*This is the first post in an ongoing series that investigates the history of gumbo, and black women in Louisiana. Basically, I’m adapting my undergrad thesis for the internet, so more people can read it.
Crossing Oceans on a Grain of Rice
As a child, growing up between Louisiana and Washington State, nothing excited me more than helping my mother in the kitchen. I could watch her chop, whisk, mince, and stir for hours. She always gave me some small task to complete while she explained how an entire dish worked. These served as recipes in our house. Numbers and proportions were never exact, but smells, sounds, color, and of course, tastes were everything. It seemed like my momma could cook just about anything. Since we come from a long line of Louisiana Creoles of Color (I’m also descended from Cajuns on my dad’s side of the family), our kitchen was never without bell peppers, onions, creole seasonings, and some form of smoked salty meat. Of all the wonders that came from my mother’s kitchen there were certain dishes that outshone all the others: jambalaya, rice dressing (or dirty rice), and gumbo, naturally. The pot my mother used to make gumbo was large enough for me to measure how much I’d grown from winter to winter. Could I fit inside it? Could I manage to pull it out of its cabinet? Hoist it onto the stove? Was I tall enough to stir without splattering the contents?
Gumbo was reserved for special occasions and particularly lean times in our house—times when a lot of food was needed but our budget was tight. Momma always made enough to feed an army (when it was just the two of us, a pot of gumbo could last for weeks if stored properly). To me the dish has always tasted like love. But living in northern climates, my love of gumbo was somewhat of an oddity to my friends. Most of the ingredients—Andouille sausage, roux, and okra—were foreign to them. And since northerners have been perfectly happy eating impostor versions of gumbo since the 1980s,my friends had a hard time seeing why I loved a dish that to them was a slimy, abhorrent Campbell’s soup flavor. As I grew older, my friends and lovers brought me to pseudo Cajun restaurants to try to appeal to my wild southern palate. As I scoffed over and over again at the poor excuses for Cajun and Creole food that were placed in front of me I was always met with the question: “If this isn’t real gumbo, what is?”
My sadness at every mediocre bowl of gumbo is more than just the disappointment of a native palate. Gumbo carries within its flavors a story—the story of women who came before me. When I taste a good gumbo, I can taste the history behind it. Gumbo’s history is tied closely to the history of black women in Louisiana. It traveled across the ocean with them on slave ships. As black women adapted to their new lives in Louisiana, gumbo evolved as well. Gumbo’s popularity and persistence in the identities of Louisiana is largely due to the systematic exploitation of black women. But Gumbo also tells the story of black women’s bravery, malleability, perseverance, and power. It tells the story of the numerous women who originated the dish, those who helped it evolve, and those who turned their knowledge of gumbo and dishes like it into culinary empires. The story of gumbo in the United States begins with hunger and violence. It begins with a grain of rice.
A side note before we get into the nitty-gritty: I use the terms “Creole,” “Creoles of Color,” and Cajun pretty often when talking about Louisiana, its food, and its history. While these terms might sound interchangeable to folks outside of Louisiana, they connote worlds or cultural differences. The term “Creole” has had a wide variety of uses and meanings over the years. When I say “Creole,” I’m referring to white, Louisiana-born descendants of French and German settlers. “Creole of Color” refers to the class of people born in Louisiana who are descended from the children of African slaves with French and German settlers. “Cajun” refers to descendants of German planters in the southwest portion of Louisiana (west of the Bayou Teche). There are also class connotations in the “Creole/Cajun” divide. Creoles were often wealthy landowners, whereas Cajuns are a historically working-class group.
Gumbo utilizes the formula that has fed every group of people in Africa since anyone can remember: stew + starch + animal protein. This formula is no secret; people the world over have survived on stew since we started cooking things, but the ingredients of a gumbo—specifically rice and okra—tie the dish directly to Africa. The Transatlantic Slave Trade is directly responsible for bringing African foods like okra, yams, watermelon, and back-eyed peas to the United States. While popular myths romanticize slaves carrying okra and other seeds across the Atlantic in their hair and clothes, records indicate a much more intentional importation of African foods. Most of the foods brought to the Americas from Africa were brought onboard slave ships to feed newly captured Africans. In her book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, culinary historian, journalist, and professor of English at Queens College/C.U.N.Y. Jessica B. Harris traces the origins of various cereals, as well as rice and yams to the areas of the continent that slaves were taken from. She traces cereals, like sorghum and millet, to parts of Sudan and east Senegal, and yams to the western coast of African between the Côte d’Ivoir and Cameroon. The Senegambia region of Africa, which includes present-day Senegal and the Republic of Guinea was deeply reliant on rice as a food source. Cereals like sorghum and millet can be traced to parts of Sudan and east Senegal, and yams to the western coast of African between the Côte d’Ivoir and Cameroon. This area was also responsible for supplying two-thirds of Louisiana’s slave workforce during the French slave trade. The foods that accompanied enslaved blacks through the Middle Passage from Africa are not only the basis of most of what is called “soul food” in the United States, they also serve as a direct historical link between contemporary black Americans and our African ancestors.
