Cookbook preserves soul food recipes, history

Myria Whitcomb – environmental portrait – An African American Cookbook - 02/05/2014
Myria Whitcomb – environmental portrait – An African American Cookbook – 02/05/2014

By Paula Ann Solis
Staff Writer

Each February, people remember the history of African-Americans in different ways, but one Baylor student has a year-round approach to reflect on the past – eating.

Huntington, N.Y., graduate student Myria Bailey Whitcomb is the author of “An African American Cookbook: Traditional and Other Favorite Recipes,” which was published in 2002 at a retail value of $19.95. It consists of more than 400 recipes that combine food, hymns and history.

Bailey Whitcomb, who is also a co-pastor at Allen Chapel in Athens, Texas, began collecting recipes and stories from members of the African-American community to put in her book while she worked in as an actor in an Underground Railroad re-enactment group “Living the Experience” at a church in Pennsylvania.

“We wanted to honor the legacy and African-American experience,” Bailey Whitcomb said. “That’s what the cookbook was really about, a way to highlight the recipes and the food eaten by those enslaved. They were normally given the undesirable parts of the animal and making a meal out of it that was tasty from these leftovers required creativity.”

Those meals, which would later become known as “soul food,” are still popular in America today. One meal common today that arose from such circumstances is chitterlings, a stew normally made from the intestines of pigs.

Although it may seem bleak, Bailey Whitcomb said the story of slaves using what little they were given to make something they could survive on shows how from terrible times and struggles, something wonderful can still be produced. Dr. Marcia Chatelain, a professor from Georgetown University who has researched the culture of African-American food, said although food is used around the world to narrate tales of strife and victory, the story behind African-American meals has an interesting twist.

“This food tradition is interesting and different because during enslavement other parts of African-American culture couldn’t be contained, religion, language, child up bringing, they were very much destabilized by slavery,” Chatelain said.

“There were few material resources to stay connected to those various experiences.”

African-American recipes function as a reflection of the conditions faced by slaves and their struggle to remain connected to Africa during their transatlantic passage, Chatelain said.

Hymnals or spiritual songs are also used to experience history. Like recipes passed down from one generation to the next, hymnals are descriptions of the past that give a glimpse into the emotions experienced by slaves and the work they were doing to free themselves, Bailey Whitcomb said.

Spirituals would often have hidden messages in them that only other slaves understood and they could say them in front of owners without harm. Bailey Whitcomb said Africans were working from the moment they were put on ships and in shackles. This self-liberating aspect of African-American history is not often explored, she said.

“Spirituals that were sung in the open were songs not just to give massages,” Bailey Whitcomb said. “These spirituals were the life and blood for the Africans that always believed that God would deliver them from slavery. That is why the Africans really felt akin to the story of the Israelites in the Bible.”

However, these hymnals and diets practiced by slaves have not always been fondly remembered by next generation African-Americans, Chatelain said. There was a period, before the civil rights movement sparked an appreciation of one’s history, when people wanted to dissociate themselves with things from that period of enslavement. Food was a socially sensitive topic.

“Food is not a non-controversial thing we just enjoy,” Chatelain said. “There are a lot of politics and issues like who has access to it and who prepares our food and under what conditions. It is always important to think about where food comes from and ways that we can eat ethically and in favor of social justice.”

This constant thought process is something Bailey Whitcomb said she hopes to foster with her cookbook. Black History Month is not the only time African-American culture should be discussed and remembered, she said.

“I don’t have a month,” Bailey Whitcomb said. “I am who I am all the time. I’m always talking about who we are and the contributions that Africans and African-Americans have made to this particular country.

Bailey Whitcomb will perform a cappella spirituals about enslavement at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday at Seventh & James Baptist Church. Copies of Bailey Whitcomb’s book can be found on Amazon.