Sunday, March 01, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Celebrating Black History Month - African Contributions to American Cuisine

February is Black History Month. Last year, to celebrate, I introduced myself to blogger Courtney Nzeribe from Coco Cooks and interviewed her about her cultural identity, her cooking style and her favorite childhood foods. This year, I chatted a bit with my buddy Donald Orphanidys from Mr. Orph's Kitchen on how being black has influenced his culinary identity (not much), where he learned to love food (his Grandma's house), and how food in Philly differs from food in the South (wildly). His experience growing up on "helpers" (of the hamburger and tuna varieties) and gub'ment cheese are familiar to me, as are the Southern inflections to his cooking that stem from his time spent stationed (and later living) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Like me, Don finds inspiration in many places, and this year, to reflect on the contributions black people have made to American culture, I was inspired to create a celebratory meal, with a soundtrack. And I'm so pleased that our friends at Foodbuzz wanted to support my celebration by accepting my proposal for their February 24, 24, 24 event.

As they have with music, black people have informed the American culinary vernacular by bringing elements and ingredients from their homeland in Africa to the genesis of their tumultuous history in North America. Many ingredients heavily associated with the South - black-eyed peas, watermelon, greens, sweet potatoes, okra and peanuts - were brought directly to the US by slaves. As a German-American, my perspective on African-American culture and cuisine is based almost solely on the experiences of other people, and over the past few months I’ve begun to explore the African roots of some of my favorite foods. I wanted to share my newly-gained insights with some old friends. The menu I created is an attempt at honoring these contributions:

Green Tomato and Watermelon Pickles
Black-eyed Pea and Corn Fritters with Sweet Pepper Chutney
Duck and Shrimp Gumbo “Ya-Ya” with Okra
“Smothered” Pork Chops with Caramelized Onions and Tomato Gravy
Swiss Chard with Braised Pork Hock
Spicy Sweet Potato Fries
Hominy Grits Pudding with Bananas Foster and Peanut Praline

The pickles were fast fridge pickles, in a sharp brine of white and sherry vinegars, shallot, salt and sugar. The watermelon rinds took sweet spices like star anise and fennel seed, while the tomatoes got a little hot chili and coriander. Both were bright and acidic, cutting through the rich, fatty meal and cleansing the palate. Mike (writer and occasional artist of film review blog and occasional webcomic Culture Pulp) kept grazing on them after the meal, plucking juicy spears from the chilly jars, happily crunching and regaling us with stories of Ravioli Day.

The fritters, based on the west African succotash adalu, were simple and delicious: black-eyed peas (also called cowpeas), corn, a couple eggs, S&P and a pinch of sugar, and a dusting of flour to stick the batter together. Fried in a little oil until browned, they were perfect with the sweet pepper chutney (minced yellow and red bell peppers and a cayenne chili slow-sautéed with onions and a pinch of my seven spice, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a little salt and sugar). The Swiss chard was braised in a splash of red onion vinegar (homemade from red onion pickle) with a pork hock, cooked until the greens were tender.

The gumbo is worth a post on its own. Being roux-based, mine is Cajun. I made a roux from duck fat and flour, cooked for two hours until rich caramel-brown and fragrant. I scored the skins on four duck legs and pan-fried skin-side down until the fat was rendered out, then flipped them and roasted them in the oven until tender. Meanwhile, I removed the heads and shells from two pounds of spot prawns and got some stock started. When the duck legs were done, I pulled out the bones, cracked them up and tossed them into the pot of vermilion stock. The next day, I started the gumbo by sautéing the Holy Trinity until glossy, then adding bay leaves, the roux and the stock (stirring to dissolve the roux), a can of chopped tomatoes, lots of chopped garlic and thyme, cayenne and S&P. I tossed in the shredded duck meat and let the whole thing cook low and slow for a couple hours until the duck was nowt but tender, filamentous hunks. When we were all ready to eat, I added the prawns and okra to cook for five minutes. Technically, gumbo yaya doesn't have okra, but I like okra and wanted to enrich the dish with an egg. I poached the eggs in the hot gumbo broth until the whites were set. David (the mastermind behind BadAzz MoFo and writer/director of such cinematic classics as Black Santa's Revenge) was reluctant to try the gumbo - being unfamiliar with some Southern ingredients, he mistook the okra for jalapeños and was getting heartburn just looking at it. It didn't take much convincing to get him to taste it once the confusion had been cleared.

