Most of us are probably familiar with the story of the Pilgrims who sat down for a meal with the Wampanoag tribe; however, there are essentially two historical attributes for this Thanksgiving holiday. For Black folks, these origin stories both revolve around wars and the church.
After the turning point for the Americans at Saratoga during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued a decree to the 13 colonies, urging them to “give thanks” and enslaved Black people were also invited to join in on the celebrations.
According to the African American Registry, “Thanksgiving expression for the American Black community began as a church-based celebration. Black pastors often gave sermons that could be heard loud and clear through the many small Black churches. The sermons would be about struggles, hopes, fears, and triumphs. The sermons usually grieved the institution of slavery; the suffering of the Black people; and often pleaded for that an awakening of a slave-free America would someday come soon.”
Nowadays, for our culture, Thanksgiving has morphed into the ultimate “Black folks’ cookout (minus the mosquitos).” Dating back to the days of slavery, soul food has a special connection to Black history and our struggles, and it has been an integral part of Black culture from our earliest days in the Americas. Indeed, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” Adrian Miller, says that “holiday food is inextricable from soul food.”
This year, in honor of the highly anticipated Thanksgiving meal, ESSENCE is delving into the history behind Black Thanksgiving staple dishes.
Mac and Cheese
Born in 1765 in Virginia, James Hemings became a slave to Thomas Jefferson at the tender age of 8 at the Monticello plantation. When he was 19, Jefferson took “Hemings with him to France to train in the art of French cooking.” Hemings is credited with bringing the dish to America, initially called macaroni pie, when he used a milk and boiling water mixture, placing “sharp American cheese in between layers of butter and milk-coated macaroni. Then baked in a Dutch oven over an open-hearth fireplace stove with hot coals placed on the pot’s lid to bake.”
Per the LATIBAH Collard Green Museum in Charlotte, N.C, “collard greens were just one of a few select vegetables that African-Americans were allowed to grow and harvest for themselves and their families throughout times of enslavement, and so over the years cooked greens developed into a traditional food…Even after the Africans were emancipated in the late 1800s, their love of greens continued and they kept handing down their well-developed repertoire of greens recipes from one generation to the next.”
Sweet potato pie
This dish is actually connected to the carrot pie desert from Great Britain. Sweet potato pie likely came into existence because of its longtime connection to African Americans. Before the surge of popularity with respect to pies, slaves “ate them roasted whole, as a pone and in puddings.”
Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie of Massachusetts’ Babson College is a professor of history and foodways, and posits, that “A lot of those things that were a part of our cuisine come out of survival techniques…During the week, enslaved people ate things like hoecakes, cornbread or ashcakes—when you take the cornmeal and combine it with water and you cook that actual cake over ashes,” and thus corn became a fundamental supplement to the diet of the enslaved.
The debate rages on whether it should be called dressing vs. stuffing. Whatever you want to call it now, back in the day when slaves were only given out basic ingredients meant for a base level of survival, rationed out at the discretion of their slaveholder owners, it used to be known as kush, which was a “cornbread scramble made from the basic elements of the ration system that spread from the enslaved person’s quarters outward to the Big House and the kitchens of whites high and low.”