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Arts & Culture

With Her Series 'The Skillet,' Emiene Wright Shows That Black Cuisine Is American Cuisine

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The history of African American cuisine, its connections to Africa, and how it's translated to American tables is receiving a lot of attention in the media these days. More chefs on television shows are featuring Black dishes. There's the Netflix miniseries "High on the Hog," that travels from Benin in West Africa to the deep South. And last month, Charlotte Five had "The Skillet: How Black Cuisine Became America's Supper."

In this excerpt, host Emiene Wright joined chef Esther Ikuru at The Cooking Pot in Charlotte in making the Nigerian dish moi moi.

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Moi Moi From The Cooking Pot

(recording) Emiene Wright: And I see how the beans are white now, almost.

Esther Ikuru: Yeah.

Wright: That's how you know you're getting most of the skin off.

Ikuru: Exactly, it should all be white.

Wright: The thing that's fascinating about this dish, also, is that it's related to the African diaspora, for me, because black-eyed peas is almost universal. Yeah, you know, black-eyed peas is very African American.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Wright says in some ways, the series is not just a way to show the connections between African, African American and traditional American cuisine, but it's the story of her life, as well.

Wright: I was born in Nigeria on my dad's side. On my mother's side, I'm from Alabama, I'm G.R.I.T.S, I'm a "girl raised in the South." Those two sort of dynamic parts of my personality, of my history, have always had a clash.

And I saw it as my chance to sort of weave these disparate pieces together, because as a child growing up, I would see the way we would in Alabama, in Montgomery, crumble cornbread on top of collard greens and eat with our fingers. And it's the exact same motion as my Nigerian family. We would eat fufu and you'd pinch a piece off with your finger and you slide it into the ogbono — the okra soup — and you suck it off your fingers. It's the exact same motion.

I saw parallels even with the okra itself, how we use it there and we use it here, and all of these connections. And I was like, "Oh, finally a way to tell this story so people can see that, you know, no matter how long it took or how much pain is in African American history, it's not a broken story." There's a direct lineage, the linkage to our past and to our present that has never been broken.

Glenn: And you mentioned okra. A lot of people I've talked to said they didn't know that okra was brought to the U.S. from Africa.

Wright: Yeah, we brought it on the ships. What's interesting to me, as well, about it is that so many people have so many connections to Africa. There are traditions that have been passed down in families that people do with the way they cook and with the way they season. They're not even aware that this is actually specific African traditions.

Glenn: Which brings me to ask you, a lot of people have different definitions of what they mean when they say "Black food." Some people say it's you can feel it. You can taste it. You can smell it. What is your definition?

Wright: My conception of Black food has been broadened by this series. Just in the research, when I learned so much about the gentleman, Mr. (Thomas) Downing in the 1800s, I want to say who is the Black oyster man of New York society. People, of course, associate gumbo, these type of things with Black food. But just the fact that oysters also are Black food.

Black food is American food, though. And the reason being is because most of the time we were the ones in the kitchen taking these many disparate threads and weaving them together.

Glenn: And also enslaved Africans, when they would go home, they were given things that the enslaved owners did not want to eat — the ham hocks, the pig's feet. So those were things that they were using to make dishes that still translate into today. In your series, you talk about croaker (fish).

The Skillet
Charlotte Five features Emiene Wright's series, "The Skillet."

(recording) Wright: So, why croaker? Why not whiting or some other fish like that? What was the significance?

Oscar Johnson: So croaker is like in the Caribbean culture. Like, they have snapper, escovitch and stuff like that. And so the croaker is our — I would like to think of it as our snapper.

Daryl "D.C." Cooper: This has just been a staple in our hometown for years.

Wright: I see you're using flour and not cornmeal.

Johnson: It just kind of depends on the mood. But I think that more so than anything, we've always had like a seasoned flour of some sort. So we gon' get ready to plate this thing up.

Wright: That's Oscar Johnson and Darryl "D.C." Cooper and both of them are from Virginia Tidewater area. And so their take on croaker was that croaker, originally enslaved Africans were not given rations for Saturday. Saturday would be the day that they would have to hunt or fish to make their meal for that evening. And so they would catch croaker because it was plentiful, and have these big sort of community gatherings.

And that tradition has actually stayed with us. Because even now, when you see church fish fries, a lot of times that fish is croaker. But it's something that's a bottom-feeder, there's boniness. It's not a elegant food to eat, but it's still a part of our culture. We have not left it behind.

Glenn: One thing I wanted to ask you: a lot of these dishes — Black food — these dishes are showing up in fine dining restaurants, not just soul food restaurants. Do you think it's losing its essence?

Wright: I don't. I think we are at a peculiar and very opportune moment in American culture, where Black food is not only finally getting its proper elevation, but it's also getting its proper credit as being basically the food of America. And so I think that when we see people not being 100% married to authentic preparation, but being more creative or shooting off and adding a little of this or a little of that from other traditions, I don't have a problem with it so long as they are paying proper respect to the origin.

You know, I love to see people like Greg Collier of Leah and Louise, one of the top restaurants in America, according to Esquire magazine. Actually, No. 2. The Colliers — and Greg specifically — takes creative license with a lot of traditional African or African American ingredients. He ends up with something that is new or looks new. But then as you're experiencing it, you're still seeing these familiar ingredients. You're still having these familiar flavors. They've just gotten a twist. I love that.

I think that it's about time that our cuisine isn't relegated to the box of "soul food." As beautiful and wonderful as it is, that's only one kind of Black cuisine. Our Low Country, our Tidewater, our, you know, west Texas. There are so many different kinds of Black cuisine.

Glenn: And it's not just showing up on ... it's showing up on the tables of people of all backgrounds. And you can tell by the television shows focusing on Black cuisine.

Wright: People like Paula Deen have enriched themselves off of Black cuisine without necessarily giving the proper credit to where they learned it and to the origin of it. And of course, to me, that is akin to robbery.

Glenn: But I mean, also Black chefs are getting cooking shows, as well.

Wright: I'm seeing Black chefs getting cooking series, so not necessarily a show, but maybe a miniseries or a limited run. You know, "High on the Hog" only had what, four episodes? I see it improving, but I think it's nowhere near what it should be.

Glenn: Do you see more restaurants that cater to the various aspects of African and Black food opening up?

Wright: I think it's too early to call. Things like this happen in waves. But I will say that this is one of the strongest waves that I've seen in recent years. And I think that it's directly tied to the heightened consciousness from the protest movements of last year that are continuing.

And I think that that is helping people to have these more thorny conversations about our food and the things that we're regularly consuming. And I would hope that I would see more restaurants catering to Black cuisine, not just solely soul food.

Emiene Wright is a writer and associate editor for "Cardinal & Pine" and reported the series "The Skillet" for Charlotte Five.

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