Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America
Between the end of Reconstruction—which lasted from the Emancipation Proclamation until 1877—and the latter half of the 20th century, an estimated 5 million-plus African Americans moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest and West. The statistics and history are stark but the cultural transformation that took place, known as the Great Migration, propelled the African American world front and center in American culture in ways that are broadly felt. With the Great Migration, the Delta blues morphed into the Chicago blues, then rhythm and blues and then rock and roll. Barbecue went on the move and became nationally known, and sweet potato pies came to sit on Thanksgiving tables in the North as well as the South. With the Great Migration, African American culture transformed American culture and the country began to know, eat and love African American foods, many of which originated in the South.
Escaping enslaved people had made their way north to freedom for centuries and their emancipated descendants followed the same routes as their ancestors. Tattered clothing and knapsacks filled with meager belongings were replaced by scratchy new store-bought finery and flimsy cardboard suitcases, but the essential baggage that came in the hearts and heads of both enslaved and free people was hope. Hope didn't change. It remained a constant—the hope for a new place to live free, the hope for a place with jobs that could allow a person to support a family, the hope for a place in the country where they could be themselves and be at peace.
After Reconstruction ended so too did the protections that the government attempted to put into place to protect the newly freed people, and African Americans headed north out of a South that was increasingly hostile. The promise of Reconstruction, with its more equitable tax system and attempts to integrate Blacks into the American fabric of life, was over. The end of Reconstruction led to the imposition of a series of Jim Crow laws in the South that required the segregation of whites and Blacks on public transportation and later in schools, public places and restaurants. Slavery had been transformed into sharecropping. The white supremacist organizations that had been formed at the end of the Civil War grew. The Ku Klux Klan, which originated with Confederate veterans at the end of the war, was rekindled and a second Klan was founded in 1915. Violence escalated. Between 1889 and 1932, the United States recorded 3,700 lynchings of Blacks. For many in the South, the rights won by the Civil War disappeared slowly into bleak lives of hardscrabble subsistence farming. The South held little for them: it was time to leave.
In 1910, seven-eighths of all African Americans in the country lived in the South below the so-called Cotton Curtain. By 1925, one-tenth of the Black population of the country had moved north. Between 1916 and 1918 alone, almost 400,000 African Americans—almost 500 a day—stepped out onto dusty roads, pointed their faces toward the horizon and headed north and west. They headed toward metropolises where there were jobs in the factories created by increasing industrialization. They arrived in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and New York and began to make their presence felt by creating neighborhoods and communities where they supported and sustained each other in their churches, their shops, their restaurants and their gathering places.
The movements of African Americans created a preserved-in-amber version of the South in Harlem, New York; Southside, Chicago; and Oakland, California. People settled in—in areas by the railroad depots on the wrong sides of the tracks and in hastily subdivided apartments and later in housing projects—to create new homes and neighborhoods. They often planted garden plots in vacant lots, growing black-eyed peas and lima beans; up-from-the-South trucks parked on corners selling watermelons in the summer and sweet potatoes and country hams in the fall. Vegetable shops sprung up where those who couldn't grow their own could obtain raw peanuts for boiling, an array of greens and, at times, even the fatback with which to season them. Butcher shops stocked a wide array of pork products from streak of lean/streak of fat and ham hocks for seasoning dishes to thinly cut pork chops suitable for frying and, more recently, smoked turkey. Grocery stores had large bags of rice and bottles of hot sauce, and the fishmonger sold butterfish, porgies and whiting, and often would sell plate meals on Fridays. These are the neighborhoods that Toni Morrison talked about in Ohio, ones in which Vertamae Grosvenor grew up in Philadelphia, and that Aretha Franklin knew in Detroit. In these 'hoods, dinner might be a well-seasoned pot of slow-cooked collards accompanied by a slice of fluffy cornbread from a cast-iron skillet that had made the journey north with a family member, and lunch a freshly fried fish sandwich or some barbecued spareribs dripping with sauce.
