We got a sayin’, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” which is usually meant as a compliment. To my mind, it also refers to the delectable treats we as a people harvested for our owners and for our own selves all these many years, slave or free. In fact, we knew something about the land, sensuality, rhythm and ourselves that has continued to elude our captors—puttin’ aside all our treasures in the basement of the British Museum, or the Met, for that matter. What am I talkin’ about? A different approach to the force of gravity, to our bodies, and what we produce: a reverence for the efforts of the group and the intimate couple. Harvest time and Christmas were prime occasions for courtin’. A famine, a drought, a flood or Lent do not serve as inspiration for couplin’, you see.
The Juba, a dance of courtin’ known in slave quarters of North America and the Caribbean, is a phenomenon that stayed with us through the jitterbug, the wobble, the butterfly, as a means of courtin’ that’s apparently very colored, and very “African.” In fact we still have it and we’ve never been so “integrated”—the Soul Train dancers aren’t all black anymore, but the dynamic certainly is. A visitor to Cuba in Lynne Fauley Emery’s “Dance Horizon Book” described the Juba as a series of challenges.
A woman advances and commencing a slow dance, made up of shuffling of the feet and various contortions of the body, thus challenges a rival from among the men. One of these, bolder than the rest, after a while steps out, and the two then strive which shall tire the other; the woman performing many feats which the man attempts to rival, often excelling them, amid the shouts of the rest. A woman will sometimes drive two or three successive beaux from the ring, yielding her place at length to some impatient belle.
John Henry went up against a locomotive, but decades before we simply were up against ourselves and the elements. And so we are performers in the fields, in the kitchens, by kilns, and for one another. Sterling Stuckey points out, in “Slave Culture,” however, that by 1794 “it was illegal to allow slaves to dance and drink on the premises … without the written consent of their owners,” the exceptions being Christmas and the burials, which are communal experiences. And what shall we plant and harvest, so that we might “Hab big times duh fus hahves, and duh fus ting wut growed we take tuh duh church so as ebrybody could hab a pieces ub it. We pray over it and shout. Wen we hab a dance, we use tuh shout in a rinig. We ain’t have wutyuh call a propuh dance tuday.”
Say we’ve gone about our owners’ business. Planted and harvested his crop of sugar cane, remembering that the “ration of slaves/ sugar was ten times that of slaves/ tobacco and slaves/cotton.”That to plant a sugar crop we have to dig a pit 3 feet square and a few inches deep into which one young plant is set. Then, of course, the thing has to grow. A mature sugar-cane plant is 3-9 feet tall. That’s got to be cut at exactly the right point. Then we’ve got to crush it, boil it, refine it, from thick black syrup to fine white sugar, to make sure, as they say in Virginia, that we “got the niggah out.” Now it’s time to tend to our own gardens. Let’s grow some sweet potatoes to “keep the niggah alive.”
Like everything else, we have to start with something. Now we need a small piece of potato with at least one of those scraggly roots hanging about for this native Central American tuber. This vegetable will stand more heat than almost any other grown in the United States. It does not take to cool weather, and any kind of frost early or seasonal will kill the leaves, and if your soil gets cold the tubers themselves will not look very good. Get your soil ready at least two weeks before planting, weeding, turning, and generally disrupting the congealed and solid mass we refer to as dirt, so that your hands and the tubers may move easily through the soil, as will water and other nutrients.
Once the soil is free of winter, two weeks after the last frost, plant the potato slips in 6-12-inch ridges, 3-4.5 feet apart. Separate the plants by 9-Í2 inches. If we space the plants more than that, our tubers may be grand, but way too big to make good use of in the kitchen. We should harvest our sweet potatoes when the tubers are not quite ripe, but of good size, or we can wait until the vines turn yellow. Don’t handle our potatoes too roughly, which could lead to bruising and decay. If a frost comes upon us unexpectedly, take those potatoes out the ground right away. Our potatoes will show marked improvement during storage, which allows the starch in them to turn to sugar. Nevertheless let them lie out in the open for 2 to 3 hours to fully dry. Then move them to a moist and warm storage space. The growing time for our crop’ll vary from 95 to 125 days.
The easiest thing to do with a sweet potato is to bake it. In its skin. I coat the thing with olive oil, or butter in a pinch. Wrap it in some aluminum foil, set it in the oven at 400 degrees. Wait till I hear sizzling, anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour after, in a very hot oven. I can eat it with my supper at that point or I can let it cool off for later. (One of the sexiest dates I ever went on was to the movies to see “El Mariachi. “My date brought along chilled baked sweet potatoes and ginger beer. Much nicer than canola-sprayed “buttered” popcorn with too syrupy Coca-Cola, wouldn’t you say?)
