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Vol. 25, No. 4: Here / Away

Feijoada and Hoppin’ John

Dishing the African Diaspora in Brazil and the United States

by Olivia Ware Terenzio

“As a national dish, the melting pot narrative of feijoada bolsters the image of Brazil as a racial democracy.”

At a Brazilian restaurant in Astoria, Queens, a steam table simmered with collard greens, stewed okra, cornbread, and a meat-specked stew. “The seats were packed with Brazilians speaking Portuguese,” Francis Lam wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “but I took one look at the food and thought I was in Alabama.” Similarities run deep between Brazilian food and American soul food, from the ingredients to the history that bred each cuisine. Of the American continents, the United States and Brazil were the two largest slave societies of modern times and count the highest proportion of black people among their populations, the Caribbean islands notwithstanding. The African influence in both countries’ cuisine is well documented, but a comparison of two specific dishes, both prominent in popular culture, reveals how African-derived and -produced foods have been used to construct regional, ethnic, and national identities within these two societies of the Americas.1

Similarities run deep between Brazilian food and American soul food, from the ingredients to the history that bred each cuisine.

Around the globe, many communities boast a proprietary rice-and-bean combination, what anthropologists Richard Wilk and Livia Barbosa have called “a unique dish in a hundred places.” In Brazil, it’s feijoada. And in the southern United States, it’s Hoppin’ John, a black-eyed pea pilaf rooted in the Carolinas. Both dishes combine legumes with smoked and salted pork, incorporating or often accompanied by collard greens and rice. And both rice-and-bean dishes trace their origins to enslaved populations following forced migration from Africa and remain inextricably linked to the people who cooked and served them.2

Brazilians eat feijoada with family and friends on designated days, which vary by region; it is a celebratory meal, like Hoppin’ John, which finds a place on tables every New Year’s Day. The rituals and mythology behind these revered dishes reflect the uncertainty of “melting pot” narratives, which obscure the legacies of the people and places of their origin while revealing other truths about national and ethnic identity.

The Cuisine of Colonization

Brazilian feijoada is a rich bean stew, cooked with varied meats, onions, and garlic. When expanded into feijoada completa (“complete”), rice, sautéed kale or collard greens, oranges, and toasted manioc flour accompany the beans. Brazilians treasure feijoada completa and tout it as the country’s national dish—a unifying claim for a nation with well-defined regional cuisines. Traditional feijoada features dried and smoked meat, sausage, tongue, and pigs’ ears, feet, and tails. Brazilian legend holds, and most Brazilians still claim, that feijoada was invented by enslaved Africans who labored on sugarcane plantations and used scraps of meat discarded by their enslavers. Although this story of feijoada’s origin is the most widespread, some scholars have called it into question, arguing that feijoada is less an African contribution than a European construct expanded in Brazil. Similar clay pot stews appear throughout Europe, such as the Portuguese cozido, Italian bollito, and French cassoulet.3

Pig parts and Brazilian beans undoubtedly provided sustenance for the enslaved. In The Masters and the Slaves, Gilberto Freyre’s 1946 study of the development of Brazilian society, he notes “the abundance of corn, salt pork, and beans” in the diets of enslaved peoples. He also observes that “the African slave dominated the colonial kitchen.” Africans introduced ingredients such as palm oil to colonists’ pots and planted fruits and grains of their preference in Brazilian soil. While myth-making narratives suggest enslaved people carried seeds through the Middle Passage, the arrival of African foodstuffs to the New World is more likely attributable to a secondary fruit and vegetable trade, aimed primarily at feeding captives on board.4

Food scholar Raul Lody argues that feijoada has come to be known as “slave food” because of the African presence in plantation kitchens, where enslaved women wearing colorful turbans were said to sing as they stirred bountiful clay pots. This image reflects an idealization of slavery that masks Africans’ lived experiences of cruelty and subjugation. Nearly four million Africans were brought forcibly to Brazil between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries to exploit the colony’s resources. After the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, Brazil and the Caribbean became the top destinations for enslaved Africans, with sugar production the primary enterprise for slave labor. In the eighteenth century alone, about half of the six million Africans exported to the Americas landed in the Caribbean, while a third went to Brazil and a sixth to North America. (To this day, Brazil has the largest Afrodescendant population outside the African continent.) Miscegenation between Portuguese men and black and Indigenous women was common and often abusive. Land owners used corporal punishment against the enslaved and neglected their nutritional and clothing needs. As two Americans visiting Brazil in the 1850s observed, many Brazilian planters preferred “to use up a slave in five to seven years, and purchase another” rather than provide for the basic (and longer term) needs of enslaved laborers.5

