Like musical rhythms, patterns of dance or styles of dress, food has always been a primary means of cultural exchange, and perhaps the one most readily assimilated into American life.
For example, many of the food traditions enjoyed in this area and in the South in general have their roots in West Africa. A recent examination of the diet of slaves in the antebellum period demonstrates how African foods and methods of cooking, replicated by blacks brought here, frequently became a part of American cuisine.
At a recent lecture, "Afro-American Foodways," held at the Charles Sumner museum and archives, historian Stacy Gibbons Moore said that her studies of plantation life in antebellum Virginia indicated that "the primary exchange of cultural information within the household was through the cook."
"The cook was one of the most valuable members of the household," asserts Moore, "and they were frequently able to do things their own way, and passed on customs unique to black society.
"In the 18th and 19th century, white Americans began to prepare, or have prepared for them, and to consume African foods," said Moore. "Peanuts were important to the African diet, and peanut soup would in time become a traditional Virginia dish. Another dish, of possum and sweet potatoes, was a true hybrid of American and African cultures."
In the 1824 cookbook "The Virginia House-wife," author Mary Randolph's recipes for "Ochra (okra) Soup," "An Excellent and Cheap Dessert Dish" using hominy and corn meal, and "Gumbo -- A West India Dish" meld ingredients common to both continents.
Some foods, such as rice, became important staples of the American diet, particularly in the South. Cowpeas (also known as black-eyed peas), are indigenous to West Africa, and make their appearance as the key ingredient in the classic southern dish Hoppin' John.
Moore points out that the continued interaction between black and white societies eventually began to erode African traditions among the slaves. At the same time however, white culture began to incorporate some black traditions, at least in the kitchen.
The research presented by Moore, a historian with the Virginia State Library and Archives and an editor for "Virginia Cavalcade" quarterly magazine, was partly gathered from published interviews of former slaves conducted by the Works Projects Administration (WPA). However, because slaves were forbidden to read and write, personal accounts are rare, and she said, "much of the information is based on diaries and journals and letters, but written by white authors."
The authors "were naturally biased and there were a lot of things that they might not have looked for or there were things that they were not privy to," she added.
She found that while cornmeal and hominy were the mainstay of the slave diet ("and may have been the only nourishment for some"), some slaves were given "kitchen gardens," private plots of land on which to grow vegetables. A typical garden would include beans, squash and sweet potatoes, but research also shows that vegetables such as cabbages, turnips, beets, peas and pumpkins were often available in quantity and variety.
Hunting and fishing were often permissible, says Moore. Pork meat (of poor quality) was sometimes given as a weekly ration. Besides the value of protein, pork provided the fat essential to diets that relied heavily on vegetables and carbohydrates, and was also a good seasoning agent. Fruits are less frequently mentioned as a part of the diet.
Even stealing, said Moore, "introduced some element of choice; and the presence of wild foods remains indicate that their diet may have been more nutritious only through their own efforts."
Janet Jones Hampton, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia and a member of the D.C. Community Humanities Council, said after the lecture that she was surprised to hear that some slaves were allowed to keep gardens and hunt. The lecture, she said, "Puts food in a context we don't often think of."
"I think of the old adage, you are what you eat," said Hampton. "You can see what's happened in the black communities that have remained intact, the relationship between what was eaten then and what is eaten now."
"Foodways, like music and dancing, was a way for slaves to recreate, in some way, an aspect of their culture," said Moore.
The lecture, sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation, the Octagon Museum, and the D.C. Community Humanities Council, was the third in a series about cultural aspects of food and dining in the early federal period. This series is a preview of "The Taste of Power: Domestic Life in the Federal City," an exhibition of art and artifacts to be held at the Octagon. The last two lectures scheduled are "Thomas Jefferson & Early 19th-Century Dining at Monticello" (Sept. 13), and "Distribution & Change In Early 19th-Century Foods" (Oct. 11).
"The Taste of Power: Domestic Life in the Federal City" exhibit opens Aug. 8 and runs through Oct. 30 at the Octagon Museum, 1799 New York Ave. NW. For further information about the lecture series and exhibition, call Gail Leeds at 626-7512.
