CELEBRATE: Memphis Foodways - November 2020
This month, the Museum of Science and History - Pink Palace is focusing on the theme Celebrate. Humans worldwide celebrate by eating. Every culture and religion has foods associated with specific holidays, seasons, and special occasions, and food provides groups of people a common identity. Foodways are the intersection of food with culture and history. Social scientists who study foodways want to know why people eat what they do and what it means. Food culture is shaped by the surrounding environment, the influence of other cultures, religion, and socio-economic status. Choices about food show where people come from, their family traditions, and their experiences. These factors are important when a person migrates to another country, region, or city. Continuing to make dishes from home and adapting recipes to use local ingredients help people maintain a part of their native culture. In turn, these new foods and adaptations to existing recipes bring new foods to the cuisine of migrants’ new homes.
November 23, 2020 - Middle Eastern, Jewish, & Indian Cuisines: How Religion Influences Food Traditions
November 16, 2020 - Latino & European Cuisines: Maintaining and Adapting Cooking Traditions
November 9, 2020 - Cajun, Creole, African & Caribbean Cuisine: Adapting to their Environments & Outside Influences
November 2, 2020 - The Intersection of Southern, Soul & BBQ Cuisine
Middle Eastern, Jewish, & Indian Cuisines: How Religion Influences Food Traditions - November 23, 2020
Just as climate and economics impact foodways, religion also affects regional and cultural cuisines. Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism have dietary laws that determine what and how their adherents eat.
Middle Eastern Cuisine
Middle Eastern cuisine is an umbrella term for the foodways of seventeen countries including Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. The major religion in this region is Islam, which has dietary laws concerning foods that are permissible to eat. Eating only halal meat is the main component of a Muslim diet. Halal means “lawful” in Arabic and refers to food that follows the dietary guidelines denoted in the Koran. To classify a meat as halal, the animal must have been healthy at the time of death, and it must not have suffered. The animal must be killed by being sliced through its jugular so that all of the blood can drain out. Halal meat is incorporated into many dishes, including shawarma, which is thinly sliced meats like lamb or chicken that are roasted on a spit, and Iranian stews called khoresh, which can be layered with flavorful herbs and spices.
By the 1960s, Memphis had a small congregation of the Nation of Islam followers. In 1975, another congregation established Masjid Mu’minun. It is the oldest mosque in the city and home to the nation’s only halal food pantry. Today there are at least 10 mosques for different denominations and two Islamic schools. In 2003, the Mayor’s Office of Multicultural and Religious Affairs dedicated March as “Muslim Month.” There are approximately 5,000 Muslims in Memphis, and there are several restaurants that serve halal meat throughout the city. Some of these include Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant, the Indian restaurant Hyderabad Biryani, Cedars Restaurant, which serves Lebanese cuisine, and two Mediterranean favorites, Casablanca Restaurant and ZamZamz Mediterranean Grill.
A major component of Orthodox Judaism is following kosher dietary laws. In Hebrew, kosher means “fit” or “appropriate.” A major practice of maintaining a kosher diet is to never mix dairy products and meat. In kosher law, the essence of the dairy or meat lingers in the tools and vessels used to prepare a dish. Therefore, many kosher kitchens require that utensils, bowls, pots, cutting boards, and sinks used in preparing and serving meats are never to be used for preparing and serving dairy dishes, and vice versa. Kosher kitchens also have separate tools and vessels for foods that are pareve, or foods such as vegetables that are neither meat or dairy products.
Kosher meats come from animals that are killed in a humane way. The animal needs to be killed with a quick slash to the throat so that the blood drains from the animal. It’s important not to consume the blood. Both shellfish or pork are considered non-kosher. However, even with these restrictions, Jewish cuisine is flavorful and an essential part of Jewish culture. Some important dishes include cholent, a stew of beans, meat, barley, potatoes, and onions cooked low and slow all day, rugelach pastries filled with cream cheese, brown sugar, and fruit, and the famous matzo ball soup.
In 1847, Joseph Andrews founded the first Jewish cemetery in Memphis, and in 1858, the Congregation of B’nai Israel built the first synagogue at Main and Exchange Streets. The founder of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Wise, dedicated the building. B’nai Israel’s congregation remains active as Temple Israel. Today, Memphis has seven synagogues, the largest being Temple Israel. Baron Hirsch synagogue has one of the largest Orthodox congregations in the United States. Around 8,000 Memphians identify as Jewish.