The first reference to feijoada appears in an 1833 newspaper in which a restaurant in Northeast Brazil declared Thursday’s menu “Feijoada à la Brazilian.” By the second half of the century, feijoada was reportedly widespread, with American historian Elizabeth Cary Agassiz claiming that there was no house so poor that it did not have feijoada, nor any so rich as to exclude it from the table. Still, those early versions of beans boiled with meat were rudimentary representations of the feijoada of today, which requires multiple days to prepare and, served with rice and greens, constitutes an entire meal. Brazilian anthropologist Luís da Câmara Cascudo estimates the introduction of feijoada completa into Brazilian kitchens around 1930. Culinary scholar Carlos Alberto Dória draws a distinction between feijão (beans), feijoada, and feijoada completa, explaining that the enslaved evolved beans and flour into a simple feijoada, still the food of scarcity and poverty; feijoada completa, the dish worthy of celebration and adulation, was reserved for restaurants patronized by the highest social classes. In fact, Iberian cuisine is marked by its incorporation of offal and viscera, and the use of those parts in feijoada would have been an option only for the elite. The attribution of feijoada to enslaved Africans, and the equation of feijoada with simple beans and flour, suggests harmony between victims and beneficiaries of the slave trade and belies the atrocity inherent in the system of power.6

Long before Hoppin’ John appeared in the South Carolina Lowcountry, West Africans cooked antecedent versions of rice-and-pea dishes. According to culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, Senegal’s thiebou niebe is a black-eyed pea stew served with rice from which Hoppin’ John derived. The associated myths likely hail from the same region, where a confluence of cultures begat the spirituality of African American culinary rituals. Michael W. Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene, writes, “Dictated by the old religion, black-eyed peas were eaten on New Year’s Day, along with the heads of things, with greens for cash and peas for change.” Most recipes feature rice and small legumes known as “Crowder peas,” which experts say are actually beans, not peas, compounding the similarities between feijoada and Hoppin’ John. As in colonial Brazil, cooking in the Carolinas was often relegated to African hands, as enslaved women were assigned to husk rice and mill corn on ships journeying to the Americas. On plantations, Big House cooks prepared meals for enslaved people and the planter’s family. The favored method for preparing rice in the Carolina plantation kitchen called for separating each grain through a process of steaming and absorption, the way African rice dishes are typically cooked. In South Carolina as in Brazil, enslaved communities grew dietary staples such as okra, greens, rice, and black-eyed peas in their own provision gardens, using food to exercise choice and preserve culture, memory, and identity under brutal circumstances.7

Peas journeyed from Central Africa to the West Indies in the early 1700s, then to the Carolinas on slave ships as sustenance for the enslaved. Some greens arrived via the same passage, including mustard and collard greens. The origins of rice, however, pose more complexity. The existence of an indigenous African rice, Oryza glaberrima, did not gain wide acceptance until the 1970s; prior accounts wrongly credited the Portuguese for introducing rice from Asia to West Africa, when in fact rice cultivation was well established in West Africa before the Portuguese and French arrived in the sixteenth century. O. glaberrima was likely planted in South Carolina first after arriving on a slave ship from West Africa, while Asian species Oryza sativa followed. The latter are believed to have come from Madagascar and parented the famed Carolina Gold rice used to make Hoppin’ John during the antebellum period. South Carolina–based culinary historian David S. Shields notes that Carolina Gold first appeared in the Lowcountry between 1770 and 1785 and, though genetic analysis shows its ultimate source was South Asia, it bears genetic resemblance to an African rice variety called Bankoram. Whether Bankoram is a result of the global distribution of Carolina Gold or descended from an African variety shipped to the Carolinas in the 1780s is unknown. Accounts report rice cultivation in Brazil from the sixteenth century, using the same irrigation methods seen in the Carolinas and always in areas settled by enslaved peoples.8

It was solely thanks to Africans that rice thrived in the Americas and became a staple of the Lowcountry industry and table. Historian Daniel C. Littlefield writes that the English did not succeed in cultivating the crop until the arrival of enslaved Africans, who gave “technical advice and skill, which Europeans not only accepted but actually sought.” Most of those enslaved in the Carolina rice fields came from the rice lands of West Africa and thus knew how to clear swamps, flood fields, prepare land for cultivation, then mill and cook the grains. In 1785, one Charleston newspaper advertised the arrival of Africans “who have been accustomed to the planting of rice,” expressing how they were valued specifically for these unique skills. Pounding rice in the South Carolina Lowcountry before shipping it mirrored the traditional West African method. Rice exports grew more than 400 percent between the early 1720s and 1740, corresponding to an even larger increase in imports of enslaved Africans. Around the same time, the African segment of the South Carolina population grew equal to and eventually surpassed the European one. Emancipation prompted the decline of Carolina rice culture as planting grew more expensive and Lowcountry sellers lost market share to East Indian and Honduran rice traders.9

