These Historic Ingredients Are How I Honor Black History Year-Round
Sweet potatoes and collard greens aren’t just delicious; they also nourish the soul for many Black Americans.
As told to Laura Denby
Food is meant to nourish us and learning about it is a way to educate ourselves about history, culture, geography and social change. As a country built by immigrants, many of the foods that remind us of America actually originate from other countries and cultures, which is part of what makes our food history so unique. That’s why I love to incorporate ingredients like sweet potatoes, collard greens and benne seeds into my menus all year round. It’s a gratifying way to honor my heritage, while simultaneously telling the story of the perseverance of Black culture.
Although sweet potatoes and collard greens are thought of as basic ingredients of the American diet (particularly in the South) these ingredients have a longer history. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Africans were taken from their homes and brought to foreign, unfamiliar lands. Families were split up; people lost their names and lives were destroyed. But through resolve of spirit, many people were able to bring over some reminders of home — specifically yams, greens and benne seeds (otherwise known as sesame seeds) to feed themselves. In addition to providing vital nutrients, these ingredients brought people together as a welcome reminder of home. Although their lives were irreparably changed, they still held on to where they came from. These ingredients tell the story of the resiliency of people and truly give a deeper meaning to the term “soul food.” In fact, after slavery was brought to an end and freed slaves moved up North, they brought sweet potatoes, collards and benne seeds with them to continue celebrating their heritage through food.
As humans, we connect so deeply through what we eat. The term Sankofa is an African word that means “go back and get it.” It expresses the importance of acknowledging our past as a way to progress in the future. My modern interpretation of these ingredients is my way of connecting to, and honoring Sankofa.
My Roasted Sweet Potato and Miso Soup with Collard Green Furikake recipe (pictured above) is a fantastic way to show the versatility of these ingredients, because it’s a warm and comforting appetizer rather than the stereotypical sweet potato pie. Why not highlight the goodness of sweet potatoes right at the start of the meal? I love this dish because it showcases the diversity of sweet potatoes, collard greens and benne seeds, and truly highlights how these ingredients can nourish us in so many versatile ways.
If you’re looking for something heartier, those same exact ingredients can also be repurposed to create a deeply filling and satisfying entrée — my Miso Roasted Sweet Potato with Benne Seed Butter and Collard Green Furikake (pictured above). Perfect for any time of year, this dish demonstrates the adaptability of these ingredients, and underscores just how far they can be stretched to make nourishing food for the body and soul, while honoring all those that came before me.
Jerome Grant is a James Beard Award-nominated chef and recipe developer. In 2014, he worked as Executive Chef at Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian, and in 2016, Jerome was named inaugural Executive Chef at Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which received a James Beard Award nomination for “Best New Restaurant” in 2017. Jerome's Filipino, Caribbean and Jamaican roots are reflected in many of the dishes he creates. He currently works as Corporate Chef for Dacha Beer Garden and Jackie Restaurant in Washington, D.C.