Located in East Memphis, the Memphis Jewish Community Center (MJCC) provides many helpful and enriching programs for patrons including sports and fitness classes for both children and adults, senior outreach and hot meal programs, art classes, youth camps, and even a preschool. They also have a pick-up area for the Holy Cow Café & Deli located on the Aaron Brenner side of the MJCC which features a fully Kosher menu. Ricki’s Cookie Corner in East Memphis is a fully kosher bakery.
India has made lasting, significant contributions to the culinary world. Indian chefs’ unique understanding of spices and flavors have inspired chefs and home-cooks from many cultures. Indian cuisine integrates numerous cooking practices, some based in religious ideology. Over 1.3 billion people live on the subcontinent, and many of those people are religious. While Hinduism is the most practiced religion in India, there are also Muslims, Buddhists, and adherents of other religions. This mix of ideologies and traditions has created the Indian cuisine known today.
Many Indian dishes are vegetarian, reflecting the dietary preferences of the country’s Hindu and Buddhist communities. While neither religion forbids the consumption of meat, both hold vegetarianism in high regard. Hindus do avoid eating beef, because cows are a sacred animal. The country’s Muslim population consumes halal meat. Indian cuisine is popular for its satisfying vegetarian dishes for the body and soul. Very often these vegetarian dishes, along with most other types of Indian dishes, are flavored with spices like turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and coriander. These spices are extremely important to Indian households and most have round tins to keep their spice collection together. Family lore and tradition maintain the secrets of the spice tins. Indian cuisine is famous for its deep understanding of spices because it treats the spices as an evolving flavor. Many dishes call for these spices to be bloomed, or heated in a dry pan, to release their full flavors as the first step in a recipe. Then more ingredients are added at certain moments to create well-rounded, complexly flavorful dishes.
Milk products like yogurt and ghee, clarified butter, are vital to Indian cuisine. The yogurt provides a cooling element to the spiced dishes while ghee acts as a fat. Many Indian meals also incorporate flatbreads like puri or chapati. Puri are flat, round breads that are deep-fried in ghee or oil. Chapati are unleavened flatbreads that are toasted on a skillet. Some of the most well-known Indian main dishes are murg makhani (butter chicken) served with lentils, chicken tikka masala served with rice and a creamy, spiced gravy, and many variations of curry.
In 1894, Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, stopped in Memphis on his tour to spread awareness about Hinduism. However, it was the Indian immigrants who began arriving in Memphis during the 1960s who established Hindu worship here. In 2005, The India Cultural Center and Temple opened in Eads to serve the needs of growing the Hindu community in the Greater Memphis Area. If you want to sample these flavorful tastes of India in Memphis, you can visit Golden India, Mayuri Indian Cuisine, and India Palace. The India Association of Memphis also hosts an annual IndiaFest, which invites the Memphis community to try authentic dishes and explore Indian traditions.
Latino & European Cuisines: Maintaining and Adapting Cooking Traditions - November 16. 2020
When European colonists realized the potential profit to be made in Central and South America, they began reshaping these lands and peoples through religious conversions, slavery, and food traditions. Latin America refers Mexico, the countries of South and Central America, and Caribbean nations and territories. The term Latino refers to anyone with origins in Latin America. Latinos have been the fastest growing ethnic group in Memphis since the 1990s. They comprise 7% of Memphis’s population and are the city’s third largest ethnic group. Spanish is the second most common language spoken in Memphis today. Most Latinos in Memphis trace their heritage to Mexico and Central America.
Mexican cuisine has influences from several cultures that date as far back as the Mayans, who resided in the Yucatan Peninsula from roughly 1500 BCE to 900 CE. The Mayans and the later Aztecs (1326 CE to 1521 CE) both made substantial contributions to Mexican cuisine through the domestication of maize (corn), beans, squash, chili peppers, and many other staple ingredients. After the Spanish conquests of the early 1500s, Europeans introduced domesticated animals, which introduced beef, pork, chicken, and dairy products into natives’ diet. This period also introduced African influences through the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Asian influences through Spanish trading voyages that linked “New Spain” to the Philippines.
The ingredients introduced through trade and the Spanish Conquest are coupled with indigenous crops to create Mexican dishes. One popular dish is a deep-fried tortilla called a tostada. Tostadas can be kept flat or shaped like a bowl to hold meats, vegetables, sauces, and other toppings. Carne asada is another popular dish of seasoned grilled beef. It is usually served with rice and various vegetables grilled alongside the beef. You can try these dishes at the Taqueria El Güero food truck, Maciel’s on Main Street, and La Guadalupana and Los Comales restaurants, both located on Summer Avenue.