A similar pattern of slave-fueled rice economies occurred in eighteenth-century Brazil when Portugal attempted to establish a plantation system in the eastern Amazon region and reduce dependency on Carolina production, though the effort ultimately failed to compete. Notably, wetland rice figured prominently among crops of runaway slave communities in Brazil, and the right to plant rice “wherever we wish, and in any marsh, without asking permission” was one condition of a peace proposal following a slave rebellion.10

The earliest known printed recipe for Hoppin’ John exists in The Carolina Housewife, Sarah Rutledge’s 1847 cookbook, although the dish had likely appeared earlier on plantation owners’ tables. Her recipe instructs the reader to boil peas with bacon and rice and place the pot on coals to steam; this is the traditional method, although other recipes include sausages, ham, mutton, or even pigs’ feet and ears. Rutledge was the daughter of South Carolina governor Edward Rutledge and a prominent member of Charleston society, a status indicating that this descendant of thiebou niebe had been accepted by the white aristocracy. The planter class adopted the dishes of enslaved people over time, including Hoppin’ John. Historian Eugene D. Genovese claims, “Slavery, especially in its plantation setting and in its paternalistic aspect, made white and black southerners one people while making them two.”11

Hoppin’ John’s mysterious name is the subject of countless theories. One claims a husband named John came “a-hoppin’” when his wife served the dish. Many carry racist overtones, like the story that a disabled black man nicknamed Hoppin’ John peddled the dish on Charleston streets. A more commonly accepted account suggests Hoppin’ John evolved from the French pois à pigeon, or “pigeon peas.” Culinary historian Karen Hess proposes that the name comes from a combination of kchang, the Malay word for peas, and bhat, a Hindi word meaning “cooked rice.”12

Hess calls Hoppin’ John “the signature dish of South Carolina, black and white.” Not just black and white, but rich and poor, free and enslaved, ate Hoppin’ John. As is typical of most early southern cookbooks, initial printed accounts of Hoppin’ John make no mention of its African origin or the debt to which the Carolina rice kitchen owes enslaved Africans. Cookbooks were reserved for the elite and middle classes; in most slaveholding states it was illegal to educate enslaved black people in literacy. The designation of “Carolina” dish clouds the history of African innovation and colonial domination that bred Hoppin’ John. Its fate thus diverges from that of feijoada, freely attributed to enslaved Africans despite a more nuanced history. While the Portuguese glossed over the brutality of slavery in Brazil, Anglo-Americans effectively erased African culinary achievements from the historical record. Each strategy represents a different method of cultural appropriation; the former misrepresents the history of Africans in the Americas, while the latter denies it. These approaches reflect how each nation has, at times, attempted to interpret African presence in its country—Brazil via distortion, and the United States through silence.13

Racialized Identity and National Mythology

The emergence of feijoada completa in early twentieth-century Brazil coincides with a shift in the country’s perception of race. After the abolition of slavery in 1888, black Brazilians continued to be viewed as racially inferior. The country’s elites sponsored a wave of European immigrants during Brazil’s First Republic (1889–1930) to flood the labor market and replace slave labor in a newly industrializing economy. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, discussions among the elite sought to resolve the uncertain place of black people within the nation, questioning whether they should be assimilated through a national “whitening” of the population or whether Brazil should become a mixed-race nation shaped predominantly by African influences. Though interracial mixing was commonplace (and arguably deliberate for whitening purposes), Brazilian elites had previously viewed the results of miscegenation unfavorably. Historian Jerry Dávila writes that by the early twentieth century, in an effort to modernize the nation, they began to “seek escape from the determinist trap that tied Brazil to perpetual backwardness because of its large nonwhite population.” Scholars and politicians adopted the idea that degeneracy was acquired, and that people could be liberated from a social category of blackness through self-improvement and social mobility, including rehabilitated health, education, and capital. After studying in the United States during Jim Crow segregation, anthropologist Gilberto Freyre returned to his home country to celebrate the mulato—a representation of Indigenous, African, and European mixing—as a model for Brazilianness. In his analysis, blackness became a particularity and a strength of Brazilian culture; a symbol of tolerance and benevolence; and a social condition to be managed. Sociologist Carlos Alberto Dória writes, “The miscegenation of whites, blacks, and Indians under the control of large rural property owners legitimized the conviction that we Brazilians were all mestiços by definition.” The country’s cultural hybridity thus became integrated into Brazilian national identity. Brazilians spoke of an idealized future in terms of what Freyre called a “racial democracy,” a narrative that rose to a national mantra by the mid-twentieth century, and that many Brazilians have proudly embraced. The term suggests that unlike in other countries, such as the United States and South Africa, color prejudice is irrelevant in Brazil; it denies the importance of race in the nation while, paradoxically, referring to it explicitly.14

