maryland crab gumbo to fried oysters in Virginia to shrimp and grits in South Carolina to pickled shrimp and crawfish etouffee to jambalaya in Louisiana, a shellfish archipelago was shaped by the gifted hands of Black cooks. These gourmets brought the trinity of peppers, tomatoes, and onions to their seafood cookery and the touches of curry, cayenne, and garlic to stocks and creamy sauces. Now, their descendants have evolved these flavors into everything from crab fried rice to Jamaican style brown stew lobster or barbecued scallops. The rich palette that seafood provides is ample for the culinary jazz that African American, Afro-Caribbean, Haitian, and Afro-Latin foodways provide with blessings of improvisation, creative fire, and wisdom with spices and flavor combinations that bring incredible variety and spirit to the plates we enjoy today.
To purchase Michael's book, The Cooking Gene, click here.