The pork chops (from our quarter hog) were slow-braised in chicken stock amended with crushed tomatoes, caramelized onions and ginger, with a few shots of Maggi sauce and a few spoonfuls of my homemade Berbere spice mix. They braised for about three hours until the meat was falling from the bone.

Awhile back I made the dish kelewele, a spicy fried plantain from Ghana. This time I adapted it to a sweet potato fry, and it definitely translated well. Chopped ginger and Berbere spice, salt and pepper and a massage in some oil, then into the oven until crisped on the edges. This afforded me time to bake some cornbread (baked in cast iron, greased in bacon fat). Tanya (my beautiful, pregnant Scandinavian princess from Madison, WI and the joyful wellness diva behind Recess and frequent diner at Casa de Voodoo and Sauce) had a southern grandpa and was eager to expose her spawn to some of his/her culinary roots. I was happy to oblige.

The dessert was a new creation, fudged on the fly. My friend Eric (a doughy Jewish kid from Maryland) told me about grits pudding he'd had once, and I wanted to figure out what that should taste like, and how to make it. I started by making basic grits, whisking stone-ground cornmeal into simmering cream (to which I'd added sugar and homemade bourbon vanilla). When it had set up moderately well, I added two whisked eggs (tempered to avoid an omelet) and spooned it into a buttered souffle dish. I baked this for awhile, covered, at 350, until the edges were set up and slightly browned. I spooned it into little serving dishes and topped it with sliced bananas (browned in a hot pan with butter and brown sugar, flambeed with bourbon), vanilla whipped cream and some crushed peanut praline. I guess it worked pretty well, but next time I'll add more eggs to and bake it in a shallower pan to get more of a spoonbread consistency.

I'm having a hard time concluding this post. I've been away awhile on a conference and a broken toe, and two days of cooking is exhausting. So I hope you enjoy this special food-based mixtape I made for you in lieu of a proper closer. It consists of R&B and jazz greats of the 1940s and 50s, and like with food, proves that pretty much everything good about America is because of black people.


Abigail (aka Mamatouille) said...

I love me some watermelon rind pickles, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. My grandma makes her cornbread in cast iron, too. This whole meal is absolutely gorgeous and wish I could've been there to taste all of it.

Heather said...

wow! that all sounds so good. i am most intrigued by the watermelon pickles, though - i want to try them right now!!

khemasanine said...

Oh good you're back. :) and with a wonderful menu to boot. Thanks for the soundtrack- the gumbo sounds mmmmmmmmlicious.

Marc @ NoRecipes said...

Nice job Heather! I still remember the photos and description of your last 24 dinner and this one will be lingering in my mind for many months to come.

Great picks on the mix by the way!

What happened to your toe?

maggie said...

Grits pudding? Where have you been all my life?

Peter G said...

When you come back you come back with a vengeance Heather. Absolutely amazing! The menu flows like a perfect symphony...(oh! how I wish to try your cooking for real one day!). Sorry to hear about your toe.

Michael said...

oh, great! Now Lori wants to move in with you. Need a tiny Hispanic?

mofoman68 said...

This was one of the best meals I've had in many, many, MANY years. The first time you eat at someone's house, there's always a certain trepidation (at least on my part). What if the food is terrible? How do you politely choke down a meal that tastes like you're licking the floor of a parking garage in downtown Newark?
Well, all I can say is that the food was incredible, as was the company. Thanks so much for having me over.

Brittany said...

I've been thinking about that grits pudding all week. It sounds amazing. I think I would be down with the firmer texture, but then you say spoonbread and I'm all a flutter.

Fucking beautiful food.

MrOrph said...

Wow! Great food Heather. And thanks for the shoutout.

I have to try that grits pudding and duck gumbo.

Great tracks on the mix as well. I especially like Wille Egins - Chitlins. :-)

Foodycat said...

You really don't want anyone to go hungry at your table, do you? What a feast! I would be happy just with some pork chops and a bit of the pudding.

Peter M said...