In reality, race prejudice remains a fact of life in Brazil. Black Brazilians have historically been and continue to be underrepresented in schools and concentrated in the lowest economic and social classes. In 1942 Donald Pierson exposed racial divisions in Salvador, Bahia, where blacks made up 75 percent of the working class and whites occupied 84 percent of the intelligentsia. The 1951 passing of the Afonso Arinos law, which penalized color and racial discrimination in public places, demonstrated that Brazilians did not outwardly condone racism, but they did acknowledge its existence. In 1965, journalist Era Bell Thompson traveled to Brazil for Ebony magazine to answer the question that became the title of her two-part piece: “Does Amalgamation Work in Brazil?” She observed that although interracial couples were commonplace, most did not result in marriage unless the darker-skinned person was of a higher social or economic class. “As the processes of amalgamation advance, the darker elements of the nation’s population continue to disappear,” Thompson wrote. “With no Negro, there can be no Negro problem.” Because a black person could improve his or her children’s position in society by pairing with someone of a lighter skin tone, the Brazilian system encouraged racial mixing—and extolled the resultant society as a racial democracy.15

Sociologist Michaela DeSoucey proposes that attitudes about a country’s history shape which objects are incorporated into narratives of national identity and used to substantiate claims of exceptionalism. Feijoada completa, anthropologist Jane Fajans argues, became “a social and symbolic microcosm of the nation and a model for its imaginary national consciousness.” In Brazil, the combination of rice and beans is known as the “perfect pairing,” each complementing the other both nutritionally and symbolically. Together, they offer a complete combination of protein and carbohydrates; Brazilians are taught to eat both daily from childhood, as demonstrated by the popular rhyme: “Um dois, feijão com arroz” (“One, two: beans and rice”). The pairing is similarly used to refer to racial differences. Arroz is branco, or white, and beans may be preto (black) or mulatinho, which translates to “mulatto”; together, they depict a wholesome union of black and white cultures, continents, and histories. As a national dish, the melting pot narrative of feijoada bolsters the image of Brazil as a racial democracy.16

While Brazil began to celebrate interracial mixing, the United States saw the systemic segregation of races under Jim Crow laws and a much lower incidence of miscegenation. Essential to the divergence of race relations in the two countries is their historical definition of “black.” In the United States any person with black ancestry was labeled black, regardless of skin color, while in Brazil a person was only black if he or she was of African descent and had no white ancestry at all. A person of both white and black ancestry belonged to another category entirely. Historian Carl N. Degler proposes that the special place of mixed-race people in Brazil is the key to understanding the different race relations in both countries. “By making a distinction between mulattoes and Negroes, Brazilian society provides an escape from the disabilities of blackness for some colored people,” he writes. “In the United States, on the other hand, the inclusion of the mulatto in the definition of Negro forces light-skinned Negroes to identify, willy-nilly, with the whole black population.”17

The free mingling of black, white, and mixed-race people on the streets of Brazil, particularly in the Northeast, has lent the country a dubious nonracist reputation, while in the United States, whites have long held the majority of positions of power. With the Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth century came racial propaganda, which spread the message that blacks were best suited to cook and serve, and that the foods they ate were primitive—and, as writer Toni Tipton-Martin describes, “cooked by a mysterious voodoo magic.” Adrian Miller, another writer who studies African American dishes, writes, “Food was used to make black people the ‘other.’” Families who moved north during the Great Migration felt nostalgic for black-eyed peas and greens, and the preservation and appreciation of traditionally black foods like Hoppin’ John became associated with blackness itself. Historian Jennifer Jensen Wallach evocatively describes a scene from the television series Boardwalk Empire, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, in which a southern-raised African American gangster storms away from the dinner table after his wife describes Hoppin’ John as “not proper food.” Wallach writes that his impassioned response reminded the family that “their racial heritage precluded them from full national belonging.” In Brazil, feijoada represented a shared national identity between black and white, whereas in the United States, Hoppin’ John proved such an identity impossible.18

In the 1950s, the term “soul” pervaded aspects of black culture to express kinship between oppressed black Americans. A decade later, Stokely Carmichael made the word a rallying cry for the Black Power movement. Soul flooded the market, from fashion and beauty products, such as soul combs, to soul music and soul food. In 1966, the African American writer and cultural critic LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) defended black foodways after another black writer had denied the existence of a characteristic cuisine. He writes, “This to me is the deepest stroke, the unkindest cut, of oppression, especially as it has distorted Black Americans.” Culinary anthropologist and commentator Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor published an impassioned open letter to Time in her book Vibration Cooking after one writer for the magazine described soul food as “tasteless.” She dates collard greens back to the Roman Empire, when they were considered an “epicurean delight”; she notes that French restaurants earn Michelin stars for andouillette, prized sausages made with chitterlings. Jessica Harris remembers trekking from her Greenwich Village home to Harlem in the 1970s in search of collard greens and black-eyed peas for New Year’s Hoppin’ John, as her neighborhood shops snubbed those ingredients in favor of fiddlehead ferns and homemade pâté. Doris Witt argues that the rise of Black Power contributed to proud celebrations of soul food—foods that were previously stigmatized because of their association with slavery and oppression. “To celebrate soul food in 1970 was to proclaim oneself black, proud, and opposed to a white-dominated social order.”19

