Dr. Jessica Harris, food historian and expert on African Diaspora cooking, speaks
Not only is the River Road African American Museum of Donaldsonville celebrating their twenty-fifth year, but February is also Black History Month.
Author ofIron Pots and Wooden Spoons, Dr. Jessica Harris spoke at the Ashland Belle Helene Plantation in Geismar on February 7 to help celebrate these occasions. The program was hosted by the Shell Black Network Group (SBNG) at Shell, Geismar.
To begin the program, Kathe Hambrick, RRAAM Founder, said, "I want to welcome everyone on behalf of the RRAAM. I also want to thank everyone for the twenty-five years of support. I created an exhibit on the second floor of this building, which shows the names of people who were enslaved here before."
The exhibit includes old sickles, artwork, timelines, or pieces that were used to build items. It also shares information beyond the cane fields.
One painting is of Abe Hawkins, who was America's most celebrated jockey before Isaac Murphy. Arguably, he was the first African American professional athlete who gained national and international prominence. Hawkins won the 1866 Travers Stakes aboard the horse, Merrill. Hawkins also rode many other horses, including Arrow, Whale, Panic, and Asteroid, among a few others.
Author ofThe Great Black Jockeys, Edward Hotaling, mentioned in his book that "the greatest jockeys of all were slaves and sons of slaves."
In the exhibit, you will also see rusted artifacts, which symbolize skilled workers. Those included Coopers, who were specialists in making barrels. Midwives would sometimes perform duties of a doctor, known as treaters, whom made medicine from plants and other natural products in and around the plantation.
Records show that eight to twelve hands that worked in the sugarhouse during 1852 were plantation carpenters. Enslaved carpenters were the largest single group of artisans on the estate.
To dive more into the history of the plantation, Bill Summers, a direct descendant of someone who was enslaved on that land, was at the event to share his culture.
Summers is a percussionist, and his family lives in Darrow. He has won two Grammy's for his musical scores in the television showRoots, and in the movieThe Color Purple. He shared a song that asked for people to "make way for me in life."
"I want to thank those for not just shedding light on my peoples situation, but the situation of all people," Summers said.
Shortly after, Dr. Jessica Harris began to share information on the history of food in the lives of African people.
"With the enslaved people came a serious knowledge or rice growing, recipes, and folktale," Dr. Harris said. "The enslaved brought music, too. When they came to New Orleans, the culture was fresh here, and many people were surrounded on the effort of growing sugar canes."
Dr. Harris names a few things that the enslaved brought with them after they were shipped, or marched, to where they were requested to be. A few of these foods include: leafy greens, okra, goober pears (or peanuts), seasoning pastes, chilis and hot sauces, the use of pig and pig parts, and confections.
Okra was brought in abundance and used in abundance. It is native to the African continent, and it is equally related to cotton.
Leafy green soup is not something that just stops in Louisiana. It is also made in Charleston, South Carolina. The soup in South Carolina is their version of gumbo, which is different than Louisiana's version.
"Gumbo probably takes its name from the Bantu language," Dr. Harris said. "Gumbozao is almost the same soup as Callaloo, which is a dish consisting of freshly whipped greens. It may include okra, shrimp, and crab. Gumbozao may use fish instead of the meats, though."
Another product that traveled with the enslaved are what we call pralines. Pralines were served as candies, and were usually a source of income for women and children who sold them. Today, those are enjoyed by many throughout the U.S.
"Whether it is okra on our plates, or pralines that we snack on, these are things that show us that there is more that joins us than what separates us," Dr. Harris said.
Dr. Harris has an honorary doctorate in food studies, and her experience with food derives from a hobby she has with food. With her knowledge, she applies a lot of the history and what she knows into her own dishes in the kitchen.
Follow Darian on Twitter @dariangshark.