Food Through Culture: Mulatto Rice

The dynamic duos of rice and beans and peas and rice have their roots in the Akan, Aja, Yoruba and Igbo kitchens in Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Gabon. When Africans arrived in the Americas, they continued cultivating these crops, so rice and beans dishes can be found throughout the African diaspora: red beans and rice; Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice); black beans and rice; and pigeon peas and rice. The popularity of these dishes as staples and special occasion foods continued after the abolition of slavery.

In the seventeenth century, West Africans from Cape Verde to the Gold Coast cultivated large amounts of rice. They grew so much rice, in fact, that they became known as the people of the Rice Coast. White rice planters in the South sought out West Africans for purchase as slaves because of their knowledge of rice cultivation. These West Africans brought their methods of cooking long-grain rice with them to the colonial South. The African cook made her greatest culinary mark on areas like Savannah, where blacks outnumbered Europeans. Mulatto rice is evidence of diasporic links between Africa and several regions of the Americas. Zora Neale Hurston begins and concludes her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God with rice and bean dishes. While Janie tells her friend Phoebe about how her grandmother escaped from slavery in Savannah and migrated first to Atlanta and then to West Florida, Janie is enjoying a plate of mulatto rice. “Mah mulatto rice ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease, but Ah reckon it’ll kill hungry,” says Phoebe. “Ah’ll tell you in a minute,” Janie says, lifting the cover off the plate. “Gal, it’s too good. You switches a mean fanny round in a kitchen.”

Mulatto Rice Recipe

6 strips bacon
½ cup onions, minced
2 cups water
1 cup tomatoes, diced
1 cup rice

Fry bacon in a pan then remove the bacon and brown a minced onion in the bacon grease. Next, add diced tomatoes. After it is hot, add a pint of rice to the mixture, and cook slowly until the rice is done.

Source: Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies and Simple Pleasures

Food Through Culture: Ambrosia Salad

The dish features a daring combination of jet-puffed marshmallows, shredded coconut, pineapple and mandarin oranges. It’s most commonly finished with a smattering of cool whip (originally sour cream) and chilled in the fridge overnight, encouraging the ingredients to congeal into a dense, syrupy mass. More gourmet renditions have been known to include homemade marshmallows, crushed pecans, maraschino cherries and other fresh fruit. But beyond the various recipes, each ambrosia salad offers the same feeling: The quiet thrill of knowing you’re about to do something you shouldn’t, followed by pure, sticky bliss as you place that first goopy spoonful into your mouth.

A fruit salad without morals, nothing about ambrosia indicates that it should be served as a main course. Nevertheless, this is where it’s most likely to appear. I have never seen ambrosia on a dessert table. But have bared witness to it resting amongst mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and stuffing at countless potlucks and celebrations.

The mixture of refrigerated coconut and sour cream is rumoured to have begun in the southern U.S. in the 1800s, with the earliest written reference of the salad published in a cookbook from 1867, Dixie Cookery by Maria Massey Barringer. Thanks to newly built railroads that linked the west coast with the east, imported ingredients like coconut became easier to access. By the 1870s, the proliferation of imported ingredients meant ambrosia recipes were common.

Food Through Culture: Bananas Foster

Bananas Foster is a dessert on which a restaurant empire was built. The story begins with three New Orleans siblings in the early 1950s. John Brennan, a produce supplier facing down an excess of bananas in his warehouse, gave the bananas to his brother, Owen, who was making the family name synonymous with fine Creole cuisine at Brennan’s Vieux Carré Restaurant. Owen passed the bananas along to their sister, Ella, with instructions to create a dessert to honor a New Orleans civic grandee named Richard Foster. 

Working with the restaurant’s chef, Ella devised the classic tableside preparation, which involves brown sugar, butter, a good splash of rum, a flick of the wrist, a tip of the pan, and a gleeful whoosh of fire. But the brilliance of bananas Foster is how it recasts cherries jubilee—a recipe invented fifty years prior by Auguste Escoffier in honor of Queen Victoria—with New World ingredients. And it left its imprint on a generation of American dinner-party hosts looking to dress up overripe bananas.