The Middle Passage, the journey of enslaved Africans from their home continent to the New World, was a period of systemic violence calculated to dehumanize and break the spirits of thousands. The successful transportation and training of slaves required that slavers do everything in their power to remove every sense of dignity and of culture from their captives.This presented two problems to slavers: on the one hand, their cargo needed to be delivered in good condition; on the other hand, slaves needed to be taught to accept their new position as chattel. In her book Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, historian Gwendolyn Mildo-Hall explains the ways in which captains bringing slaves to Louisiana were instructed to “pay a great deal of attention to minimizing mortality” among their cargo, and were told to “take good care of the health of the blacks, to prevent the black women from being debauched by the black men and crew, and to clean and scrape the slave quarters every day to avoid rot.” They were also advised to avoid taking on captives that were too old, too young, or too sickly to survive the journey across the Atlantic in the first place. Early slave traders learned quickly that not only was it more costly to bring food provisions from Europe to feed the slaves picked up in Africa, it was futile. Enslaved Africans would not eat food that did not resemble the flavor profiles of their native land. In order to ensure the survival of their cargo, slavers had to pay special attention to the diets of their human cargo. They needed to keep their ships stocked with foods that Africans were accustomed to eating. Consequently, the Transatlantic Slave Trade quickly fostered a second market in African foodstuffs. For their role in feeding slaves, African foods became almost as valuable to the economy of the North American colonies as African people. Within a few generations, the foods brought to north America solely for feeding slaves became staples of the white American diet.
Food played an important role on how slave traders dealt with their second problem as well—that of converting a cargo of people into a cargo of slaves. Food, or more precisely, eating, became a major point of contention on many slave ships. Even when slavers provided foods like rice, yams, okra, or beans for their captives, it was not uncommon for the newly enslaved to go on hunger strikes. Some would only accept the water given them, while others chose escape through starvation. Refusing food was such a common tactic of rebellion among slaves that slave traders developed the speculum oris, as a means of punishment as well as a solution. An alternative when whipping failed, the three-pronged thumbscrew device was used to force open the mouth of a slave, so that they could be force-fed through a funnel. Women often bore the lion’s share of punishments on slave ships.
In her book Ain’t I A Woman, bell hooks recounts an incident reported by Ruth and Jacob Weldon on the slave ship Pongas:
In their personal account of life aboard a slave ship, the Weldons recounted an incident in which a child of nine months was flogged continuously for refusing to eat. When beating failed to force the child to eat, the captain ordered that the child be placed feet first into a pot of boiling water. After trying other torturous methods with no success, the captain dropped the child and caused its death. Not deriving enough satisfaction from this sadistic act, he then commanded the mother to throw the body of the child overboard. The mother refused but was beaten until she submitted.
African women were also used to expose and punish suspected uprisings. Gwendolyn Mildo-Hall tells of an uprising on Le Courrier de Bourbon headed to Louisiana from Gorée:
As they were leaving Grenada on October 4, a conspiracy among the slaves was uncovered. A young nègre tried to indicate through gestures to the ship’s officers that a revolt was planned. The officers could not understand clearly what this nègre was saying. They sent for two women slaves, one from Senegal and the other from Gorée, to interpret for them. Both of the women claimed they could not understand the nègre. They were tied to a cannon and lashed, but the women still said nothing. After several other black in shackles were lashed, the woman from Senegal declared that a nègre aged about forty-five “was the sorcerer who raised their vain hopes,” and that the woman from Gorée knew this as well but did not want to admit it right away. They started lashing the woman from Gorée the same as the other blacks, and she affirmed the woman from Senegal’s declaration, pointing out the same nègre as the leader of the conspiracy to slit the throats of the whites.
hooks argues that black female slaves were the most frequent victims of brutality during the Middle Passage because white slavers could “brutalize and exploit her without fear of harmful retaliation. Thus, in preventing a revolt, women were the first to be brutalized into betraying their fellow captives. White slavers probably feared that any attempt to beat a confession out of a black male slave would only hasten the revolt itself. Because black women were not perceived as a threat, they were forced to become tools of oppression at the hands of their captors.
