Long before we opened this restaurant, we were a food & travel loving family. We traveled outside of our beloved Deep South, we ate exotic food, we explored other cultures. But when my baby sister, Sara, moved to Zambia and then Tanzania, she opened up my mind to the fact that the Southern Soul Food that we all grew up on was really heavily informed by African cuisine. One of the first things I asked her was "how are you eating?" She is, after all, a pretty strict vegetarian, which can be challenging when there is a huge language and cultural barrier. Surprisingly, she said that aside from the confusion as to why she would NOT want to eat meat, much of the foods she was seeing and eating was very familiar. Boiled, salted & spiced greens, rich pastries, porridges, starchy rice & beans dishes, hearty, slow-cooked stews, spicy tomato sauces, peanuts, fried poultry, and fresh fruits are as at home on an African dinner table as they are in a Southern kitchen.
As we put together our menu here at The Square, we often look to our childhood memories of growing up with great Southern cooks, and also to the exotic food cultures we've experienced in travel. When researching the history of Southern favorites, we've found again and again that the South's cuisine was influenced by African traditions more often than not. Even on our current menu, delicious African influence can be found & enjoyed!
Take for instance the beloved Boiled Peanut. What could be more traditional & Southern than a boiled peanut, right? What Georgia kid didn't grow up shelling hot boiled peanuts as fast as we could on hot summer afternoons? But peanuts didn't arrive in the USA via African transplants until the 1700s, and were thought of as food for livestock & poor folks for a hundred more years. The old-fashioned peanut nickname "goober" is a derivative of the Angolan term "ginguba." Africans had been boiling peanuts and other groundnuts for centuries, both for flavor, and preservation. During the Civil war, peanuts became more popular and accepted as a healthy, high protein staple of the battlefield and then the kitchen. At The Square, our Boiled Peanut Hummus has become a staple of its own. But even Hummus, which seems so modern, would have been found on the plates of medieval Egyptians.
Another traditionally Southern dish that we have inherited from Africa is Gumbo. The very word "Gumbo", which brings to mind that classic bayou stew of rice, veggie, and meat, is derived from the Angolan word "ngombo," which simply means "okra." (Okra, by the way, is another plant & word of African origin!) Of course, the Cajuns have added their own French flair & andouille sausage to the dish; but you do not have to look hard to find the Motherland's influence in this dish. Though there are as many ways to make Gumbo as their are Southern cooks, Gumbo here in Moultrie is roux based. And yes, you'll find okra as a thickener in your Gumbo at The Square.
When enslaved people were brought over from Africa, they were (obviously) not fed well. They often had to be incredibly smart and inventive with the sparse foods they were given and able to grow. The ancient Sub-Saharan African technique of stewing leafy greens served the new African Americans well. They soon found that salted porks acted as an excellent preservative, and the "pot likker" that came from boiling greens and salted meat together served as a tasty and healthy stew base.
Nowadays, you would be hard pressed to find a Southerner that doesn't have an opinion on which greens are their favorites, and how they best like them served. Mustard Greens, Turnip Greens, and Collard Greens are the most ubiquitous; and most folks enjoy them with a little salt, and little pork stock, and a lot of home-made hot sauce.
As the African slaves to which we owe so much arrived, they began surviving, sharing resources and dining with another group of ancient cultures who were also being displaced by the rapidly-growing young nation: Native Americans. Native American and African cultures began intertwining as their plights followed down a similar path. It is the Native Americans who introduced a new crop and a new way of cooking to the South: Corn & Cornbread. Requiring no yeast, and only a few ingredients, cornbread was easy to cook, inexpensive, portable, and as luck would have it, it tastes very good alongside traditional African cooking. It would be hard to imagine having a potluck here in the South without someone's Granny bringing their old family cornbread recipe to dip in the pot likker of another Granny's famous collard greens!
As with all of the USA, the South is a melting pot of culture and cuisine. Fried Green Tomatoes can be traced back to Jewish immigrants, Deviled Eggs could be found in Ancient Rome, Potato Salad, like all things 'Tater, originated in Peru, Hot Sauce was being made in Mexico 5000 years ago, and even Pimento Cheese came to us from our Yankee brethren up North! But the influence of African culinary heritage can not be understated. Next time you are enjoying some good ole' fashioned Southern Soul Food, whether it's in Moultrie Georgia, or anywhere else on the planet, don't forget to say a little "Asante" to the Motherland for sharing her incredible culture, people, and food with the world.
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[All African photos in this post are by Sara Fleetwood. Many thanks for her permission to use them. Follow her work with the Athens Land Trust here. ]