Chalk and Cheese: An Exploration of Folklore and Food: Traditional African Dishes, American Staples

Food is a big part of cultural experience. As we take a moment to reflect on and celebrate the many ways that African Americans have contributed to the overall gestalt of American culture and history, it seems that a column such as this one (which focuses on the intersection of food and folklore) might dip into the deep reservoir of African foodways that have so deliciously been incorporated into the American palate.

Some of these may be surprising revelations for readers who haven’t investigated the origins of different aspects of American cuisine. Understanding which agricultural products were brought from which continent — and how — can be eye-opening. 

Since most of the foods discussed below were brought to North America by enslaved Africans (or by their enslavers, who exploited every possible resource of the lands they pillaged), I think we have to take a moment to reflect on the impact of the past atrocities and on-going struggles experienced by Black Americans, as well as the very real, vital, significant, integrated, and unassailable ways that African American culture IS American culture. 

Part of those truths are revealed and honored in the story of food. 

In fact, Indigenous foodways and the culinary staples of enslaved people in the Deep South are so “baked in” to the American experience, that most Americans have never reflected on the origins of these foods or techniques in the same way they do for hamburgers, pizza, or tacos. Foods like fried chicken, barbecue, cornbread, sweet potatoes, one-pot rice dishes, greens prepared in pig fat, fried okra, and even Coca-Cola top the list of foods so inherently American that many people never think of them in regional or racial terms. But all of these Sunday supper staples were developed based on the culinary traditions of enslaved folks in the American South who brought agricultural items like yams, rice, okra, and kola nuts with them and adapted their traditional dishes based on what they had access — like cornmeal, vinegar, peppers, and other seasonings.

All of these foods have some folklore and folk magick around them, as well. So let’s explore some of that together, shall we?

Sylvia Lovegren, in her American Heritage article on the topic, says that “[Barbecue is] the most purely American food — and that’s maybe the only thing about it that everyone can agree on.”  The folklore and magick around this live-fire cuisine have more to do with the “real” way of preparing and enjoying it, and with the legendary “pit masters” who bring it to us, than it does with practical magick. Of course, we can’t agree on what real barbecue is because it is an American fusion food with wide regional differences. We just know we love it, and we recognize the powerful magick of what we find to be the real deal.

Cornbread is another place where Indigenous foodways fused with African customs and became an American food staple. My family has been in the Ozarks for several generations, and one of my Nannies (ie, Grannies) made at least one skillet of cornbread every single day. Cornbread was always going to be part of the midday meal in her house, after all. In African American folklore, we find several figures who are named “Cornbread,” and it’s a more common nickname among real-life people than you might realize. Ozark folklore around cornbread tends to revolve around beauty and fidelity, as Cory Hutcheson points out in a New World Witchery blog entry on the topic of bread.

Okra is a native African food crop that was brought to North American as a direct result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Folklore says that captive African women hid the seeds in their hair to later plant them in the West Indies and the American South. Magick with okra tends to focus on its mucilaginous (or “slippery”) quality. Its seeds and gel are used in spells and washes to cause negativity and harm to “slide” off or out of a target. 

Yams and sweet potatoes are not actually the same tuber, although they likely became conflated as such due to enslaved Africans adopting the sweet potato as a close substitute for their familiar and beloved yams. The sweet potato (which bears the folk name of “yam” in the U.S.) is said to have the magickal properties of friendship, harmony, nurturing, grounding, and sensuality — according to Aurora Moone, a contributor at Plentiful Earth.

Rice is now a worldwide staple, but it was brought to the Americas primarily as part of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The first recorded import of the staple grain was documented in 1685 when a slave ship from Madagascar docked in Charleston, South Carolina. Within 40 years, rice would become the most valuable export of that colony. One of the more well-known uses of rice in American magick comes from Hoodoo practice. Green Money Rice is considered both luck- and money-bringing — though it is prepared for wearing, carrying, sprinkling, and storing rather than for eating. 

Leafy greens are part of the cuisine of every culture, and boiled greens are common worldwide. But as Vanessa Hayford points out in her article about the origins of “soul food” on the Black Foodie website, the African continent is unparalleled in its offering and consumption of leafy greens. The American preparation of collard and mustard greens  bears a striking resemblance to dishes from Ghana, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. The folkloric and folk magickal association of greens with both prosperity and tranquility make them part of the traditional New Year’s meal (along with black-eyed peas) for many Americans.

Black Eyed Peas are North African in origin and came to the Americas as part of the slave trade. The magick and folklore associated with them is intimately linked with the lore of the “Evil Eye” which is present in North African, Near Easters, and Mediterranean cultures. That lore seems to universally state that eye-shaped talismans are the best averters of the Evil Eye, and so these brown legumes with a darkened oval mark on one side are edible talismans for warding off bad luck. 

Finally, the kola nut (another African staple) was chewed by enslaved peoples for its energy-giving caffeine — and later incorporated into the beverage that is probably the most universal food symbol of American culture. Coca-Cola originally contained both kola nut and a coca leaf extract that contained cocaine. (Talk about a picker-upper!) “One will find the kola nut in everything that has a social or spiritual significance in Africa,” explained Dogon High Priest Master Naba Lamoussa Morodenibig in an article at The Earth Center, an organization that promotes and preserves Kem culture.  Kola nut is used in American folk magic to bring clarity, vigor, and focus.

Okay, my friends, having worked up a powerful hunger writing this article, I’m now off to enjoy a dinner of barbecue pork ribs, cornbread, greens, and sweet potatoes! 

Black Foodie blog — “The Humble History of the Soul Food” —

Yes! Magazine — “How Black Culinary Historians are Re-Writing the History of American Cuisine” —

Hunger + Health blog — “Contributions from Black Americans to America’s Food Culture” —

American Heritage Magazine — “Barbecue” —

New World Witchery blog — “Bread” —

The Highlands Current — “The Things About Okra” —

Witchipedia — Okra —

Plentiful Earth — Magickal Correspondences of Sweet Potatoes —

Voodoo Universe blog by Lilith Dorsey — “How to Make Hoodoo Money Rice” —

Alchemy Works — Kola Nut info —

The Earth Center — “The Might Kola Nut” —

[Laurelei Black is an American folkloric Witch, Aphrodite woman, and author.] 

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