In the early twentieth century, African Americans looked up to Brazil’s “racial paradise,” and Brazil became a destination for African American roots tourism. “Race snobbery and prejudice are unknown in Brazil,” journalist Cyril V. Briggs, cofounder of the African Blood Brotherhood, wrote in 1920. “It is the land of opportunity par excellence for the Negro at this time.” L. H. Stinson, a physician from Georgia, traveled to Brazil the same year and praised the idyllic mountains and fruit trees and beautiful, diverse people. “They termed us Americans from the North and never once referred to us as Negroes,” he wrote. In 1942, African American scholar E. Franklin Frazier observed that black Brazilians exhibited loyalty to their home country that African Americans did not. “The Brazilian Negro . . . first of all is a Brazilian,” he wrote, adding that whites “realize that the ignorant and brutalized and segregated Negro would be a greater threat to civilization than the civilized Negro who is integrated into Brazilian society.”20

Obscured racial boundaries rendered attempts at solidarity slippery in Brazil. Around the time that Freyre became a leading voice in the Northeast, black and mixed-race Brazilians began advocating for improvements in education, economic conditions, and political activity. The Frente Negra Brasileira (Black Brazilian Front) formed in 1931 as the nation’s first black political party, but only a small fraction of Brazilians participated, and the movement slowed before being legally prohibited by the Vargas regime. Some attempts to reorganize stirred again in the 1940s, but, as sociologist Florestan Fernandes argues, the “lack of machinery for racial unity deprived the Negro community of the loyalty and altruistic support of the rare elements that arose from it.” In response to a 1976 feature story on “Black Rio” in Jornal do Brasil, readers denounced the reporting as “unBrazilian.” Military governments controlled and censored media, attacking those who raised questions about Brazil’s racial democracy as “subversive” and provoking the retirement of Fernandes and other intellectuals. Not until the final decades of the twentieth century did racial activism begin to take hold, sparked in part by Brazilians’ attention to analogous efforts in North America. Today, Brazilian black consciousness and civil rights groups include the Blocos Afro that protested racism during Carnaval; the still active Frente Negra Brasileira; and the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement), along with many publications devoted to black rights. In short, while African Americans looked up to Brazil’s “racial paradise” in the mid-twentieth century, later Afro-Brazilian activists admired the United States for its powerful identity politics—and aimed to emulate the same methods at home. According to 2010 census data, people of partial or whole African ancestry make up more than half of the Brazilian population, while estimates from Brazilian activists and scholars place the true count between 68 and 75 percent. By either projection, black rights may be considered a majority concern in Brazil, instead of the minority issue they are commonly characterized as.21

Selling the Myth of “Our” Food

Restaurants serve feijoada regularly across Brazil on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, or Sundays, depending on the region. It is a traditional dish of Carnaval, the largest and most important festival in Brazil, which has also been described as a performance of national solidarity. In line with the pervasive story of feijoada’s origins in enslaved people’s quarters, the dish remains associated with celebrations of African culture in Brazil, similar to representations of soul food in the United States. Feijoada is frequently served in connection with religious ceremonies in the Afro-Brazilian candomblé tradition. One legend taught that the deity Ogum instructed a priest to prepare feijoada to share with his whole community after the priest had offended the god by denying food to a supplicant. This unusual feijoada, cooked with special meat and seasonings, caused everyone who ate it to fall into a trance. Myth has become real, and feijoada is still served in places of worship today in conjunction with religious rites. Independent settlements known as quilombos, formed by runaway slaves between the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, preserved elements of West African culture. Some quilombos still exist today on land protected by Brazilian law, hosting classes in capoeira, a martial art that originated with enslaved Africans, and feasts of feijoada. Many African American tourists still travel to Northeast Brazil to discover their African roots, engaging with well-preserved cultural elements—samba (semba in Angola), feijoada, and candomblé—positioning the region as a marketplace of black tradition. One Airbnb in Rio de Janeiro sums it all up, offering a quilombo visit, samba dance party, and feijoada for just $54.22

