Cara Reedy is an Executive Assistant at CNN. She previously wrote for Eatocracy on being a small cook in a big kitchen.
I grew up in St. Louis, MO which is considered the Midwest, but has some clear southern leanings. Barbecue and fried chicken were always around. One of my favorite meals as a child was a one-pot meal consisting of potatoes, green beans, carrots and cabbage boiled with a ham hock. My parents served it with a fresh batch of corn bread to soak up the juices - often called pot liquor or potlikker.
I never really thought anything about this meal other than I liked it. When you're a kid, you generally don't analyze your food that deeply. It’s either like or can’t stand. Flash forward to adulthood, when I started doing some personal research on the African American slave diet. I suddenly realized that what my parents were serving was the original soul food.
This wasn't our diet when our people first arrived in this country. We were Africans and like most immigrants we had to adapt our palates to what was available, it didn’t change automatically. Our diet was mostly plant-based with meat appearing in dishes as a seasoning not the main course. Slaves were only given meat scraps that their owners didn’t want, like ham hocks and neck bones.
In most cases they were also allowed to have small gardens where they grew high yield, low effort crops like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, cabbages, greens, peanuts and corn - which they ground up into meal for corn bread and jonnycakes. Slaves were actually, by most accounts, very healthy people; they had to be in order to work twelve hours in the field.
This may not seem like a groundbreaking research to most people, but it is an interesting piece of my ancestry that was staring me in the face my whole life. African Americans, myself included, struggle with the loss of chunks of our history to slavery. It was eye-opening to realize that the meal my parents prepared at least once a month is a direct connection to ancestors whose stories I will never know.
Got a story about your family's culinary roots? She it in the comments below.
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