Bryant Terry is Chef in Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora and his cook book Afro-Vegan connects food to health, identity and civic responsibility.
More than anyone else, people of African descent should honor, cultivate, and consume food from the African diaspora. Afro-diasporic foodways (that is, the shape and development of food traditions) carry our history, memories, and stories. They connect us to our ancestors and bring the past into the present day. They also have the potential to save our lives. As Afro-diasporic people have strayed from our traditional foods and adopted a Western diet, our health has suffered. . . In the United States, where I live and work, African-Americans suffer from some of the highest rates of preventable, diet-related illnesses, such as heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. (2)
One way to have a bowl containing all of Bryant’s thoughts on the African Diaspora is to cook and eat a particular dish of his, such as Creamy Coconut-Cashew Soup With Okra, Corn, And Tomatoes.
Inspired by vatapá , a Brazilian dish popular in Bahia, this soup is rich and creamy thanks to the cashews, peanuts, peanut oil, and coconut milk. I add the classic Southern combination of okra, corn, and tomatoes to make this a wonderful summer dish. (48)
Bahian cuisine exists because of African traditions forcibly brought across the Atlantic beginning in the early 17th century. About forty-four percent of the total Brazilian population is of African descent, with approximately seventy-five percent of Bahia’s two and a half million people of African descent. Vatapá is one of the many Bahian dishes related to West African food traditions. Vatapá means gathering flour, coconut milk, peanuts, fish and shrimp and cooking all in palm oil.
Vatapá matches with Maafe served in Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Ivory Coast which is a groundnut based stew, which at its core is a sauce based on groundnuts, and may include, beef, chicken or fish. Maafe may be served with white rice , couscous sweet potatoes. Ground-nuts or Vigna subterranea is a member of the family Fabaceae, which originated in West Africa.
And now how all this mixing came to be. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade when focusing on Senegambia, Sierra Leone and the Windward Coast accounted for approximately 1,481,153 enslaved people who were forced to embark and 1,237,164 who survived the voyage and arrived in what is today Bahia. 210,476 slaves were brought to the Carolinas and Georgia from the countries above and Benin and the Gold Coast. Here are a few narratives of this experience and its ongoing injustices from Ouladah Equiano, Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, all Tempe Herndon Durham–all found at the Museum of the African Diaspora.
The first objects which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast were the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and awaiting its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. As well as the multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow. No, I no longer doubted my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.
When the cargo was landed, an English merchant having a quantity of coffee for shipment to New York, my master was engaged for the purpose, and it was arranged, after some time that I should accompany him, together with several others to serve on ship board…. We all had learned, that at New York there was no slavery; that it was a free country and that if we once got there we had nothing to dread from our cruel slave masters, and we were all most anxious to get there. … The first words of English that my two companions and myself ever learned was f-r-e-e; we were taught it by an Englishman on board, and oh! how many times did I repeat it, over and over again. …I was overjoyed at the idea of going to a free country, and a ray of hope dawned upon me, that the day was not far distant when I should be a free man. Indeed I felt myself already free!
I was glad when the war was stopped. … Cause then me an’ Exter could be together all the time, ‘stead of just Saturday and Sunday. After we was free, Exter an’ me lived on Master George’s plantation…for a long time. We rented land there for a fourth of what we made. Then, after a while we bought us a farm for three hundred dollars. Mistress Betsy went right up in the attic an’ give us enough goose feathers to make two pillows. Then she give us a table an’ some chairs… some dishes too. Master give Exter a bushel of seed corn, some seed wheat, an’ a bag of cotton seed. Then we hitched up the wagon, throwed in our passel of children, an’ moved to our new farm.
Let’s cook history, let’s reclaim the rightful cooks and their history through Bryant Terry’s recipe.
The morning of the meal I set corn cobs into water with salt and simmer away for a few hours.
Coarsely dice onion and sauté in coconut oil.
Puree sun-dried tomatoes, cashews and peanuts to a paste, then add to the onions.
Add paste and onions to corn stock and let simmer for a half hour.
Blanch okra in rapidly boiling water then set aside and let cool.
Cover in olive oil and salt then broil until browned and breaking apart.
Soup is served in a bowl, okra placed on top for hungry college students.
See hungry college students smile. As we eat we discuss all of the above, emphasizing that if you know where your food has come from and the culinary traditions involved, there are many stories in a bowl. Bon Appétit!