Latin America scholar Patricia de Santana Pinho writes that such promotions of African origins have come to symbolize the Brazilian Northeast in tourism brochures and marketing campaigns, directed toward consumers outside the region and sponsored by the state government. By celebrating Bahian vendors (and by describing the “enormous black women” at Big House stoves), Gilberto Freyre triggered the spread of restaurants serving African-derived cuisine. Pinho describes Afro-Bahian themed restaurants where waitresses dress as domestic slaves and serve dishes cooked in palm oil to tourists and Bahians alike: “Gilberto Freyre amalgamated people—especially black women—with place to narrate a magical notion of Bahia.” In these representations of Africanness, the black contribution is not only food but labor; the presentations suggest that black women have a natural and innate skill for cooking, and that African-descended people exist to comfort, please, and serve patrons. Simultaneously, however, growing representations of Africa and blackness may reflect a stronger claim to Afro-Brazilian identity. Cheryl Sterling, a scholar of the African diaspora, writes, “Identity arises from what group members choose to emphasize in their cultural repertoires: by selecting stories, songs, dances, texts, and rituals based on their use value, they create new artifacts and cultural practices to meet their needs.” As a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture (and especially when connected to candomblé), feijoada challenges the notion of racial democracy and exemplifies black resistance to hegemony.23

Hoppin’ John is at once soul food and southern food, celebrated by black and white communities alike—a tension that raises questions of ownership and representation. Sean Brock, chef of the acclaimed Charleston restaurant Husk, has described how discovering true Hoppin’ John changed the course of his career and sparked his interest in the Carolina rice kitchen. His 2014 cookbook Heritage includes a recipe for the dish, and he champions the preservation of Carolina Gold rice to achieve authentic flavor—the same rice originally planted and cooked by Africans enslaved in South Carolina. Hungry for knowledge about heirloom southern ingredients, Brock experimented with recipes and shared tasting notes and backstories with chefs in the culinary community. After culling and planting for eleven years, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation completed the first commercial harvest for the revived species in 2011, and Brock began serving it in his restaurants to much acclaim. While Brock rightly acknowledges Africans’ contribution to rice culture in Charleston, he has also profited from the reconstruction of dishes developed by enslaved peoples. In Heritage, Brock writes, “Southern food has enough soul to transcend region.” Foodways scholar Catarina Passidomo argues that for a white man to attach “soul” to all southern food diminishes the importance of the symbol in the black community and erases the specific histories of unnamed people, presumably people of color, who invented these heritage foods.24

Brock’s restaurants and others helmed by white chefs and owners have drawn scores of tourists to Charleston, bringing attention to the city’s cuisine. In 2016, Hillary Dixler Canavan explored the influence of Gullah peoples, as descendants of West Africans enslaved in South Carolina are known, on the foodways of the Lowcountry in an article for the website Eater. She interviewed Michael Twitty and local chef and Gullah culinary ambassador BJ Dennis, who worried that attention to white-tablecloth southern revival cuisine would erase the Gullah contribution to Charleston culture and, by extension, the city’s history of enslavement. “None of the places that people go to first in Charleston are African American owned,” Michael Twitty told Canavan, adding that white chefs are guilty of “projecting ownership” onto black foodways at the expense of those “marginalized and exploited.” Charleston insiders responded quickly and energetically, defensive of criticisms from regional outsiders. On his blog Afroculinaria, Twitty invited Brock to join him in preparing a meal together, speaking frankly, and posing difficult questions. A conversation between the two men followed, prompting Twitty to write, “The Southern path to salvation is within itself, and inasmuch as saving and healing can take place, so will go it’s [sic] original sins and with them the ability of America to truly fulfill itself.” Another public discussion followed the Eater backlash between John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance and Nigerian-born chef and activist Tunde Wey. In a coauthored essay for Oxford American, Wey accused Edge of endorsing the appropriation of black food in the South and challenged him to cede his voice and privilege so that African Americans might claim their culinary heritage and contributions for themselves. Leaders of the New Southern Food Movement, many of whom are writers and chefs of color, have centered questions of power, authority, and appropriation in conversations about the future of the region’s foodways.25

While the media has primarily centered efforts to revive heirloom ingredients led by white men—such as Chef Sean Brock, Glenn Roberts of grain producer Anson Mills, and Tennessee ham and bacon master Allan Benton—African American culinarians are demanding recognition for their roles in the development and evolution of southern food, from farm and kitchen to history books. Kevin Mitchell, a recent graduate student and a Charleston chef, argues that a celebration of contemporary southern food should include homage to those who came before—pioneering black cooks and caterers such as Eliza Seymour Lee and Nat Fuller. Mitchell writes, “These chefs, either freed or enslaved . . . laid the foundation for the way we eat, not only in Charleston but throughout the South.”26

Charleston’s culinary scene reflects a larger shift in the region to challenge mainstream white depictions of southern food with more complete narratives that acknowledge and elevate black contributions. Michael Pollan’s 2013 book Cooked spotlights North Carolina pitmaster Ed Mitchell, who spearheaded a campaign to bring back older breeds of pigs and rear them humanely, without hormones or antibiotics. Julian Rankin’s 2018 biography Catfish Dream told the story of Ed Scott Jr., the first black owner of a catfish plant in the United States, who deep-skinned his fish before the industry designated such prime cuts “delacata.” Brother-sister team Matthew and Althea Raiford are sixth-generation farmers on Gilliard Farms, their family’s organic, sustainable farm in Brunswick, Georgia; their work focuses attention on the profound agricultural knowledge of black farmers that allowed for the development of southern food.27