EDNA LEWIS' RED RICE (4 servings)
In Africa it is called Jolof rice, after the Jolof people of Gambia, and it is more of a stew, containing a leafy vegetable and usually crayfish, rather than ham. Lewis met and talked with some elderly women in Charleston who had long ago worked in the rice fields that used to surround the city and, not surprisingly, learned that Red Rice is a very old dish. It has existed since the days of slavery, which probably explains the African connection.
5 or 6 slices good-flavored bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2/3 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 small, round hot peppers, seeded and chopped
2 cups fresh tomato pure'e
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 cups cold water
2 cups rice
1 cup, or more, small pieces cooked ham or fish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until crisp. Remove the bacon pieces from the pan and set aside. Pour off half the bacon fat and heat the remaining fat over medium-high heat. Add the onions, stir, and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in the thyme and then add the green and hot peppers. Mix well and add the tomato pure'e and brown sugar. Add the water and stir in the rice.
Cover the pan and let the mixture simmer on a low burner for about 15 minutes, until the rice begins to cook. Add the bacon pieces and the ham or fish, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and spoon the mixture into a casserole or rice steamer. Cover tightly and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 to 60 minutes, until the rice is tender. Serve with a green salad and bread.
Per serving: 261 calories, 14 gm protein, 35 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 994 mg sodium.
From "In Pursuit Of Flavor" by Edna Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) BLACK-EYED PEAS IN TOMATO AND ONION SAUCE (4 servings)
Edna Lewis tried cooking black-eyed peas this way instead of with a piece of pork, as everyone else does. She felt that the tomatoes and onions, garlic and parsley and olive oil gave peas a real interesting flavor -- which, after all, they needed.
1 cup black-eyed peas
4 cups cold water
1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 3/4 cups tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into pieces
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
To prepare, pick over the peas, removing the discolored ones or stones that are often found. Wash in cold water and then place in a large pot with the water. (The peas will expand and cook more uniformly if they are not crowded in the pot.) Cook over medium-high heat for 30 minutes, then test the peas. If they are tender but still firm and have no raw taste, drain them and immediately run cold water over to stop the cooking and keep them from falling apart. Drain and set aside until needed.
If they are not quite ready, cook them for another 10 minutes and test them again. Depending on how dried out they are, black-eyed peas cook at different rates. Do not overcook them -- they will cook a bit more once they are in the sauce. They should be served whole in the sauce and not mushy.
Heat a 9-inch skillet until hot, then add the olive oil. Add the onion, saute' a minute, then add the garlic and the prepared tomatoes, and cook the mixture slowly for 30 minutes. Stir often during cooking. Add the black-eyed peas, mix well, and season with salt and pepper (the peas should be well seasoned). Cook gently for 10 minutes more, then add the parsley. Spoon the beans into a casserole and set in a warm place until ready to serve. The dish can be reheated in the oven. Serve hot but not overcooked.
Per serving: 237 calories, 5 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 174 mg sodium.
From "In Pursuit Of Flavor" by Edna Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) WHIPPED CORNMEAL WITH OKRA (4 servings)
2 1/2 to 3 cups water
6 pods fresh, tender okra, sliced
1 cup white cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, or to taste, cut into pieces
Bring the water to a gentle boil in a 3-quart saucepan and cook the okra for about 10 minutes. Lift the okra from the water with a slotted spoon and set aside. Raise the heat so that the water is boiling briskly. Add the cornmeal in a thin, steady stream, stirring all the while to prevent lumping. Never let the water stop boiling.
Add the salt and the okra, still stirring, and cook for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the butter a piece at a time, stirring after each addition until all the butter is incorporated. Keep stirring until the okra has practically disappeared and the cornmeal is light and fluffy. Taste for seasoning and serve the cornmeal hot.
Per serving: 308 calories, 3 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, 24 gm fat, 14 gm saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium.
From "In Pursuit Of Flavor" by Edna Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) HOT MOLASSES CAKE (16 servings)
2 1/4 cups cake flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup milk
Sift flour once, measure, add baking powder, salt, soda and spices and sift together three times. Cream butter thoroughly. Add sugar gradually and cream together until light and fluffy. Add egg, well beaten, and molasses. Add flour alternately with milk, a small amount at a time. Beat after each addition until smooth.
Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven, in two buttered 8-inch round cake pans, for 20 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.
Per serving: 156 calories, 2 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 241 mg sodium.
From "Aspects of Afro-American Cookery" by Howard Paige (Aspects Publishing Co., 1987)