In more urban areas, the hallways in the apartment buildings and projects were marked with the funk of boiling chitlins or the scent of last night's frying fish, a rent party might have a buffet offering hog maws, crisp fried chicken or a pig foot and a bottle of beer, and Saturday night might be spent at a downtown (or uptown) joint that served barbecue that would be at home in Memphis or Montgomery. The commercial streets of these neighborhoods boasted small mom and pop African American restaurants that served the tastes of the Black South the homesick transplants craved: smothered pork chops with thick gravy spooned over buttery rice, slow-cooked pots of greens to be eaten with chopped onions, vinegar and the hot sauce that graced each table with its fiery presence. Breakfasts offered creamy grits and sausage patties with biscuits to drown in syrup. Neighborhood bars slaked thirsts with liquor (maybe some corn liquor could even be found under the bar if a patron had recently returned from the South). Before it became the tag line for a popular television show, everyone knew your name and probably your family in these spots, and there was always news from the Southern home places.
I grew up in such a neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens, in the 1950s, daughter of a nuclear family blessed with two grandmothers who unwittingly bathed me in Southern mores. My paternal grandmother, who had arrived in New York City from central Tennessee in the early 1920s, kept her Southern ways despite living in the South Jamaica housing project. She laboriously made beaten biscuits which she served complete with Alaga syrup (the name I would later learn was a composite of Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia). Buttermilk was always in her refrigerator, and from late spring through the fall she would work in the small plot of land that she and other tenants had behind their building, no doubt remnants of victory gardens past. The collard greens that she grew were left until the first frost and then seasoned with smoked pork. Her food was that of the hardscrabble rural South. My maternal grandmother, although from Virginia, had followed her minister husband to Plainfield, New Jersey, where the Baptist church had placed my grandfather. There, she recreated the Virginia cookery of her youth complete with home-canned watermelon rind and Seckel pear pickles, fluffy yeast rolls, garden-fresh vegetables, macaroni and cheese, and crystal pitchers filled with minted lemonades and other cool drinks all year round. She was my Edna Lewis before I knew of Edna Lewis. Each grandmother provided me with a clear Southern culinary roadmap.
At home, there was Southern food aplenty on special days: freshly made biscuits each Sunday with a larger one for my father that we called the hoecake, cornbread at dinner most every night and cornmeal stuffing in the turkey at Thanksgiving along with candied sweet potatoes and an obligatory sweet potato pie. New Year's Day meant a trip to the store for black-eyed peas and collard greens. Now that those days are more than half a century behind me, I find that without thinking I maintain many of the Southern culinary traditions of my youth, especially those connected with New Year's festivities. My menu for that day is a celebration of the Great Migration, as most of the dishes on the table came straight from those Southern grandmothers. Grandma Jones' roast pork complete with crackling is the centerpiece of the meal. Grandma Harris took over in the smoked pork-flavored, slow-cooked, stewed-to-a-low-gravy collard greens that are traditionally eaten to guarantee folding money, and in the black-eyed peas that were cooked with the rice as Hoppin' John for luck. I've added a Southern succotash of okra, corn and tomatoes as a personal tribute to the pod that for me signals African heritage food.
My New Year's offerings are simply one demonstration of the tenacity of African American culinary traditions. Others are evidenced throughout the year at birthday parties and summer barbecues, family reunions and Thanksgiving dinners, Sunday suppers, church outings and weeknight meals. Ways of being that began many decades prior and thousands of miles away in the kitchens of the urban and rural South turn up in the kitchens of the Northeast, Midwest and West in a gustatory testimonial to the Great Migration and the enduring ties that bind.
Get Jessica B. Harris's recipe for Black-Eyed Peas with Slab Bacon.
Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), from which some parts of this essay were adapted. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.
Read more from this series:
Learn How Cast-Iron Skillets Carry Treasured Memories for Black Families by Donna Battle Pierce
How African American Migrants Defined BBQ in the United States by Adrian Miller
How the Up South Cookbook Author's Georgia Upbringing Influenced Her NYC Cooking by Nicole A. Taylor