South American Cuisine
Like African cuisine, South American foodways reflect the environmental differences in each region. Argentina, Chile, and Peru are in the Andes mountain range with its cool weather and high altitudes, and their cuisines are influenced by indigenous cooking styles. Conversely, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Venezuela sit in the tropics of South America. This region is divided into three sections: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Amazon, and each has their own particular cuisines. However, a common bond between these three regions is the abundance of seafood and tropical fruits found in many of their dishes.
One of the more accessible cuisines here in the United States, particularly in the southeastern states, is Columbian cuisine. Spanish colonization, the introduction of enslaved Africans into the country, and Columbia’s tropical environment have all shaped the country's cuisine. An example of these three influences on Columbian cuisine is evident in sancocho, which is a soup that has fish (or chicken), vegetables, yuca, and maize. Sancocho is also typically served with banana slices. Columbians also incorporate rice with various meats to make dishes like arroz con pollo, chicken and rice. Due to the country’s warm climate, Columbians are able to grow tropical fruits that are used in pastries such as roscon, which is a sweet cake filled with guava jam. If you’re looking to explore Colombian foods in Memphis, be sure to check out Arepas Deliciosas and El Sabor Latino.
Europeans in Memphis
People of Irish, Scottish, British and German heritage settled in Memphis during the 1800s. Some were recent immigrants while others had been in the country for generations. During the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1892, the Irish were the largest immigrant group in Memphis, followed by Germans. During the late 19th century, many Italians and Eastern Europeans arrived. Memphis lost a large segment of the German and Italian communities during the yellow fever epidemics. As neighborhoods and schools integrated in the 1960s, many white Memphians moved out of the city core in a phenomenon referred to as white flight. As a result, Memphis became a majority black city by 1990. Today, white Memphians make up about 30% of the population.
Memphians with Italian heritage have been a vibrant component of the Memphis community since the mid-19th century. The first wave of Italian immigrants into Memphis arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. Many of the first Italian businesses here focused on food, wine, and liquor. The second wave of Italian immigrants into Memphis arrived around the late 19th century. These immigrants were mostly farmers and brought their farming skills to Memphis. By the 1880s, around 50 Italian immigrants from the town of Alessandria in Italy’s Piedmont region immigrated to Frayser in north Memphis. In the early 1900s, they called their settlement “La Colonia Alessandrina di Memphis” in honor of their hometown. They were truck farmers who transported their crops by truck to markets in the city.
During the 1910s and 1920s, Italians, African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants were treated as second class citizens around the United States, and Memphis was not immune to these sentiments. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan ideology and the majority of blue-collar, Protestant Memphians all contributed to the mistreatment of these groups in Memphis. However, the Italian Memphians maintained tight cultural ties within their group and dominated important areas of Memphis life. During the 1910s-1940s, grocers, wholesalers, and restaurants were mostly owned and operated by Italian families. In fact, the oldest restaurant continually operated by the same family in Memphis is Coletta’s (pictured), which opened in 1923. With a strong history of Italian immigrants settling in Memphis and becoming interwoven into vital enterprises, it’s no wonder that Memphis still has a thriving Italian community today or that that food and culture are still important aspects to that community. Every year, Memphis is home to the Memphis Italian Festival which provides tasty food, music, and family fun.
Simplicity is key in Italian cuisine, which highlights the bounty of the land and sea coming together to harmonize as a delicious meal. Although each region of Italy is known for different dishes and methods of cooking, some of the key ingredients that are common to all of Italian cuisine include onions, garlic, and olives, which are often pressed into olive oil. In Memphis, Italian cuisine thrived not only because the Italian immigrants kept the traditions alive, but also because Memphis is a port city. This allowed the frequent import of produce including tomatoes and seafood from the Gulf of Mexico to travel up the Mississippi River into Memphis. This combination of Italian traditions and Memphis culture also created dishes that are unique to Memphis including BBQ pizza, which was first served at the Coletta’s restaurant, and BBQ spaghetti, available at Interstate Barbeque and the Bar-B-Q Shop.
Greek immigrants arrived in Memphis during the late 19th and early 20th century, with many settling in the Pinch District. Other immigrant groups that called Pinch home included Irish, Italian, Russian, and Jewish families. In 1919, Greek immigrant Speros Zepatos established the Arcade Restaurant, the city’s oldest continually open restaurant.
