The Black Chefs, Entrepreneurs, and Inventors Shaping American Cuisine
American cuisine is like a grand mosaic, splashed with a complex array of influences, ingredients, and inspirations. But, as with much of history, the contribution of some groups are lost, underappreciated, or overlooked.
In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating the culinary influence and agricultural innovations made by Black Americans. What is even more remarkable about these achievements is that many of them were made during periods of intense racial discrimination. But despite the rampant inequality and injustice, Black Americans have—and continue—to shape cooking and food production in America.
Building on the work of previous innovators is the current generation of Black American chefs and food activists who are dedicated to promoting more plant-based cooking in their communities. By introducing healthy recipes and normalizing the concept of vegan and vegetarian cooking, these individuals are doing their part to reduce instances of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, that disproportionality affect Black Americans.
Let’s continue to celebrate and learn more about the diversity and contributions of Black American’s that makes our food so rich, complex, and delicious.
Born in 1765, James Hemings first served as Thomas Jefferson’s personal attendant and barber (he was enslaved, but also the half-brother of Jefferson’s wife), and he later accompanied Jefferson to Paris “for the particular purpose” of learning French cookery. Two years later, he returned with the Jefferson family to the United States, where he revolutionized dining at Monticello (Jefferson’s home) by using the then-new multi-burner stove. Hemings is responsible for introducing European-style macaroni and cheese, French fries, and crème brûlée to America. He left Monticello in 1796 as a literate, bilingual, free man.
George Washington Carver
He is most famous for developing products made from peanuts, but George Washington Carver contributed much more than that to American agriculture and cuisine. As an agricultural chemist, he focused efforts on finding more than 300 new applications for Southern crops like soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. Carver is also responsible for bringing crop rotation—the practice of planting different crops on the same plot of land to improve soil health—to the South. Some of the products attributed to Carver include versions of ink dye, flour, vinegar, and synthetic rubber.
Abby Fisher published the second known cookbook by a black woman in the United States. Fisher was born into slavery in South Carolina, but she eventually made it to San Francisco, where she began manufacturing pickles. From her time in the South, Fisher learned many of the southern culinary traditions, which she included in her cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking. Published in 1881, the book has recipes for classics dishes like corn fritters and okra.
George Speck (also known as George Crum) developed his culinary skills while cooking at Cary Moon’s Lake House for wealthy Manhattanites summering in Saratoga Springs. Eventually Speck opened his own restaurant, Crum’s, where he served only food grown locally on his farm. The high level of food and service earned Speck quite the reputation amongst his elite diners, but he is most known for being the inventor of the “Saratoga-style” potato chip, which were served as a precursor to his meals.
A contemporary food activist, Bryant Terry is a James Beard award-winning vegan chef bringing equality to the food system through the promotion of plant-based eating in Black communities. He has published five books focused on African-inspired vegan recipes, and he is currently the chef-in-residence at the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco. His latest book, Vegetable Kingdom, features 100 vegan recipes that highlight plant-foods, making them the star of the plate, not just an afterthought.
Tracye McQuirter is a public health nutritionist and devoted vegan. Her 34 years of plant-based eating provided her with all the insight and experience necessary to write multiple practical plant-based eating resources, including African American Vegan Starter Guide and By Any Greens Necessary, a comprehensive guide on how to eat vegan, written specifically for Black women. To mark the tenth anniversary of the book, McQuirter announced a new program to help 10,000 Black women go vegan, “while Black women are leaders in so many progressive ways, we are in a crisis when it comes to our health…experiencing the highest rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer—the top four killers and disablers in the nation.” Her work continues to be instrumental in promoting healthy eating in Black communities.