A Foot in the Kitchen

When scholar Scott Alves Barton traveled to Bahia in 2011 to conduct fieldwork, he heard the refrain, “Now you’re eating slave food!” every time he was served feijoada. People of diverse colors, social classes, and religious orientations expressed the same sentiment, which Barton likens to the Brazilian colloquialism, “I have a foot in the kitchen,” often used by speakers to acknowledge their African ancestry. To utter the phrase is to claim, “We are all or partially African,” again supporting notions of racial democracy in Brazil. While the statement appears inclusive, Barton argues that it may also “sublimate the black, rendering him or her invisible,” just as assertions of “All Lives Matter” by critics of the Black Lives Matter campaign in the United States overwhelm and obscure the lived realities of imprisonment, violence, and marginalization that many black communities, in particular, endure.28

Nations and regions employ foodways to augment their own brands or images and, frequently, to minimize social and racial disparity in discourse, if not in practice. DeSoucey employs the term “gastronationalism” to describe how food can serve as an identity marker for divided populations, and how the state markets and sells food as a cultural good symbolic of national values. Brazilians acknowledge that feijoada is aesthetically displeasing; the dish can be a tough sell for foreigners, tying it even more closely to the national identity. When Brazilians move away from home, the pride and longing for feijoada connect inextricably with their sense of self, and to share feijoada with a foreign friend or neighbor is to share the essence of being Brazilian. As a national dish, feijoada sells a story if not of how Brazil truly is than of how it wants to be, a national pride born of a once subjugated, now liberated, group. In this way, feijoada as a national dish upholds Brazil’s racial democracy story; when celebrated with other African-derived traditions, however, it may also serve as a marker of resistance. As black Brazilians grapple with questions of Afro-Brazilian collective identity and the role of African heritage in their society, feijoada adopts hybrid contexts and significance as a Brazilian ritual.29

As a regional dish, Hoppin’ John is often characterized by partial narratives that romanticize the plantation South; as soul food, it reaches beyond South Carolina and even the Mason–Dixon Line, reclaimed by the black community that created it. In both contexts the community Hop-pin’ John imagines is one of the Other, not of a region or a nation. The designation “southern” strips race from descriptions of African-derived foodways, while “soul” transforms food into an act of resistance. The tension between soul food and southern food exemplifies the tension in southern identity more broadly, as the question of how to reconcile black and white experiences and histories remains unsettled. Surveys taken at the end of the twentieth century showed that African Americans from southern states increasingly self-identified as “southerners,” and by 2001 the percentage of blacks who embraced the label surpassed that of whites for the first time. Chefs, writers, and activists complicate popular understanding of southern food heritage and its representations, just as conceptions of who is a southerner continue to broaden and evolve. As dishes of the diaspora—born of African tradition and bound to blackness, yet absorbed into representations of place—feijoada and Hoppin’ John urge a second look at claims of national or regional foods, and reflection upon what is erased and who is silenced in the creation of “our” food.30

This essay appears in the Here/Away Issue (vol. 25, no. 4: Winter 2019).

A Mississippi native, OLIVIA WARE TERENZIO returned to her home state in 2018 after a decade writing about food, restaurants, and travel in San Francisco. She is currently pursuing an MA in southern studies at the University of Mississippi, where she is a Nathalie Dupree Graduate Fellow with the Southern Foodways Alliance. Her research explores the role of foodways in the historical construction of national and regional identity in the U.S. and Brazil. She earned her BS from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.NOTES