No, they are not the same as collards. We could say they, with their frilly edges and sinuous shapes, have more character, are more flirtatious, than collards. This green can be planted in the spring or the fall, so long as the soil is workable (not cold). It’s not a hot weather plant, preferring short days and temperate climates. We can use the same techniques for mustard greens that we use for lettuce. Sowing the seeds in rows Í2-18 inches apart, seedlings 4-8 inches apart. These plants should get lots of fertilizer to end up tender, lots of water, too. They should be harvested before they are fully mature. Now, you’ve got to be alert, because mustard greens grow fast, 25-40 days from the time you set them in the soil to harvest. When it comes time to reap what you’ve sown, gather the outer leaves when they are 3-4 inches long, tender enough; let the inner leaves then develop more or wait till it’s hot and harvest the whole plant. Now we cook the mustard greens just like the collards, or we don’t have to cook it at all. This vegetable is fine in salads or on sandwiches and soups. If you shy away from pungent tastes, mix these greens with some collards, kale,
or beet greens. That should take some of the kick out of them. I still like my peppers and vinegar, though. If we go back, pre-Columbus, the Caribs did, too. According to Spanish travelers, the Caribs, who fancied vegetables, added strong peppers called aji-aji to just about everything. We can still find aji-aji on some sauces from Spanish-speaking countries if we read the labels carefully. Like “La Morena.” So appropriate.
The watermelon is an integral part of our actual life as much as it is a feature of our stereotypical lives in the movies, posters, racial jokes, toys, and early American portraits of the “happy darky.” We could just as easily been eatin’ watermelon in D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” as chicken legs. The implications are the same. Like the watermelon, we were a throwback of “African” pre-history, which isn’t too off, since Lucy, the oldest Homo sapiens currently known is from Africa, too.
But I remember being instructed not to order watermelon in restaurants or to eat watermelon in any public places because it makes white people think poorly of us. They already did that, so I don’t see what the watermelon was going to precipitate. Europeans brought watermelon with them from Africa anyway. In Massachusetts by 1629 it was recorded as “abounding. “ In my rebelliousness as a child, I got so angry about the status of the watermelon, I tried to grow some in the flower box on our front porch in Missouri. My harvest was minimal to say the least.
Here’s how you can really grow you some watermelon. They like summer heat, particularly sultry, damp nights. If we can grow watermelons, we can grow ourselves almost any other kind of melon. The treatment is the same. Now, these need some space, if we’re looking for a refrigerator-sized melon or one ranging from 25-30pounds. Let them have afoot between plants in between rows 4-6 feet apart. They need a lot of fertilizer, especially if the soil is heavy and doesn’t drain well. When the runners (vines) are afoot to a foot-and-a-halflong, fertilize again about 8 inches from the plant itself Put some more fertilizer when the first melons appear. Watermelons come in different varieties, but I’m telling you about the red kind. I have no primal response to a golden or blanched fleshed melon. Once your melons set on the vines and start to really take up some space, be sure not to forget to water the vines during the ripening process.
When is your watermelon ripe? You can’t tell by thumping it nor by the curly tail at the point where the melon is still on the vine. The best way to know if your melon is ready is by looking at the bottom. The center turns from a light yellow to deep amber. Your melon’ll have a powdery or mushy tasteless sorta taste if you let it ripen too long.
Surely you’ve seen enough pictures or been to enough picnics to know how to eat a watermelon, so I won’t insult you with that information. However, there is a fractious continuing debate about whether to sprinkle sugar or salt on your watermelon slice. I am not going to take sides in this matter.
Some of us were carried to the New World specifically because we knew ‘bout certain crops, knew ‘bout the groomin’ and harvestin’ of rice, for instance.
Plantation owners were perfectly aware of the superiority … of African slaves from rice country. Littlefield (journalist) writes that ‘as early as 1700 ships from Carolina were reported in the Gambia River.’ … In a letter dated 1756, Henry Laurens, a Charleston merchant, wrote, ‘The slaves from the River Gambia are prefer’d to all others with us save the Gold Coast.’ The previous year he had written: ‘Gold Coast or Gambias are best; next to them the Windward Coast are prefer’d to Angolas.’
