My Citizens, we here in the United States are preparing to celebrate the last of our 2 days off for the Summer – Labor Day! As we prepare for this holiday, let us be very sure to not forget those who were forced to labor against their will for so much of our country’s history – the African (and for later generations, African-American) slaves whose treatment remains a source of national shame.
These slaves were responsible for many of the traditional foods we now consider “American”, including the precursor to Thanksgiving stuffing – Kush!
As noted by culinary historian and superb chef Michael Twitty on afroculinaria.com:
For enslaved people, the precursor to Thanksgiving was cornshucking time and other harvest events, usually held in October-November. Cornshuckings and harvest dances were key in breaking up the brutal monotony of enslaved people’s lives.
The national holiday of Thanksgiving, which was popularized and encouraged by Sarah Josepha Hale, was finally instituted as a result of her 17 year campaign, by Abraham Lincoln, who instituted the holiday in 1863, the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation. Thanksgiving was supposed to bring the country together in the midst of the Civil War, giving Americans a common cultural rallying point.
Later, according to Andrew F. Smith, Thanksgiving became a tool of Americanization for incoming immigrants. A religiously neutral, apolitical holiday built around the idea of gratitude for home and blessings, the Thanksgiving narrative was promoted in schools and found itself modified by each culture and community.
Although we were not considered a part of the “huddled masses,” Thanksgiving no less brought African Americans together and gave them another reason to pray, be thankful, share with family and friends and eat.
In the North, before the Civil War, Blacks celebrated their own Thanksgiving Day. It was usually held on January 1, 1808–the date Congress abolished the slave trade from Africa to America. It was a day of commemoration–sermons were given about the greatness of the African past and problem of slavery. Similarly, Edna Lewis, the Grande Dame of Southern cooking talked about how her family would celebrate Emancipation Day in the fall rather than Thanksgiving Day. The elders in the community who were enslaved would tell stories about their lives in slavery and the coming of freedom.
Cornbread Stuffing—So we didn’t invent this either–but we are a major part of the story–here’s an email I got from a white lady from North Carolina some years ago…
My father was a boy during the Great Depression and his family ran a boarding house in Durham, NC as a means of survival. One of the things my grandmother served was kush, and it was one of my father’s favorite foods. All I remember him telling me is that it was made from cornmeal and onions. If you have a recipe I would LOVE to have it! Sadly, my father passed away a couple of years ago, so I won’t be able to fix it for him—but I can eat some in his memory!
Thanks for your fascinating work!
And this is the recipe I sent her:
The word kush comes from the Hausa language of Upper West Africa, through the Arabic term for couscous. Called kush in the Chesapeake and Carolinas, and coush-coush, in Louisiana, there were various versions according to the region one lived in. There were plain versions, sweet versions, savory versions.
Kush was a good way to use up any stale or crusty leftovers—pot liquor–the stock left over from cooking greens or other vegetables, hot peppers and cooked onions were combined to make a mush with which to eat other foods.
My friend John Martin Taylor, author of Hoppin John’s Lowcountry Cooking, said that when he was living in the Carribean they made several dishes similar to kush, like funji (foongee) which comes from an Mbundu word from Central Africa meaning, “mouthful.” Besides that, he learned about kush from his Appalachian grandmother. Across cultures–Native American, African, and European we share a world of food!
Citizens, my Kush recipe is based very closely on Chef Twitty’s, and I hope as you celebrate Labor Day, you remember those who labored against their will centuries ago and still continue to do so to this day against their will in many countries.
Battle on – The Generalissimo