By Steven “Konata” Allwood
There was a moment in episode 12 of Top Chef Season 8 (Top Chef: All Stars) that I’m sure went unnoticed by the vast majority of viewers. In this episode, the chefs travelled to Ellis Island where they were provided with genealogical research on their respective families, and tasked to create a meal based on their ancestral heritage. Mike and Antonia were surprised to learn that they were distant cousins with origins in the same region of Italy. Richard Blais had his ancestry traced back to England. But when it came time to reveal the ancestral heritage of Tiffany and Carla, the two African American chefs left in the competition, something different happened. Host Padma Lakshmi revealed that these chefs’ ancestral roots began in (wait for it) Texas and Louisiana! There was an abrupt edit during this exchange that probably eliminated Padma’s admission that the show researchers had hit a brick wall common to the genealogy of almost all African Americans: slavery.
Chefs of African descent and others with a passion for the soul cuisines of the African diaspora, have a lot of work to do if we want Africa to takes its rightful place on the foodie radar screen.
No mention of slavery or Africa was made at all. It’s highly disappointing that Top Chef missed a teachable moment. With today’s DNA technology, many African Americans are using genetic analysis to reveal tribal origins once obscured by the veil of enslavement. Had the Top Chef producers considered Tiffany and Carla for a DNA test? I doubt it. After all, Top Chef is lighthearted entertainment fare, hardly the type of show one turns on to hear about the horrors of slavery and America’s shameful racial past. And in fairness, had the chef’s DNA been used to trace their ancestry to Africa, would either Carla or Tiffany known how to prepare a full meal influenced by West African or Central African cuisine? Carla did prepare a West African peanut soup earlier in the season, so maybe she could have. But we’ll never know because rather than acknowledge history and give the top chefs the chance to educate viewers about a largely unknown culinary tradition, Africa and its food ways were relegated to the margins once again.
My first real introduction to African food occurred in 1997, shortly after I moved to the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. My apartment was close to the main thoroughfare of Fulton Street and I soon discovered a number of unique eateries in my neighborhood (including the only Cambodian restaurant in New York City) as well as the neighboring sections of Clinton Hill and Bedford Stuyvesant. There is a thriving Senegalese community in the area centered around a Sunni Mosque on the corner of Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue and I soon became introduced to classics such as Thiebou Djeunn (a tomato-based stew that is the national dish of Senegal), Mafe (peanut stew), and Yassa (a lemon-based stew). As far as African cuisine goes, Senegal seems to be the only West African nation to even approach the culinary map. Perhaps this owes to Senegal’s history as a French colony, it’s relatively stable government making it an attractive destination for tourists, and the use of starches (rice and couscous) that are more familiar to the American palate. The only other African cuisines to garner foodie attention are the Mediterranean cuisines of the Arabized north, the east African nations of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and more recently South Africa. There was, for a brief time, a Nigerian restaurant/convenience store/tax preparer around the corner from me. The menu was mostly in Yoruba and the owner did not seem keen to explain to a curious American exactly what egusi soup is and how to eat it with fufu? I ordered some rice and red beans and never returned.
Since moving to Atlanta in 2005, I’ve learned to cook both Mafe and Yassa. But I’m sad to say most of the African restaurants (including lots of great Ethiopian) are on the opposite side of town from me so I have not continued to experiment with other African foods. To be truthful, my own tastes lean heavily towards the flavors of Asia, with frequent forays into the cuisines of the American south, the Caribbean, and the Jewish and Italian American communities of my native New York. Like most African Americans, I’ve had little exposure to the food ways of my West and Central African Ancestors. I believe one of the biggest obstacles to greater exposure to African dishes is Africa’s staple crops. Few Americans are familiar with the use of Sorghum or Millet, let alone the Yam- and Cassava-based starches commonly used in African cooking.
Chefs of African descent and others with a passion for the soul cuisines of the African diaspora, have a lot of work to do if we want Africa to takes its rightful place on the foodie radar screen. Prior to moving to Brooklyn, I’d never even really noticed this absence or considered trying to rectify it. There are comparatively few African cookbooks on the market for those with an interest in African food ways. However, the outlook for the future is beginning to look brighter. Recent cookbooks published by authors such as Jessica Harris and Marcus Samuelsson are making African cooking more accessible to western audiences. Samuelsson in particular has been on a recent mission to bring African flavors to the attention of the foodie elite. So this Kwanzaa, I’m renewing my commitment to incorporating more of West and Central Africa into my culinary repertoire and sharing what I’ve learned of African food ways with others. If more cooks of African descent make this a priority, we can usher the food of Africa onto the culinary world stage.
Approx. 3 lbs. chicken parts (whichever you prefer)
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup cold water
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. Dijon Mustard
2 large onions, sliced
1 Bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
Whisk together lemon juice, water, Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper to taste to make a marinade. Marinade chicken and onions for four hours to overnight. Remove chicken from marinade and pat dry. Reserve marinade and onions. Season chicken liberally with salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large stew pot over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, brown the chicken pieces in batches, remove and set aside. Add remaining olive oil to the pot, reduce heat to medium, and remove onions from the marinade and sauté for approx. three minutes. Add reserved marinade and bring to a simmer. Add chicken and stir. Cover and stew over low heat or in a 350 degree oven for one hour or until cooked through and tender. Serve with rice or couscous.
Steven “Konata” Allwood is a clinical psychologist who lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two daughters. He is a self-taught home cook with a passion for trying new flavors from different countries around the world.