When you sit down to a holiday meal this season — particularly in Maryland — there’s a good chance you’ll be eating at least one dish invented or inspired by the Black diaspora.
Although Black people in America account for 13.6% of the population, their influence on the country’s food landscape is undeniable.
Whether it be macaroni and cheese, fried turkey, collard greens or candied yams, these holiday favorites are directly linked to the culinary greatness of Black Americans, according to food historians and chefs.
“You really can’t talk about holiday foods and American food without African Americans,” said chef David Thomas, who along with his wife Tonya Thomas are owners of H3irloom Food Group. “The origins of food in this country start with our people. Whether it is the ingredients that were imported by the colonizers and us. We have been involved since the beginning. We’re not only the influencer but the originator.”
Black people have changed the way that Americans eat, according to Kara Harris, author of the Maryland food blog “Old Line Plate.” She also authored the 2023 book, “Festive Maryland Recipes.” That book contains recipes for Hoppin’ John, sauerkraut, and stuffed ham.
“It’s so ingrained in the culture,” she said. “It’s a huge part of all the foods.”
One of the major reasons why these food origins and contributions might come as a surprise to many Americans is because Black people have historically been prevented from receiving credit for their creations, according to Thomas.
“Look who wrote early cookbooks,” Thomas said. “We clearly know those recipes came out of Black kitchens. But not only were we owned but our intellectual property was sold. So these cookbooks were made and marketed as the invention of white people.”
Macaroni and cheese
Long considered the centerpiece of soul food sides, this country’s love affair with the cheesy pasta dish originates with James Hemings, who was born in Virginia in 1765 but lived in Baltimore as an adult. He was living in the city and working at a tavern, the Colombian Inn at 237 Baltimore St., when he died at age 36.
Hemings, an enslaved man who was also President Thomas Jefferson’s personal chef, is considered the “founding father of fine food in America” and the country’s first master chef. Hemings was also the first American trained as a French chef. It was in France where he picked up the cooking techniques and recipes that led him to bring back and popularize macaroni and cheese in America.
“Your soul food dinner isn’t complete without mac and cheese on the table,” said Cia Carter, owner of Miss Carter’s Kitchen, Miss Carter’s Place and Kay’s Place. “It’s a dish we love, and we will critique it if it is not made correctly. Our ancestors cooked mac and cheese as a meal stretcher to feed the whole family. But now it’s considered a five-star gourmet dish. We definitely spare no cost when preparing it.”
The tradition of serving a cooked ham stuffed with various greens and spices originated with enslaved Black people on the Catholic plantations of St. Mary’s County, according to Harris.
“It’s such a labor of love to make it,” Harris said. “I’ve made it a few times and it’s so labor-intensive.”
The process of making the dish takes about six hours and requires large cooking tools and significant space to assemble, according to Harris.
“It’s a whole process. You just can’t stick it in the oven,” she said. “It’s also very pricey.”
The labor-intensive nature of the preparation is well worth it, as the finished product has a “unique flavor” that “all comes out together,” according to Harris.
The dish involves procuring a specific corned ham, which is made at the Baltimore-based Manger Packing Corp., deboning the meat and then stuffing it with a mixture of greens and spices. Those greens can be anything from cabbage, turnip greens, mustard greens or kale.
“It’s got the potlikker and the seasonings,” Harris gushed. “It makes it a more complete meal. I think it’s so good.”
Although sauerkraut in America originates with Germans, Black Marylanders have made the dish their own by taking the fermented cabbage and accenting it with pig tails or other smoked meats in addition to a mix of brown sugar, caraway seeds and poultry seasoning. Black Marylanders were first introduced to the dish by those with German heritage, who accounted for one in four Baltimoreans when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. Many of those Germans employed freed Black domestic workers in addition to owning slaves, which is where the cultural exchange occurred.
The bolder, more complex approach to seasoning foods — which is a hallmark of Black American cuisine, particularly during the times of slavery when enslaved Black people were given the less desirable cuts of meat — was criticized and labeled by white people as vulgar while their versions of foods were lauded and called balanced, according to Black food historians.
In Black American culture, do not make the mistake of calling it stuffing!
Dressing, which usually has a golden brown top layer because it is cooked outside the bird and baked in a pan, is the preferred starchy complement to the turkey, goose, chicken or duck. And basing the starch of the dish off cornbread also takes on additional significance to Black Americans, who have a belief that eating cornbread — particularly around New Year’s Day — brings wealth.
