Food is the language of cultural expression. It tells us what is available, what is desirable, and who gets to have it. Its role as a tool of sociological study is unique because it can be easily consumed and understood by all, though we may not initially think of it as more than a substance of survival.
Many delicacies that we take for granted in the milieu of food trucks and meticulously plated Instagram posts are not only the best international foods, but they're often born out of historical tragedy. From suppression to servitude to conquering to theft, many of the best foods in the world have a dark backstory. While it’s important to understand the often tragic cultural context behind our favorite cuisines, we can all agree that our world is richer for having access to these delicious recipes.
Fried chicken plays a complicated role in American history. Since the early 20th century, the universally beloved dish has been a tool of objectification and stereotyping. While this negative association remains difficult to shake over a century later, fried chicken is also a symbol of freedom, independence, and financial security.
According to race folklorist Claire Schmidt, the stereotype originated from the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which dramatizes the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in a positive, sensationalized light. In the film, white actors play Black politicians behaving inappropriately on the job, kicking their feet up onto the desk and eating fried chicken.
"It's a food you eat with your hands, and therefore it's dirty. Table manners are a way of determining who is worthy of respect or not,” says Schmidt. The relaxed consumption of the dish also happens to be the reason fried chicken is so beloved in American culture, however. Chickens are inexpensive and easy to raise, which makes them a useful staple food. Fried chicken keeps well and can be eaten without utensils. It's tasty and convenient.
Utility aside, it also has a righteous history. In the years during and following the abolition of slavery, Black women seeking economic independence tapped into a lucrative market: the rapidly expanding rail system. In the absence of dining cars, there was a need for quick travel food. The women, known as "carrier waiters," would cook fried chicken, biscuits, and other baked goods that would still be okay after long periods of time. In some areas, the fried chicken operation was so popular that travelers would plan their route around their favorite carrier waiters.
In modern society, fried chicken transcends race, class, and geographical lines across America. From the $5 Fill-Up to bougie chicken and waffle gastropub concepts, fried chicken is a culinary staple throughout the nation.
While canned meat carries a class stigma in the United States, its impact and utility cannot be denied. Spam is often mocked as "mystery meat;" it's the namesake of unwanted web junk mail, after all.
If you are seriously wondering what Spam is, be assured that its ingredients are less distressing than what's in hot dogs. Spam is made of pork shoulder, ham, water, salt, potato starch (to bind the materials into their recognizable loaf shape), sugar, and sodium nitrite.
Invented in 1937, Spam became internationally popular during WWII. The invention of a shelf-stable, sealed protein was novel and practical for soldiers. Spam was delivered to American occupations all across the globe, and it had an unexpected cultural impact on the Philippines, which was colonized by the United States from 1899 to 1946.
Afraid of contamination, American military personnel stationed in the Philippines did not eat native food. Instead, they imported their own vacuum sealed foods, and Spam was a popular menu item. While the generally well-to-do American soldiers and politicians viewed the canned meat as an inconvenience and a degradation of their values, it was considered a luxurious import by Filipinos.
After the Philippines gained independence from the United States, Spam became a cultural mainstay in the Filipino diet. Some tasty examples of the unique Filipino preparations of Spam include Spamsilog - a Spam-infused rendition of the classic Filipino breakfast of sinangag (garlic fried rice) and itlog (egg). There is even a special Tocino Spam, replicating the flavor of Filipino-style cured bacon.
While its American iteration comes with its own unique rituals, barbecue has ties to African, Caribbean, and Native American cultures. The etymological root of the word "barbecue" stems from the Caribbean Spanish word barbacoa, meaning to roast over hot coals and wood.
On Christopher Columbus's second trip to the Americas in 1493, his crew physician, Diego Álvarez, noted the meat smoking techniques utilized by the Arawak people in the Greater Antilles. The Arawak would slowly roast fish and serpents over coals. These methods were immediately co-opted and brought to Europe.
When Europeans began to establish colonies in North America, hogs were imported and quickly became the central component of the barbecue, which had become a popular social and political event. Many subscribed to the notion that barbecue was a symbol of freedom for the American people, believing that the ability to consume food and drink together as a people was a grand symbol of democracy. The only issue was that not everyone at the barbecue was truly free.
Enslaved people were typically the cooks at these events, ostensibly due to their familiarity with the techniques. Native Central American and Central African spit-roasting processes had a lot in common, despite the great distance between the two continents. The similarity was logistical in nature: in a tropical climate, salty, smoked meat will spoil less easily. A white man would oversee the grilling process while the Black pitmasters cooked and served guests.
Similar to the history of gumbo and fried chicken, the barbecuing traditions of enslaved peoples were reclaimed and re-appropriated. On Juneteenth, the day that slavery was formally abolished in the United States, many newly free people celebrated with the supposed symbol of freedom and democracy - barbecue.
Gumbo, like many other traditional African American dishes, was born out of struggle, necessity, and ingenuity. Several notable food traditions originated during slavery, and gumbo is no exception. To this day, it contains many holdovers from the African diet.
Of the countless gumbo recipes, the ingredients and methods used to prepare the dish are African in origin and were brought to America through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While there are numerous regional variations, most gumbos feature Andouille sausage with at least one or two other meats, bell pepper, celery, okra, and onions all stewed in a stock and flour based roux - a French method of making sauce enhanced by uniquely American Creole culture. Shellfish is a common addition, especially in areas near water.
Gumbo’s name is derived from "ki ngombo," which is the term for okra in West African Bantu dialect. Okra is a key ingredient that is used to thicken the broth. This process also has its roots in African cooking - the technique is called "soupikandia," a Senegalese stew similar in composition to gumbo.
While it is impossible to decontextualize gumbo from its origins, it has absolutely taken on a life of its own in the collective consciousness of the American South. People are fiercely loyal to their gumbo of choice - making claims about the perfect color of roux or whether the "Holy Trinity" is real is a surefire way to get many New Orleans residents or persons of Creole origin fired up.