Upon entering the APEX Museum in Atlanta, GA, visitors are exhorted to remember that African/Black American history does not begin with slavery or colonization: these were interruptions to our history. That particular notion should be intuitive enough that it ought not require a reminder or be explicitly said, but there exist enough Black people in America today that believe that their roots/ethnicity begin some place – any place – other than Africa that it would appear prudent to do so.
Dan Moore, founder and president of the museum, has done an incredible job bringing African/American history to life, telling the Black story in a way that offers dignity and above all – humanity – to our forebears. The latter element is something that I believe is that is missing from many exhibitions featuring Black history; an element only the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC has managed to incorporate after APEX. What APEX lacks in size, it makes up for in impact.
There is a room in the museum dedicated to the numerous inventions and patents held by African American innovators. As is to be expected, George Washington Carver is featured among these revered names. He developed hundreds of products from soybeans, sweet potatoes – and most famously of all – peanuts.
Peanuts (groundnuts) were brought by enslaved Africans to the Americas by during the Trans-Atlantic trade. Acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni once told Tavis Smiley that she had always imaged that the noble legume had been brought over by an 8 year old girl who held tightly to it during the grueling 6-9 week voyage before planting it upon arrival to the South. That fiction of Dr. Giovanni’s imagination has left an indelible mark on mine ever since, mostly because I love groundnuts but more so because I can identify with a sense of panic compelling you to grab only what is most important to you. What other precious items might have Africans been able to “smuggle” aboard the buoyant death traps that would ferry survivors to unfamiliar lands? What trinkets might’ve been slipped to them in their cages…small tokens or reminders of home? But more importantly, what cherished items were they forced to leave behind? This is something I discussed (by which I mean dissected through the lens of sarcasm and cynicism) with my friend Carlos a few days ago. In one of numerous tangents, Carlos and I began to discuss food.
The attempt to deracinate Africans has been successful in many ways, but futile in others. No more is this more evident than with our foods. Anthony Bourdain (RIP) once remarked with surprise that no matter where he would go in the world, people of African ancestry always had a variation of fish n’ grits as a staple part of their diet. Regionally, we refer to them by different names, but pulverized corn seasoned with salt and cooked in boiling water is something we all enjoy. Perhaps later on he might have discovered, out as I have recently, that there is a strong groundnut culture – continent wide- that features in many of our foods as well.
“Look at what Black Americans have been able to do with left over chicken necks and greens,” Carlos remarked. “Can you imagine what our food in Ghana might have tasted like if these people had not interfered with our way of life? Can you imagine what that fresh chicken would’ve tasted like?”
(I forgot to mention that though his name is very South American, Carlos is very much a Ghanaian. Surprise!)
And though we were on a riff, I did pause and try to imagine what field raised chicken, slow cooked with onions – or perhaps deep fried in peanut or palm oil – would taste like. Would the chef have used clay pots or metal pans? Would a metal pot be considered a luxury, seeing as it required the skill and watchful eye of a smithy? What did ancestral fried chicken taste like?
Carlos and I have an almost Gilmore Girls type rhythm on the rare occasions we get to speak, and so long was my considering pause that he must’ve thought I’d gotten bored. He moved onto the next subject and I joined in, tucking thoughts of ancestral fried chicken to the back of my mind to pore over later.
As some of you know, I have become heavily invested in a show called ‘Chef’s Table’. I am fascinated by all of the things that can be done with food. However in having this conversation with Carlos and in watching one of the more recent episodes of the show, I find myself sad…and a little envious. Moroccan food and all its complex glory was explored, showing the arduous journey one’s meal takes from the farm to the tagine. These ornate clay pots and their distinctive conical domes have been a part of Moroccan cooking for thousands of years. The tagine has survived French invasions, Islamic conquests and attempts by cooking revolutionaries to modify it. Though the recipes have evolved over time, a Moroccan today can get an idea of the sensations that their ancestor many generations removed might have experienced cooking for him/herself or the family. The average city dwelling African will never have that experience, and we are not the better for it. And while I dwell on these things, I mourn for the young woman who was violently uprooted from her home and compelled to leave behind her favorite pots; the vessels that held her tastes of home.
Have you ever taken an interest in food archeology? What does ancestral fried chicken taste like in your imagination? If you have tips on how we can experiment with that, leave a comment below!