This dish is kicked into overdrive with the addition of proteins of abundance — oysters and crabs — in the places where Black people have traditionally lived, such as Maryland, according to Thomas.
Adding coveted chunks of Maryland crab meat to your stuffing or dressing? Thank Frederick Jewett, a Black man who is credited with creating the grading system for differentiating types of crab meat. That led to many of the terms used today to describe and sell crab meat, such as colossal lump, jumbo lump, lump, backfin, special, and claw.
Jewett, who co-owned the St. Michael’s-based Coulbourne and Jewett Seafood Packing Company, launched the business in 1902 with his business partner, William Coulbourne. Their company is credited with popularizing blue crabs and, at its peak, was the largest employer in St. Michaels and the largest Black-owned business in the state of Maryland, with about 100 employees.
The leafy, green vegetable was popularized in America in the early 1600s when African people were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, according to Thomas.
“It’s hearty. It stands up a long time to cooking. It’s nutrient-rich,” Thomas explained. “It is always thought of as peasant food. But once again we have taken something that is undesirable and made it king on a plate.”
The vegetable is popular throughout the Black diaspora — the movement of African people and their descendants to other parts of the world — because it can grow in a variety of regions and temperatures, according to Thomas.
“It does well in cooler and warmer temperatures. The climate doesn’t play a role in growing collards,” he said. “Our people are all over the globe and where we go we take our foods with us.”
The sweet vegetable is also another staple that became popularized in America via enslaved African people who brought the starch with them.
Thomas said yams are also important in balancing the flavors and establishing complex nuances of the holiday plate.
“You have your starch and sweetness from candied yams. You have the earthiness and the slightly acidic nature of the greens and, rounding it out, you have the protein. You can’t get more balanced than that,” he said. “But if you hear other people describe it, our food is not well constructed or not well thought-out. When in reality it has texture, taste and all of those variables. Just because we call it soul food, it does not mean that it should not be of quality or desirability. The holidays are a presentation of how important food is to our people.”
The act of deep frying a turkey the same way one would fry a chicken is deeply rooted in Black Southern culture.
“Fried turkey has taken hold of the United States,” said Thomas, who sells it as part of his holiday platters through his catering company. “The reason fried turkey is popular is because it quickens the cooking time.”
The result is “absolutely delicious,” according to Thomas, who touts the crispy seasoned skin that contains the juicy meat of the bird.
“Frying is an important part of our culture and it’s here to stay now,” he said.
Although the origins of the dessert are unknown, in Black families, the sweet treat is as important and common as sweet potato pies or pumpkin pies during the holidays.
The cake is essential to a Black family gathering, according to Amanda Mack, the chef and owner of the popular eatery Crust by Mack. She fondly remembers growing up and eating her cousin Mables’ pound cakes and pies during family gatherings in rural Virginia.
Mack loves the varieties of ways the cake can be made, whether that be with buttermilk lemon, blackberry buckle or strawberry thyme. Mack has even combined the magic of pound cake with the ancestral popularity of sweet potatoes with a dash of Ravens spirit with her purple sweet potato pound cake. The dessert always sells out when she makes it, the chef said.
This year, Mack plans to make a 7-Up pound cake and a sweet potato pound cake for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner.
“While I can bake just about anything, I prefer to bake things that help me share the stories of my family and ancestors,” Mack said. “Today, I’ve made over 850 of them for what my customers call the centerpiece of their table.”
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
The influence of Black people even spills over into the spirits world.
If you’re like the growing number of drinking people who have discovered Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, you have found a smooth whiskey that’s perfect for sipping or mixing. But did you know that the origin of the Black woman-owned brand based in Tennessee actually has Maryland roots?
Nathan “Nearest” Green, the brand’s namesake who taught Jack Daniel the craft of distilling, was born in Maryland in 1820, according to the brand. He later came to Lynchburg, Tennessee, where he became the nation’s first Black master distiller.
Green used the process of sugar maple charcoal filtering, which gave his whiskey a “unique smoothness.” The process, which is also called the Lincoln County process, is believed to have been brought to America by enslaved West African people, who used charcoal to filter water and purify foods.
Since the brand launched in 2017, it has become a critical and sales success. It is sold in all 50 states. And recently, the brand announced its plan to expand into new territories with its purchase of a 100-acre estate that encompasses the Grande Champagne vineyards in France.