Reclaiming What Was Lost
By Wanda Taylor
I was barely nine years old when my mother handed me that very first chunk of bread dough. I have watched her toss those ingredients into the same wooden bowl for as long as I could remember. I never saw a tattered recipe card or any handwritten instructions; she simply knew. “I just eye it,” she’d say whenever I asked her how she knew.
Then I would watch her hands go to work, twisting and tightening the sticky dough. With force and determination, she would blend the ingredients, both dry and wet. I would lean in close to the bowl to inhale the earthy smell of yeast. I would peek under the dishcloth a hundred times while the dough was left on the counter to rise in the thick brown bowl. Each time I checked it would be higher and wider, like magic. After what felt like forever, my mother would return to the kitchen to slide some butter in and around two deep loaf pans. Then she would rip the dough down the middle and shape them into smooth round mounds.
I could never contain my excitement knowing that as soon those golden loaves were sliced I would get the first piece, caked in melted butter and homemade strawberry jam. However, that excitement paled in comparison to the joy (of participating in the process? baking with her? learning to bake? finally working the dough myself?). She had allowed me to figure out and measure the ingredients. She would say, “You’ve watched me long enough. It’s time.” She was going to teach me, like her mother taught her, and like she’d taught my sisters.
I glanced up at her each time I added a new ingredient, searching for approval. She would just smile and watch. “You have to learn by doing,” she said. “If you do it right, the bread will taste good. If not, you will have wasted all my ingredients.” In translation: do not waste those hard-earned ingredients.
Once they were mixed, I held both hands out as my mother placed half of the sticky dough into my tiny palms. It spilled over my hands as I guided it to the sprinklings of flour that she’d placed on the table in front of me. I mimicked her hand motions as she kneaded and worked the dough. When she pushed, I pushed. When she pounded, I pounded. When she flipped, I flipped. Once it had risen, she laid her dough in one loaf pan, and I tucked mine into the other. There was a definitive difference in her perfectly rounded hump to my bumpy, lumpy mount (mound?). But when the loaves emerged from the oven, there was no distinction. It was like the lessons she taught me about Black people in Nova Scotia and their unique connections to the land. There was no distinction between the two.
Being Black from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, our relationship with food and tradition was steeped in our connections to the land; this traces all the way back to our ancestors’ journey from slavery in the south, and then their ancestors’ journeys from Africa through the transatlantic slave trade. Every step of the way, those connections were threatened or severed by injustice and insecurity. Yet somehow, their attachments to land (so vital to their soul and to their survival) continuously transformed and thrived as they adapted to those surroundings both forced and chosen.
As a sixth-generation Canadian, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to fully understand the depth and spirit of the historical journey of my ancestors. Many equate their connections to land only with the cruelty of slavery and plantations. But these connections run much deeper than that. On the rich and fertile soils of West Africa, villagers lived, worked and ate off the land. They had exceptional skills in cultivation, preservation and meal preparation. But during the experience of slavery between the 16th and 19th centuries, our people were forcibly stolen from those lands and the foods they held strong connections to. Although they landed on US soil unclothed and afraid, they carried inside them the power of what they knew, the determination to recoup what they’d lost, and the will to survive and adapt.
“I learned to cook at nine years old, and I taught my children the traditions that my mother taught me. My hope is they will also teach their children. This is how our African connections with food and earth will continue to survive.”
Food migration was an important aspect of the transatlantic slave trade, but it often goes unnoticed and is rarely mentioned in scholarly conversations about slavery. Crops like rice and okra (previously nonexistent in the US) were brought over on slave ships by the Europeans and cultivated by highly skilled enslaved people, whose hard work helped to grow and shape southern US cuisine. However, like everything else, enslaved people never received the credit. In fact, their contributions have virtually been eliminated from history.
Through oral history, traditional teaching, and the passing down of these unique skills, descendants have quietly managed to preserve that groundwork that was laid and kept the food connections from Africa alive. Rice, yams and dumplings are often seen as foods that originated in the US, yet they originated in Africa. It was those slaves who cooked for their masters that developed and carried on those recipes that are now considered American staples.