In order to fully enslave a people, one must destroy all ties to their culture. As African women were transmitters of their native cultures (the ones who kept the knowledge of food, agriculture, medicine, language, and many religious customs), this was largely accomplished by violently debasing them. The brutality black women suffered separated them from their countrymen; it was intended to destroy solidarity among slaves. Slavers often used sexual assault as a means of asserting both physical and psychological dominance over black women and men. But the same reasons that made black women victims of endless brutality on slave ships, sometimes allowed the preservation of certain aspects of their native cultures. While many of the cooks hired on slave ships were free people of color (usually men), they were often aided by “confidential slaves, who were given positions of power because of their linguistic ability or because they were deemed more tractable.” These confidential slaves were quite frequently women, who retained knowledge of recipes and food preparation practices from their homelands. Black women slaves were often trusted as interpreters between slavers and captives as well as among groups of slaves. It was frequently through these confidential slaves that knowledge of African foodways, languages, and traditions were brought to the United States.
Black American foodways rely heavily on the aspects of African foodways that slaves were able to protect and import through the Transatlantic Slave Trade.The African captives brought to the United States infused their agriculture and food practices into the culinary narratives of the rest of the country over time. But in Louisiana, African rice was the catalyst for the slave trade itself. When the first slave ships arrived in Louisiana from Africa in 1719, bringing barrels of seed rice as well as Africans who knew how to grow it, the new colony gained access to a food source that would become essential to the survival of the region.
In his book Bouki Fait Gombo, Ibrahima Seck, director of the Whitney/Haydel Plantation in Louisiana, links the cultivation of rice in Louisiana to the economic hardships endured by French and German Settlers to the region during the French and Spanish war for Pensacola (1719-1721):
In March 1721, supplies were totally exhausted at a time when the Indians could not provide the customary help. The Illinois Country was then well established and produced wheat in the colony in addition to husbandry of horses, cattle, and pigs. Since transportation was extremely difficult on the Mississippi River, the [French] Company exhorted the colonists to think above all about food crops. Rice was the most suitable crop because it could stand the heavy rainfalls, but none of the colonists had any knowledge of its cultivation. The solution came from the rice growing areas of West Africa.
The first two slave ships sent to Louisiana, L’Aurore and le Duc du Maine, had specific instructions to “purchase several blacks who knew how to cultivate rice and three or four barrels of rice for seeding,” intended to be given directly to company leaders in Louisiana. Settlers spent years begging the French government for slaves. But until the food crisis of 1719-1721, the French saw no need to expand the slave trade to Louisiana. In contrast to other parts of the United States, where rice was largely considered a by-product of the slave trade, the slave trade in Louisiana existed primarily because of rice.
Okra had a somewhat different and less documented journey to Louisiana. Culinary historian, Jessica B. Harris speculates, “Okra probably was first introduced into the continental United States in the early 1700s, most likely from the Caribbean, where it has a long history.” By the time the slave trade came to Louisiana, okra had become a regular slave crop in many of the English colonies in North America. It was often cultivated in small garden plots slaves kept in order to provide food for themselves. It is possible that okra predates the French slave trade in Louisiana. Before the French government granted Louisiana settlers access to slaves, officials like Bienville were known to have smuggled a few slaves from St. Domingue as early as 1708. As slaves were rarely transported without foods that were native to their diets, it is probable that okra was brought to Louisiana from St. Domingue along with these slaves. While it is difficult to say exactly how or when okra was introduced to Louisiana, it is safe to say that as the slave trade grew in the region, so did the cultivation of okra as a source of food for enslaved Africans. Louisiana’s tropical climate was extremely hospitable for growing okra and it was customary for slaves during the eighteenth century to keep small gardens from which they fed themselves and their families.
African slaves were invaluable to the building of the Louisiana territory. Their resilience through the Middle Passage, as well as their knowledge of agriculture, metalworking, construction, medicine, and food preparation kept French and German settlers alive, and allowed the construction of New Orleans as well as Louisiana’s economic infrastructure. The strength and knowledge of African slaves would also lead the people of Louisiana to develop a distinct cultural identity that was firmly grounded in African customs and language.