These bits of information throw an entirely different, more dignified light on “colored” cuisine, for me. Particularly since I was raised on rice and my mother’s people on both sides are indefatigable Carolinians, South, to be exact, South Carolinians. To some, our “phrenologically immature brains” didn’t have consequence until our mastery of the cultivation of “cargo,” “patna,”“joponica,” and finally Carolina rice, “small-grained, rather long and wiry, and remarkably white” was transferred to the books and records of our owners. Nevertheless, our penchant for rice was not dampened by its relationship to our bondage. Whether through force or will, we held on to our rice-eatin’ heritage. I repeat, I was raised on rice. If I was Joe Williams, insteada singin”’Every day, every day, I sing the blues,” I’d be sayin’, “Oh, every day, almost any kinda way, I get my rice.”
My poor mother, Eloise, Ellie, for short, made the mistake of marrying a man who was raised by a woman from Canada. So every day, he wanted a potato, some kinda potato, mashed, boiled, baked, scalloped, fried, just a potato. Yet my mother was raising a sixth generation of Carolinians, which meant we had to eat some kinda rice. Thus, Ellie was busy fixing potato for one and rice for all the rest every day, until I finally learnt how to do one or the other and gave her a break. I asked Ellie Williams how her mother, Viola, went about preparing the rice for her “chirren”—a Low-country linguistic lapse referring to off-spring like me. Anyway, this is what Mama said.
“We’d buy some rice in a brown paper bag (this is in The Bronx). Soak it in a bit of water. Rinse it off and cook it the same way we do now.” “How is that, Ma?” I asked. “Well, you boil a certain amount of water. Let it boil good. Add your rice and let it boil till tender. Stirring every so often because you want the water to evaporate. You lift your pot. You can tell if your rice is okay because there’s no water there. Then you fluff it with a fork. You want every kind, extra, extra, what you call it. No ordinary olive oil will do.
“Heat this up. Just a little bit of it. You don’t want no greasy rice, do you? Heat this until, oh, it is so hot that the smoke is coming quick. Throw in 3-4 cloves garlic, maybe 1 cup chopped onion too, I forgot. Let that sizzle and soften with 1/2 cup each cilantro, pimiento, and everything. But don’t let this get burned, no. So add your 4 cups water and 2 cups rice. Turn up the heat some more till there’s a great boiling of rice, water, seasonings. The whole thing. Then leave it alone for a while with the cover on so all the rice cooks even. Now, when you check and see there’s only a small bit of water left in the bottom of the pot, stir it all up. Turn the heat up again and wait. When there’s no water left at all, at all. Just watch the steam coming up. Of course you should have a good pegau by now, but the whole pot of your rice should be delicioso, ready even for my table. If you do as I say.“
For North Americans, a pot with burnt rice on the bottom is a scary concept. But all over the Caribbean, it’s a different story entirely. In order to avoid making asopao—a rice moist and heavy with the sofrito or tomato-achiote mixture, almost like a thick soup where the rice becomes one mass instead of standing, each grain on its own—it is necessary to let the rice on the bottom of the pot get a crustlike bottom, assuring that all moisture has evaporated. My poor North American mother, Ellie, chastises me frequently for “ruining” good rice with all this spice. Then I remind her that outside North America we Africans were left to cook in ways that reminded us of our mother’s cooking, not Jane Austen’s characters. The rice tastes different, too. But sometimes I cheat and simply use Goya’s Sazon— after all, I’m a modern woman. I shouldn’t say that too loudly, though. Mathilde can hear all the way from her front porch any blasphemous notion I have about good cooking. No, it is her good cooking that I am to learn. I think it is more than appropriate that we know something about some of the crops that led to most of us African descendants of the Diaspora, being here, to eat anything at all.
But rather than end on a sour note, I am thinking of my classes with the great Brazilian dancer, choreographer and teacher Mercedes Baptista at the now legendary Clark Center. We learned a harvest dance, for there are many, but the movements of this celebratory ritual were lyrical and delicate, far from the tortured recounts of Euro-Americans to our “jigaboo” gatherings; no gyrations, repetitive shuffling that held no interest. Indeed, the simple movement of the arms, which we worked on for days until we got it, resembled a tropical port-a-bras worthy of any ballerina. Our hip movements, ever so subtle, with four switches to the left, then four to the right, all the while turning and covering space. The head leaning in the direction of the hips, the arms moving against it, till the next hip demanded counterpoint.
A healthy respect for the land, for what we produce for the blessing of a harvest begot dances of communal joy. On New Year’s Eve in the late fifties, we danced the Madison; today it’s a burning rendition of “The Electric Slide.” Eighty-year-olds jammin’with toddlers after the weddin’ toast. No, we haven’t changed so much.