Greek immigrants brought their faith, sometimes referred to as the Greek Orthodox Church, with them. Memphis’s first Orthodox priest came from Greece in 1907, and by 1916, his parish had enough members to purchase land down on 3rd Street and Poplar Avenue. In 1955, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church moved to its current location on N Highland Street. It has hosted the annual Memphis Greek Festival for more than 60 years. Every year, Memphians visit the Memphis Greek Festival to appreciate Greek culture and sample Greek cuisine.
Some of the most famous Greek dishes include baklava, spanakopita, and gyros. Both baklava and spanakopita are made with a thin, flaky pastry called phyllo dough. Baklava is a sweet dessert that has nuts, honey, and syrup layered inside the phyllo dough, giving the dessert a crunchy texture. Spanakopita is a savory snack that has spinach stuffed inside the phyllo. Gyros are similar to wraps. Meats like chicken, lamb, pork, or beef are stuffed into the pocket of pita bread along with onions, tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce. Tzatziki is a yogurt-based sauce or dip with garlic, cucumbers, olive oil, and herbs like dill or mint. If you want to sample some of these Mediterranean dishes year round you can visit Grecian Gourmet Taverna, Taziki’s, and Happy Greek Cafe.
In the 1840s, a large wave of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States because a devastating potato famine had destroyed the main source of food for much of the population of their home country. Irish immigrants, particularly unmarried women, arrived in large numbers from the 1850s on through the early 1900s. By the 1860s, the Irish immigrants were the largest immigrant group in Memphis, with a population that represented around 20-25% of the entire city.
The Irish imprint on the city of Memphis is still visible. Today, we have a number of Catholics and Catholic churches in the city, thanks in part to the Irish Catholics who arrived in Memphis. We also have a thriving pub tradition in Memphis, including convivial establishments like Silky O’Sullivan’s, Celtic Crossing, and The Brass Door. Memphis also hosts annually the Silky O’Sullivan’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Beale Street, which draws fans of Ireland and beer lovers alike. When discussing Irish cuisine, the most common ingredients and dishes are hearty and include many root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and onions. Stews with lamb and beef also play an important role in Irish cuisine.
Cajun, Creole, African & Caribbean Cuisine: Adapting to their Environments & Outside Influences - November 9, 2020
On first inspection, Cajun, Creole, African, and Caribbean cuisines may all seem very different. Each culture group and its cuisine has its own traditions and practices, which lends itself to a wide array of dishes. However, there are commonalities that link these groups. People from each culture use their environments to grow the best possible ingredients and to adapt when their environment changes. Historically, these groups maintained their identities when faced with colonialism or forced migration. This post will take a look at these two common traits found in these cultures and how they made their mark on the culinary world and on Memphis.
Cajun cuisine is a mix of many different food traditions. The name “Cajun” is an evolution of the word “Acadian,” the people who began this style of cooking. The Acadians were a group of French immigrants who migrated to Northeastern Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1755, the Acadians refused to submit to the British Crown, and the British deported them to Louisiana. After relocating, the Acadians adapted their culinary traditions to their new environment. Cajun cuisine relies heavily on seafood such as crawfish. The Native Americans, Creoles, Spaniards, Germans, and Italians who also lived in Louisiana influenced Acadians’ cooking. During this time, Cajun cuisine was considered the food of peasants and many dishes were one-pot meals, meaning the vegetables, meats, and seafood were all cooked together.
Celery, onions, and bell peppers are three of the most important vegetables used in Cajun cooking. They are called “The Holy Trinity,” and can be found in almost every Cajun meal. Crawfish is also a staple of Cajun cuisine. Crawfish boils provide delicious flavor and serve as a way to unite the community. Because Memphis is a port city, this appreciation and love of Cajun food traveled to the Bluff City up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Memphis even has an annual Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival on Riverside Drive.
What makes Creole cuisine distinct from Cajun cuisine is the people who did the cooking. When discussing Cajun cuisine, we are referring to the food of the usually poor French immigrants who settled in rural Louisiana. Creole cuisine is a bit harder to pin down because its definition has changed over the years. Generally, Creole cuisine is thought to be food made in New Orleans or Louisiana that is cooked by someone with ancestors who were French, African, Spanish, Caribbean, or other immigrant groups. The European settlers who came to New Orleans tended to be aristocrats and used more spices and “exotic” ingredients, like tomatoes.