A very cool and hip theme for your "24" dinnah.

The tunes crankin' during the meal must have been grooovie!

Judy@nofearentertaining said...

What a great 24, 24, 24! I love how you have tied everything in together, kept it Southern but put your own spin on the ingredients!

Núria said...

A wonderful job Heather! So colourful and a symphony of flavours!!! Congrats on being one of the 24 :D.

Hope your toe gets better darling.

peter said...

Entertain the people, young'un.

Heather said...

Abigail - You should make a Southern meal for your Japanese friends. I bed they'd love it (especially corn-pan).

Heather - They're worth buying an off-season watermelon, but they're probably better in the summer.

Khemasanine - It's good to be missed! Glad you liked the tunes.

Marc - You're the poster child for 24 events, so that means a lot. :) (My toe is broken. :\ )

Maggie - It is definitely worth experimenting with.

Petah - I wish you could, too!

Michael - She's not just tiny, she's angry. My kind of girl.

Dave - It's so nice to feed people with low expectations. It was great hanging out with you. :)

Brittany - Spoonbread! I keep getting stupid Soundgarden songs in my head when I say it.

Don - It's funny how many songs are about food. And you have a great blog, well-deserving of the out-shouting.

Alicia - I tend to go a bit overboard, for sure. Next time I need to invite more people, I guess.

El Greco - I wanted to do something different than a Valentine's Day dinner. I'm really glad mine was accepted. :)

Judy - Thanks, Judy! I wanted to really showcase the ingredients and not muddy any of it up. I hope I accomplished that.

Núria - Gracias! I hope you enjoyed the music, too. :) My toes is getting better all the time.

Jube - Help yourself.

toni said...

Heather, I want to move in with you! First of all, I love the way you think. And secondly - and a very close second - I love the way you cook!!!! I'll help chop and clean up - K? ;-)

LC said...

And to think I was worried about you...when I should have known all along you were just in a food frenzy. It all looks delish! Gumbo is one of my faves; made three batches this winter and I'm still hungering for some more. Net time: Duck fat in the roux!

glamah16 said...

Excellent dinner you yopubput on. I love exploring the hisrtory of food and what Arica contributed. I love all of your interpertations. I want all the pickle recipes.

Anonymous said...


EVERYTHING looks amazing. The grits pudding! Pea and corn fritters!! You did it up. Great 24 post.

Brooke said...


That sounded good when you were 'splaining it last weekend, but it looks fucking amazing in color. I need that gumbo in my belly now. And the grits pudding. Oh, the grits pudding. Such a cool idea. Next time I'm invited to dinner, right?

we are never full said...

i'm fucking dying over that clip of black santa's revenge. why is this not the biggest cult classic of the last decade? awesome. you know some really interesting people. please invite me to one of your dinner parties stat. you'd be so bored at one of mine.

i do want to commend you on an excellent post and excellent theme for 24,24,24. this one took thought and i love it. the meal looks great and i really appreciate that you did an event that is topical and celebrates a culture very different from yours. that's why we love this blog!d

Anonymous said...

You're way too awesome heather. You kick ass! There's no better way to celebrate black history month than with great food and great tracks. Love that bacon fat!

Elra said...

Heather dear, that watermelon pickle sounds really good. Amazing history, and great food for the celebration.

Heather said...

Toni - Well I love the way you bolster my self esteem! :D (thanks)

Lang - Aw, you were worried about me! I've just discovered the joy of homemade gumbo. Usually I stick to jambalaya.

Courtney - There'll be more come summer. These recipes need a little tweaking.

Chrystal - I want to try the pepper chutney on a burger.

Brookie! - You and Brittany need to just come down and let me cook for you. Soon.

Amy - I do have pretty interesting friends (I consider you among them). :)

M. Zen - I love the way Andre Williams says "mercy". Muh-SAY, young'un!

Elra - Next time I'll sweeten it just a bit more. And include more of the red fruity part. :)

Bellini Valli said...

This is an amazing feats for the eyes and all our other senses Heather. What a terrific tribute!!

Emily said...

Great post.

I've just been chillin, listening to your playlist. That took a lot of work! I like all the songs. Lots of songs about pork, which we know are the best songs of all time.