personal essay

Power, Autonomy, and Richness: The Legacy of Plant-Based Eating in the African Diaspora

published Feb 1, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Kelly Marshall | Food Stylist: Micah Morton | Prop Stylist: Gerri Williams

As co-founders of BEM | books & more, a bookstore devoted to food literature of the African diaspora across genres, we’ve set about the delicious work of celebrating Black food cultures in all their diversity. Black chefs, authors, thinkers, and makers continue to complicate, honor, and expand our collective vision of Black food, creating “bridge[s] from our ties to traditions in the Motherland to our wildest dreams that will manifest in the future,” as vegan chef and food activist Bryant Terry writes in his introduction to Black Food, a culinary anthology with recipes that reflect the African diaspora and its legacy.

Legacy is a powerful word, connecting disparate lives across eras. When we began working on this celebration of plant-based eating within Black communities, we thought about the legacies we receive and those that we create. ​​Plant-based eating is an important part of our diasporic culinary heritage — ingredients, preparations, flavors, and techniques bond and distinguish us through time and place. We’re writing as Black Americans, as Brooklynites blessed with easy access to a wealth of diasporic delicacies. Our food, as a matter of legacy and daily choice, reflects West African ancestral roots through imprints of American enslavement, the Great Migration north- and westward from the southern United States, and subsequent waves of immigration from Africa and the Caribbean. But ours are just two experiences among many. Black food in the U.S. today is rich, diverse, and importantly — although of course not exclusively — vegetal.

Credit: Kelly Marshall

With plant-based legacies on our minds, we scanned our shelves and flipped through cookbooks. As one dish and then another called out to us, we homed in on a trio that represented a range of contexts, ingredients, techniques, and more: Hoecakes from Todd Richards’ Soul, Moringa and Kale Supergreens Soup from Pierre Thiam’s Senegal, and Harlem Caviar: Black Eyed Pea Salad from Jenné Claiborne’s Sweet Potato Soul. These three recipes bring delicious flavor and nourishment, while telling a story of legacy through vegetable fare. 

You’ll find chef Todd Richards’ Hoecakes in the Corn chapter of Soul, where he explains how this crop originated in the Americas, was cultivated throughout the African continent as far back as the 1500s, and has played a central role in the cuisine of the southern United States. Richards folds popcorn into the hoecake batter for lightness and crunch and then adds cayenne for a hint of heat. He recommends serving them with butter and syrup for a sweet breakfast, or if you want to go savory, use the hoecakes as a base for canapés and serve with a glass of Chardonnay or Shiraz.

Soul is full of recipes that make plain how culture persists and the creative ways things shift as culinary history unfolds. Hoecakes got their name from their original cooking method. Enslaved Africans and African Americans deprived of proper cooking utensils for their own use repurposed agricultural tools, spreading batter onto the thin metal blade of the hoe to cook the cakes over smoldering embers. This is but one example of the legacy of ingenuity and resourcefulness that’s so central to Black foodways worldwide.

Credit: Photo: Kelly Marshall | Food Stylist: Micah Morton | Prop Stylist: Gerri Williams

For the enslaved ancestors who were able to tend small patches of land for their own subsistence, a whisper of autonomy connected earth, body, and community as they grew food within a system crafted to exploit and degrade them. The American system continues to work exactly as it was designed to, with the racialized subjugation of the many for the benefit of a privileged few. In a world of violence and injustice that requires us to take care, nourishment presents an opportunity. Food — the ability to grow it, to create with it, to communicate through it — can become a powerful means of expression and protest. 

Many contemporary Black farmers, herbalists, and food enthusiasts — in urban and rural settings alike — continue that legacy by seizing the opportunity to grow their own food for any combination of personal, ethical, health, or climate reasons. Nevertheless, the vision of owning a bit of land to cultivate remains inaccessible for many non-white Americans: Less than 2% of all U.S. farmland is currently owned and operated by Black people. Even still, in many cities, public community gardens have long provided fertile ground for folks resolved to eat what they can grow — tending even a small raised bed for sustenance can change how you relate to what you consume.

In Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl, chef and activist Pierre Thiam tells the full story of how a collection of fresh ingredients becomes a meal. He spotlights growers and producers in Senegal who are in right relationship with the land and their communities, meaning in this case that they engage in regenerative, non-extractive practices for true sustainability. He tells one such story about Sunu Harvest, a Senegalese farm focused on moringa and baobab products, as part of the introduction to his Moringa & Kale Supergreens Soup recipe. This verdant preparation calls forth the legacy of plant medicine given the healing properties of moringa, which is often referred to as “the miracle tree” in Senegal. With its high levels of calcium, potassium, iron, and antioxidants, this star ingredient adds both nutritional heft and luscious color to this soup.

This recipe is just one example of how food can be used as medicine in African and diasporic communities. Red palm oil, which is used as a garnish on the soup and has high levels of carotenoids and vitamin E, has been swept into a heated climate debate of late. In response, Thiam dedicates pages to describing how this “red gold,” which is distinct from bleached palm kernel oil, can be processed using the whole fruit, preserving the flavor and nutritional benefits without degrading huge swathes of forest. In this way, Thiam stands among a community of Black chefs committed to legacy building beyond the kitchen. Through his cookbooks, his Harlem-based restaurant Teranga, and his brand Yolélé, Thiam is on a mission to center “revolutionary African foods” in conversations about climate change and food security.

Credit: Photo: Kelly Marshall | Food Stylist: Micah Morton | Prop Stylist: Gerri Williams

You’ll find Harlem Caviar: Black Eyed Pea Salad in chef and food blogger Jenné Claiborne’s Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul, where family legacy comes to the fore. As a Southern transplant to New York, then Los Angeles, black-eyed peas are an emblem of home for Claiborne. She writes about her grandmother’s influence on her cooking, of childhood moments “watch[ing] her make biscuits or help[ing] her peel potatoes.” From the top of the introduction through the last recipe of the book (Claiborne’s Aunt Cathy’s Pecan Muhammara), family is integral to her vegan culinary journey. 

With recipes like Harlem Caviar, Claiborne reminds us “how vegan-friendly soul food has always been” as she carries on the legacy of her ancestors. Black-eyed peas symbolize good luck on both sides of the Atlantic, and in this salad offer elegant simplicity, brightness and depth of flavor. Claiborne dots the beans – black-eyed peas are in fact beans – with diced vegetables that glint like little jewels in the bowl, adding texture and taste to each bite. The herbaceous mustardy maple spice of the dressing makes this dish a showstopper, served solo for a light meal or offered as a side.

Credit: Photo: Kelly Marshall | Food Stylist: Micah Morton | Prop Stylist: Gerri Williams

As a crop native to the Western coast of Africa and essential to cuisines throughout the diaspora, black-eyed peas make a statement about legacy, luck, and more: “Legumes like black-eyed peas … are some of the best plant sources of protein and some of the oldest agricultural crops in the world,” esteemed food historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris writes in The Africa Cookbook. “When … mixed with rice or other grains, as they are in many dishes, the result is almost perfect in terms of nutrition.” Rice and beans (or peas) are affordable and available, too. According to a 2010 study from the National Institutes of Health, per dollar spent, vegetables consistently provide more nutrition than meat products. Whether growing one’s own food or shopping at the local market, plant-based foodways continue to provide physical and spiritual sustenance for Black folks, especially those creating traditions of their own in the “New World” while negotiating diasporic identities. 

At BEM, we believe in literary nourishment: Books play an important role in supporting communal, holistic ways of sustaining one another. We’re proud to serve as a home for food literature of the African diaspora, illuminating our histories, our futures, and our varied ways of being through the BEM collection. As we embark on another Black History Month and look forward, we’re reminded of the many paths toward our collective future, including savoring the power, autonomy, richness, and flavor that ground the growing and preparing of plant-based food.

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Todd Richards' Hoecake Recipe
While cornbread is soft and velvety, hoecakes are a crunchier cousin with all the tender goodness on the inside.
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Moringa and Kale Supergreens Soup
Pierre Thiam's Moringa and Kale Supergreens Soup is packed with nutrients and makes for the perfect meal on a chilly day.
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3 / 3
Harlem Caviar: Black-Eyed Pea Salad Recipe
Jenné Claiborne's Harlem Caviar celebrates black-eyed peas in all of their glory. This bright, delicious dish comes together in just 15 minutes.
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