  1. Francis Lam, “Brazilian Soul Food,” New York Times Magazine, May 27, 2015,; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971), 3.
  2. Richard Wilk and Livia Barbosa, ed., Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places (New York: Berg, 2012).
  3. Jane Fajans, Brazilian Food: Race, Class and Identity in Regional Cuisines (New York: Berg, 2012), 94; Luís da Câmara Cascudo, História da alimentação no Brasil (São Paulo: Editora Itatiaia Limitada, 1983), 503–504.
  4. Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves, trans. Samuel Putnam (New York: Knopf, 1946), 66, 459; Cascudo, História da alimentação no Brasil, 228; Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), 30.
  5. Raul Lody, “O Brasil bom de boca,” Brasil bom de boca, accessed November 28, 2018, Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own; Howard Winant, The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 45; “Black in Brazil: A Question of Identity,” BBC, November 3, 2009,; Rosângela Maria Vieira, “Brazil,” in No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, ed. Minority Rights Group (London: Minority Rights, 1995), 23–28; Degler, Neither Black nor White, 74.
  6. Rodrigo Elias, “Feijoada: A Short History of an Edible Institution,” Texts from Brazil, no. 13 (2008): 38–40; Cascudo, História da alimentação no Brasil, 502, 507–509; Carlos Alberto Dória, “Beyond Rice Neutrality: Beans as Patria, Locus, and Domus in the Brazilian Culinary System,” in Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places, ed. Richard Wilk and Livia Barbosa (New York: Berg, 2012), 127–128; Lody, “O Brasil bom de boca.”
  7. Jessica B. Harris, “Prosperity Starts with a Pea,” New York Times, December 29, 2010, nytimes. com/2010/12/30/opinion/30harris.html; Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 368–370; Adrian Miller, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 112; Harris, High on the Hog, 33; Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 14.
  8. Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 69, 177–178; Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1975), 59; Carney, Black Rice, 144–147; David S. Shields, Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 235; Carney, Black Rice, 75–76, 104.
  9. Daniel C. Littlefield, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 177; Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 13–15; Wood, Black Majority, 62; Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 14; Wood, Black Majority, 36; Shields, Southern Provisions, 242.
  10. Wood, Black Majority, 36; Livia Barbosa, “Rice and Beans, Beans and Rice: The Perfect Couple,” in Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places, ed. Richard Wilk and Livia Barbosa (New York: Berg, 2012), 106; Carney, Black Rice, 76–77.
  11. Hess, Carolina Rice Kitchen, 102; Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage, 1976), xvi–xvii.
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  15. Degler, Neither Black nor White, 138–140; Donald Pierson, Negroes in Brazil: A Study of Race Contact at Bahia (London and Amsterdam: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 338; Era Bell Thompson, “Does Amalgamation Work in Brazil?,” Ebony, July 1965, 27.
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  17. Degler, Neither Black nor White, 178, 182.
  18. Toni Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), 7; Miller, Soul Food, 31; Ken Albala, Beans: A History (New York: Berg, 2007), 123–124; Jennifer Jensen Wallach, Every Nation Has Its Dish: Black Bodies and Black Food in Twentieth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 4, 5.
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  20. Cyril V. Briggs, “Brazil,” in African-American Reflections on Brazil’s Racial Paradise, ed. David J. Hellwig (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 38; L. H. Stinson, “South America and Its Prospects in 1920,” in African-American Reflections on Brazil’s Racial Paradise, ed. David J. Hellwig (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 44; E. Franklin Frazier, “Brazil Has No Race Problem,” in African-American Reflections on Brazil’s Racial Paradise, ed. David J. Hellwig (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 125.
  21. Florestan Fernandes, “The Weight of the Past,” Daedalus 96, no. 2 (Spring 1967): 567; Thomas E. Skidmore, “Race and Class in Brazil: Historical Perspectives,” Luso-Brazilian Review 20, no. 1 (Summer 1983): 108; Skidmore, “Race and Class in Brazil,” 109; Patricia de Santana Pinho, Mama Africa: Reinventing Blackness in Bahia, trans. Elena Langdon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 14; “2010 Population Census: General characteristics of the population, religion and persons with disabilities,” Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, accessed November 26, 2018,; Vieira, “Brazil,” 20.
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  24. Shields, Southern Provisions, 251; Sean Brock, Heritage (New York: Artisan, 2014), 14; Catarina Passidomo, “‘Our’ Culinary Heritage: Obscuring Inequality by Celebrating Diversity in Peru and the U.S. South,” Humanity and Society 41, no. 4 (October 2017): 437.
  25. Hillary Dixler Canavan, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining,” Eater, March 22, 2016,; Michael Twitty, “Dear Sean, We Need to Talk,” Afroculinaria, March 23, 2016,; Michael Twitty, “Amazing Grace and Sean Brock,” Afroculinaria, July 5, 2017,; John T. Edge and Tunde Wey, “Who Owns Southern Food?” Oxford American, June 3, 2016,
  26. Kevin E. Mitchell, “From Black Hands to White Mouths: Charleston’s Freed and Enslaved Cooks and Their Influence on the Food of the South” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 2018), 3.
  27. Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (New York: Penguin, 2013), 79; Julian Rankin, Catfish Dream: Ed Scott’s Fight for His Family Farm and Racial Justice in the Mississippi Delta (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018), 78; Gilliard Farms, accessed November 30, 2018, htt
  28. Barton, “Feeding the Gods,” 52, 44–45, 5.
  29. Paul Rockower, “The State of Gastrodiplomacy,” Public Diplomacy Magazine 11 (Winter 2014): 14; DeSoucey, “Gastronationalism,” 434–435; Barbosa, “Rice and Beans,” 110; Fajans, Brazilian Food, 97; Pinho, Mama Africa, 20.
  30. James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 262–263.
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