A dish that perfectly reflects the mash-up of cultural influences on Creole cuisine is gumbo. Gumbo is a dark, flavorful soup that is sometimes served with rice. To start the gumbo, Creole recipes call for a French roux of butter and flour to thicken the soup. Cajun recipes use an oil and flour roux. Creole gumbos also have the Holy Trinity as well as African okra, Spanish peppers, seafood including crawfish, oysters, and crabs from the Gulf, tomatoes, and many flavorful herbs and spices like saffron. To sample the enticing Louisiana flavors in Memphis, visit restaurants like The Half Shell, Restaurant Iris, and The Bayou Bar & Grill.
Africa is a vast and diverse continent with a history that is reflected in its regional foodways. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the race to the “New World,” outside nations influenced African cuisines through the introduction of spices, foodstuffs, and cooking styles from other parts of the world. The continent’s varied landscapes and climates also influenced cuisines, determining the types of ingredients used by its peoples. As discussed previously, enslaved Africans brought their culinary traditions to the Americas, which is reflected in Southern and Soul food traditions. More recent African immigrants and refugees also bring their regional cuisine with them to Memphis.
West African cooking encompasses a diverse range of dishes from 16 different countries including Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria. These dishes are typically made from livestock and vegetables such as rice, cassava, leafy greens, and starch vegetables that a family would raise and grow. Many dishes have a base of tomatoes, onions and chili peppers which are sautéed for a slightly tangy flavor. This base could be considered the African “Holy Trinity,” similar to the Holy Trinity found in Cajun and Creole cuisines. Other common ingredients are black-eyed peas, sesame, and okra, which are often used to thicken soups like draw soups. Draw soup is a term given to thick soups made from okra, ogbono seeds and ewedu leaves. Soups and stews like draw soups are typically served with rice or fufu, a bread made from cassava. Furthermore, West Africans also consume a number of meats and fish from the coastal region including dried and smoked fishes cooked in various combinations of sauces, stews, and other dishes. Bala Tounkara, owner of Bala’s Bistro in Whitehaven, was raised in West Africa and serves dishes that reflect his Malian, Mauritanian, and Sengalese heritage.
East Africa includes countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan. With about 20 different countries making up this region, the cuisine changes from area to area because of environmental and cultural influences. For example, in the inland Savannah people eat meat products often, because their herds are seen as currency. Conversely, most traditional East Africans use the milk and blood of their cattle, rather than the meat. Locals also grow various grains and vegetables that are often consumed in stews.
One of the most well-known cuisines from East Africa is Ethiopian cuisine. Ethiopian dishes are typically characterized by injera, a large sourdough flatbread, that is accompanied by a spicy stew. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims avoid eating pork and shellfish for religious reasons. These religious groups also uphold strict fasting practices and have found substitutes for animal fats, which are forbidden during fasting periods. If you would like to sample the taste of Ethiopia here in Memphis, you can eat at Derae Restaurant on S. Highland Street or Abyssinia Restaurant on Poplar Avenue.
North Africa rests along the Mediterranean Sea and includes countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan. The early empires that ruled Northern Africa were large, and traders, occupiers, and travelers introduced many foodstuffs. For example, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians introduced sausages, wheat, and semolina, a wheat by-product that Berbers later incorporated into couscous. Romans introduced olives and olive oil, and Arabians introduced a number of spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Later, the Ottomans followed with sweet pastries and other bakery goods along with potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini and chili peppers.
One of the most well-known cuisines from North Africa is Moroccan cuisine. These dishes are a mixture of influences from Berber, Arabian, Andalusian, and Mediterranean cuisines. The common ingredients used in their dishes are fruits and vegetables that are grown in the Mediterranean as well as wheat used in bread and couscous. Beef, goat, mutton, lamb, chicken, and seafood are included in their diets. Spices are used extensively with these meats and dishes. They are combined to make a spice mixture called ras el hanout. Casbah Restaurant in Cordova serves Moroccan food. For Sudanese food, you can visit the food stall of Chef Ibti Salih, a political refugee, at Global Café in the Crosstown Concourse.
South Africa includes the five countries at the southernmost part of the continent. The cuisine of this region is very diverse, reflecting the region’s long history of colonialism. Typically, the cuisine is meat-heavy. At this time, there are no restaurants in Memphis specializing in South African cuisine.
Like the different regions of Africa, the Caribbean has a wide range of countries including Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica. Each of these countries’ cuisines have been influenced by African, Cajun, Creole, Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Some commonalities are that dishes are often served with rice, and are prepared with ingredients like beans, bell peppers, and tomatoes and include proteins such as beef, pork, chicken, or fish.
