African slaves brought many skills with them on their unwilling journey to America. Their knowledge of woodworking and metallurgy served their masters well during slavery. After they gained their freedom, these same skills enabled many to enter the trades as craftsmen. Slaves also came to America with the syncopated rhythms and melodies of Africa. They merged these with the European adaptations of the plantation owners and created a new music, a music that evolved from field chants to spirituals to ragtime and ultimately to blues, jazz, and gospel. African American cuisine evolved in a similar fashion. The slaves brought to the Americas a knowledge of spices and herbaceous roots, as well as recipes for transforming even the gamiest meats into culinary works of art. Add this to the lush vegetables, fruits, and grains of the Native Americans and the livestock introduced by planters and plantation owners, and you have the basic scenario for the evolution of soul food.
In effect, the two living conditions encountered by slaves in field quarters and in the “big house” resulted in the development of two separate, but related cuisines. The vast majority of slaves lived in field quarters and were more often than not given inferior cuts of meat: from the hog, entrails, feet, ears, and so on; from the chicken, wings, feet, gizzards, liver, and the like. As a means of economic necessity and survival, slave cooks adapted these coarse ingredients to sustain the field hands.
Meanwhile, slave cooks in the “big house” invariably worked with the choicest cuts of meat. They endeared themselves to all by emerging from the “plantation kitchen” with mouth-watering dishes such as smothered pork chops and steaks, beef stew, and fried, smothered or baked chicken accented by collard greens, corn bread, sweet potato pie. Ironically, the slave cook’s magic with bitter greens made them irresistible to the residents of the plantation proper. When these plantation owners entertained guests from other parts of the country and abroad, their visitors must have been impressed by the fresh, robust, and exciting cuisine produced by the slave cooks. Imagine also their surprise when they heard the strange, syncopated new music emanating from the slave quarters.
Nowhere was this scene more often repeated than in the Mississippi Delta. The Mississippi Delta is a region along the border of Arkansas that ranges as far south as Vicksburg to just south of Memphis. To travel along Mississippi’s Highway 61 is to retrace the history of the blues in America. New Orleans, Vicksburg, Rolling Fork, Greenville, Indianola, Cleveland, Clarksdale, and Tunica all parallel the highway that snakes along the border like its neighbor, the Mississippi River. At the turn of the 20th century, these Delta towns were the birthplace of many of America’s blues legends. Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Albert King, B.B. King, Memphis Minnie, McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Charlie Patton, and Bukka White are but a few from a very long list. Even before them, musicians were roaming the Delta, putting to music the hard conditions of life in the cotton fields that had their origins in slavery. This was a fertile environment for a young W.C. Handy to add form to the music, put it on paper, and share it with the rest of the United States and the world.
During the period when W.C. Handy was plying the Delta in search of the blues, Scott Joplin was refining another of America’s original musical forms, ragtime. His syncopated piano style and numerous ragtime compositions earned him distinction as the king of rag. The emergence of blues and ragtime during the first decade of the 1900s captivated the entire country.
Also in the first decade of the century, a young cornet player in New Orleans named Buddy Bolden was taking a different direction. His improvisations on the cornet were mirrored by most of the young musicians of the city. Pianist Jelly Roll Morton and cornetist Joe “King” Oliver left New Orleans and took the music to Chicago, where, during the second decade of the century, jazz found a fertile environment and exploded across America. It also spread rapidly throughout Europe when Mobile, AL native James Reese took his 369th Infantry Division Band to Europe during World War I and brought African American music to a world stage.
Read more in American Blues, Jazz and Soul Food, 2nd Edition. Available in hardback, paperback and e-book on Authorhouse.com.