For example, Gumbo, thought to be a dish native to Louisiana, originated from Africa. Okra (called Ki’ngombo in Angola), along with a tomato base, was used to thicken the sauce of this dish. The current Louisiana staple also contains okra and tomato base, along with seafood, sausage, rice and spices. Dumplings, a staple in Black East Coast households, were perfected by enslaved Africans on plantations in Trinidad and Tobago. While dumplings were also a common European dish, their current uses are adaptations that were created, cooked and perfected by enslaved Africans and then later by Black servants in the US.
Still, many of us remain unaware. Even my mother was unaware of the significance of what her ancestors carried and how they shaped the cuisine of the US south, and the Canadian East Coast. My mother, a woman whose words often harked back to the old days, couldn’t comprehend the depth of the injustice done to Africans as their legacy of food was erased from history and memory. Their skill in the fields and in the kitchen not only set the groundwork and built an empire of food security for these places, but shaped what became known as staples to its inhabitants. Almost nowhere can you find any credit given to these displaced Africans for their skillfulness and technique. Ironically, the Black community in these areas and others are more likely to face challenges with food insecurity than many other communities?) . We must look closer at why that is.
In the case of my ancestors, and countless others who escaped the plantations and headed north to Canada, (those who were part of the two major migrations from the US, and those who arrived on Canadian soil as freed Blacks), their food traditions made those voyages with them. However, food security did not. The injustice of being used for your skill but never benefiting from the fruit of your talents goes unnoticed even as scholars and historians write about and talk about slavery. Even when society demands we forget about the past, even as the world pretends that Africans had nothing to offer to North America. That the foods brought over on European slave ships did not change the landscape of America’s and Canada’s cuisine. That we should leave the pain behind. And that we should ignore the power of what our ancestors carried in their souls and poured into their food.
For Indigenous Black people in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (many of whom are descendants still residing in the very communities their ancestors cultivated hundreds of years earlier) food continues to be a very important part of the culture. Upon their arrival to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, ancestors were forced to adapt to a new environment including harsh weather and rocky soil, conditions that were not conducive to cultivating suitable crops. Because they were often granted land that was of poor quality, they faced numerous challenges. However, once again, they rose to the occasion using their extraordinary skills in farming and planting. They passed down their knowledge to their children — they taught them to farm, and how to distinguish which herbs to find in the woods for medicine. They educated them on the art of preserving, cooking, and hunting. This was their survival, and it’s what carried them through the next couple hundred years. Yet today, Black folks on the Canadian East Coast disproportionately struggle with food insecurity and, in many cases, lack of access. Food injustice remains commonplace in many minority communities. Our history with food remains obscure.
While many are unaware of their origins, food remains the main guest at traditional weddings, funerals and other Black East Coast gatherings. Certain dishes containing ingredients such as black eyed peas, rice, okra and yams are adaptations from African cuisine and form the basis for some of the most popular dishes enjoyed by Black folks on the East Coast. Favourites like rice pudding (called sombi in Senegal) have been adapted over centuries and invoke the same fondness as they did for the villagers who prepared them centuries ago. Our food has adapted over time, according to climate, availability, and lifestyle. It continues to be the heartbeat that unites our community.
I learned to cook at nine years old, and I taught my children the traditions that my mother taught me. My hope is they will also teach their children. This is how our African connections with food and earth will continue to survive. I don’t think my mother understood the depth of what she was imparting upon us, her children. I don’t think we understood the magnitude of what she was feeding our souls. Our African ancestors carried the secrets of traditional African cuisine deep in their spirits. They journeyed that passion all the way to the US, even during forced assimilation and struggle. Their legacy did not end there, as many would believe. Those who journeyed to the North, and those who left its shores in the 1792 exodus to journey to Sierra Leone, West Africa, are the beneficiaries of the passion and soul that travelled across countries and continents and survived. That same unshakable passion and soul is our link to the Motherland, and that lies in the heart of every soul food dish we share and prepare.
Wanda Taylor is an author and Acquisitions
Editor currently serving as Mentor in
Kings College’s MFA Creative Non- Fiction Program. Wanda is a former television producer and has written for various publications, including Understory Magazine and Atlantic Books Today. With backgrounds in journalism and social work, her writing reflects her passion for justice.