Jamaican cuisine is particularly popular and is heavily influenced by these other cultures. For instance, Jamaican food contains ingredients produced by crops that were introduced from Southeast Asia. This influence is evident in dishes like curries and roti. During the slave trade, Africans introduced rice, peas, and seasoning methods used to make jerk spice, a cooking style that is particular to Jamaica. It consists of dry rubbing or marinating with the jerk spice mixture. The smoky flavor can be achieved through wood burning ovens. The Spanish introduced escovitch fish and other salt fishes, a staple in Jamaican cuisine that is often served as a main dish. For Caribbean flavors in Memphis, try restaurants like Curry N Jerk, Evelyn & Olive, and Havana’s Pilon.
The Intersection of Southern, Soul & BBQ Cuisine - November 2, 2020
Memphis is a hub for cultural diversity. The majority of the population is composed of minority groups, which provides a rich and varied cultural environment. The stretch of Summer Avenue between White Station Road and Highland Road was dubbed “Nation’s Highway” in 2019, and many Memphians hope that the area will be considered the first international district in Memphis, with more than 30 countries represented in this neighborhood alone. This month, we celebrate Memphis’s cultural diversity through the foodways found in our city, starting with Southern food, Soul food, and barbeque.
Southern Food & Soul Food
Southern and Soul foods are two important cuisines in the Memphis area. The two are sometimes referred to interchangeably, but they are distinct cuisines that have an interrelated history. Southern food refers to the dishes developed throughout the Southern United States that use ingredients that are readily available in warmer climates. Southern food is rooted in local ingredients and fresh produce. Soul food developed within the traditional cooking techniques and ingredients of Southern cuisine with an emphasis on not wasting food. Fried chicken, okra, biscuits and gravy, cornbread, pork, and greens are common dishes and ingredients used in both Southern and Soul food. There is an ongoing debate about what constitutes the difference between Southern and Soul food.
Soul food has its roots with the enslaved African peoples who were brought to America via the trans-Atlantic slave trade and got its name during the Black Pride movement of the 1960s. Image 2 When enslaved people were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, the slave traders loaded their ships with foods indigenous to Africa: okra, black eyed peas, peanuts, watermelon, and yams. Enslaved Africans also brought their knowledge of rice cultivation to the Carolinas, where their expertise transformed the region’s economy.
Once enslaved people arrived in the Americas, owners gave them small quantities of low quality rations which enslaved people supplemented by planting gardens with foods from their homes. They also ate the leftover animal parts such as pig ears, hog intestines, and tripe that their owners did not want. Enslaved people also drank potlikker, the broth left behind after boiling greens or beans. Owners typically discarded potlikker, but the broth contained vitamins A, B, and C as well as potassium, which enslaved people needed to supplement their diet. Enslaved people adapted their own food traditions and techniques to give their rations more flavor and increase its nutritional value. These techniques and the necessity of not wasting ingredients continued in Black cooking after emancipation. During the Great Migration, Black migrants took these food traditions with them to Northern cities.
It’s hard to talk about Memphis without mentioning the cuisine we’re most famous for: barbecue. Barbecue, barbeque, or BBQ, depending on who you talk to, is Memphis’s most important contribution to the culinary world, but barbecue cooking did not begin in Memphis. Its roots are grounded in Caribbean tradition that Spanish conquistadors imported into the New World. On the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic today), Indigenous peoples cooked meat over indirect flames with green wood so that the wood and food would not burn. When the Spanish encountered this, they called the technique barbacoa, which is where we get the name barbecue.
Different regions in the United States are known for their distinct tasting barbecue. All types of barbeque involve cooking the meat very slowly over low, indirect heat. Flavor profiles vary, depending on the region. The main hubs for barbecue cooking are North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City. Memphis’ distinct barbeque focuses on using pork as the protein and a sweet, tomato-based sauce. Pork became the staple of different barbecue styles, including Memphis’s, because pigs require little maintenance. Cattle need enclosed spaces and large amounts of food, while pigs can roam wildly. Also, pork is typically lean, making it a prime candidate for low and slow barbecue cooking which tenderizes the meat. Cooks developed Memphis’s unique, sweet sauce because of the easy access to goods on the Mississippi River. As a port town, goods like molasses and tomatoes passed frequently into Memphis, and over time, secret sauces were born Memphis chefs have added our signature barbeque to pizza, spaghetti, and nachos. If you want to check out some tasty Memphis barbecue, try The Bar-B-Q Shop, Rendezvous, Leonard's Pit Barbecue, and Central BBQ among many others.
For further reading:
The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge