In the mid-90s, I walked into the dining room of my maternal grandmother’s house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was Thanksgiving, one of my earliest memories of a vacation that was held in this same house regularly throughout my life.
I had just traveled with my immediate family from my hometown of Houston the day before, bringing provisions and cooking utensils for the day ahead. I glanced at several tables filled with what appeared to be dozens of dishes: turkey, brown sugar glazed ham, sweet potato pie, collard greens and ham shanks, macaroni and cheese, gravy and, well… you get the gist. But it was not these dishes, all expertly prepared, that caught my attention. It was a casserole dish, bubbling at the top, with bits of seafood sticking out. It was a seafood vinaigrette made by Jacklyn Williams, better known as “Aunt Jackie”.
“I’ve been making this dish for years because the flavors are what we like here, and it’s just a nice dish to bring on vacation,” Aunt Jackie told me.
My aunt has always been a figure of joy and unfathomable strength. Her seafood vinaigrette, which she says “just arrived one day,” reminds me of the joy and energy she brings to our family. “Flavor is important, but you have to put your love in it too,” she told me. “The love you add to it is what makes the bandage yours. “
Aunt Jackie’s Seafood Dressing (the full recipe will probably never be fully revealed) follows an age-old dark recipe process: a little of this, a little of that. It is of course much more complex. Taking her mother’s advice to heart, she creates a cornbread dressing, starting with drying the cornbread for two or three days. She adds the usual butter, broth, eggs to bind and herbs and spices such as sage, thyme and a good deal of cayenne pepper. (I told you we were from southern Louisiana.) She also adds protein sausage. But the real treat comes from the waters near Baton Rouge, where shrimp and crayfish are plentiful. As Aunt Jackie knows, our employees have always known how to use what we have around us.
The seafood dressing is amazing. Soft, buttery and covered with flavors of the sea, the dish has become a legend in our family. There were a lot of fun arguments over the size of a scoop of salad dressing anyone could take. And Aunt Jackie, a woman who admittedly enjoys family praise, didn’t shy away from the positive attention.
As I associated seafood dressing with my aunt and her culinary heritage, as I got older I recognized that there was something deeper about it. There is a ritual in African American Thanksgiving. The uncle playing dominoes with his nephews; family members watching the football game until dinner arrives on the table; the aunts are chatting about who’s bringing the sweet potato pie this year (better not the parent who just moved up north); children wonder if this is the year when they will finally – finally – join the adult table.
These annual traditions of family, gossip, and jubilee remind me that the multitudes that exist within the black experience – though remarkably diverse – often converge at the holiday dinner table. One such dish is seafood vinaigrette. Like so many stories of black Americans, much of the work and legacy has been passed down through oral traditions. The suffocation of slavery and the resulting racism and inequality have led to the loss of many of our works and traditions in space and time. The origins of the seafood vinaigrette are therefore murky. According to the chef and the author Alexander smalls, although the dish is prevalent in black households, its origins are probably more linked to regional cuisine.
“You typically find seafood in dressing whether the people who cook live on the coast or have a coastal influence,” Smalls said. “My dad grew up in Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, in the low country, so it was nothing to have seafood in dressing. You see this in many communities on these southern coasts.
It is not known who created or developed a recipe for the first seafood dressing. What is clear, however, is that Louisiana, where my family has lived for generations, was deeply touched by the legacy. black fishermen and cooks who paved the way for seafood-centric cuisine.
In my report for the Southern Food Pathways AllianceI discovered that black fishing traditions predate slavery in West Africa. Along the Gold Coast of Ghana and the West African coast, men were revered for their skills and their maritime and fishing traditions. The Fante and Kru peoples of the Gold Coast and the Liberian Kru community have been recognized by European travelers. researcher at Harvard Emmanuel Akyeampong found that the captains of European ships regularly recruited West African fishermen for the job, and the skill of these fishermen was particularly attractive to many newly arrived Europeans.
Once brought to the United States, West African fishermen passed on these skills orally, influencing coastal regions such as Southern Louisiana, where Creole and Cajun cuisine reign supreme, and the Carolinas, where the Gullah Geechee people have played a fundamental role in the development of the Netherlands. food. A case study shows that black fishermen dominated the fishing industry until the early 20th century, before white Americans saw a financial opportunity. Although industrialization and marginalization have led to a decrease in the number of black commercial fishermen in the South, their influence on southern cuisine is undisputed.
In Houston, chef Chris Williams works with black commercial fisherman Fred McBride to catch and sell local fish and serve it in amazing and delicious ways. Chez Lucille, the restaurant named for Williams’ great-grandmother, the grilled octopus is served over a green coconut curry, seasoned with cilantro and served with roasted peanuts. Seared scallops are placed on top of fried oatmeal cakes and are topped with applewood smoked bacon, diced peppers and sage brown butter. The Williams Gulf Fish takes Captain Fred’s sheep head and makes it a restaurant favorite. The fragrant fish is served with moss-colored okra herbs and John hops.
In Georgia and Carolina, devil crab, oysters on the half-shell, and seafood okra stew dominate restaurant menus. Shrimp and oatmeal are a Southern brunch staple, and New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans without the crayfish stew, shrimp stew, and seafood okra that fill homes and the kitchens of the city.
And of course, in Louisiana, black chefs developed, amplified and transformed the possibilities of seafood. In New Orleans, chef Edna Lewis’s shrimp and grits were an ode to the bountiful gifts of neighboring waters, and the Leah Chase’s Clemenceau shrimp showed the ingenuity of black cookers. Chef Leon West has trained home chefs and cooks eager to deepen their understanding of African-American influences on Cajun and Creole cuisine.
We also see them in the ingenuity of the present. Chef Nina Compton, owner of award-winning restaurant Compère Lapin, serves Jamaican-style snapper escovitch with carrot butter blanc. It’s one of the many seafood dishes that have defined the New Orleans chef and earned her national recognition.
The importance of seafood in black cuisine doesn’t just exist in restaurants. For Louisiana home cooks, seafood is an essential part of the food that is a testament to our culture and our love for our community and history.
Aunt Jackie’s Thanksgiving seafood is something to enjoy while on vacation. But, as we see in recipes from cookbooks and online recipe repositories, seafood dressing is a big deal in black kitchens. David Osei has a popular recipe for his mom seafood vinaigrette, the cooks of the low country shared their own versions of the dish, using regional seafood, and American chef and soul food ambassador Carla Hall has developed a brilliant recipe for cornbread and oyster vinaigrette.
The seafood vinaigrette is a remarkable demonstration of African American culinary ingenuity and the important role home cooks play in our eating habits. For my Aunt Jackie, seafood dressing is a way to celebrate what matters most to her: family.
“A dish like this connects the family, and when you make that kind of a dish, you carry on those traditions, whether it’s the original dish or something you add and make your own,” a- she declared. “You feel connected with the family, and when I do, that’s what really matters to me.”