Food, Community & Government

Foodways of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Michael W. Twitty

Lesson time 10:14 min

Dive deeper into African American culinary history as Michael uncovers a hidden narrative that took place during the period of the transatlantic slave trade between the late 13th century and early 19th century.

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Topics include: Queen Sugar • The Cultural Influence of Corn • Making the Connection


[MUSIC PLAYING] MICHAEL TWITTY: The transatlantic slave trade was a major catalyst in African-American cuisine and culture. During this time, enslavement fueled the engine moving cash crops about the Atlantic world. But there is a second narrative, one far more empowering. From roughly 1440 to the middle of the 19th century, foods along with other important cultural artifacts traveled with enslaved Africans, ensuring the continuation of aspects of their cultures. And Africa, at that time, was home to 2,000, and still is, home to 2,000-plus indigenous food plants. Africans would have their own varieties of peanuts that would arrive in the American South, not from South America where the peanut began, but from West Africa on slave ships. And those slave ships also brought okra, sesame seeds, watermelon, musk melon, varieties of kola, and coffee, varieties of plantains and bananas that had long since been variegated in West Africa. There was an effort made to bring over yams. There was an effort made to bring over cocoyam, cassava, sweet potatoes, other things that had become part of the diet. And this slabber-sauce was nothing in comparison to what they would grow for themselves in the new world. So in order to get Africans to eat on the way over, they had to use the foods they were familiar with. Many Africans chose to starve themselves or to protest, because the food was awful. It was low quality. So what you need to understand is that these crops were not brought by the enslaved themselves but were brought in steerage to feed them on the journey and to be planted once they arrived in the West Indies, Brazil, or North America. And once they were there, they became staples of a diet. And what's so powerful about this is that, no matter where these people land, it didn't matter where the boat dropped them off. It's where it picked them up from. The commonality of all these foods in different places symbolizing a common African Atlantic Black identity. That is so powerful, because it defines the majority of the cuisines of the Americas to this day. [MUSIC PLAYING] When people think of slavery, they think of cotton, because that's the American narrative, or at least one part of the American narrative. But for most of the history of New World slavery, we have to talk about sugar. Sugar was originally domesticated in the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. On the verge of the Colombian voyages that would open up the Americas to colonization, settlement, war, displacement, and enslavement, they were looking for more room, more spaces to grow this tropical crop that would become an addiction for the West. Eventually, sugar will bring millions of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and to Brazil. And in the urge to open up other lands to grow sugarcane and make a crop that will make lots of money for people sugarcane is the entry point for the Western hemisphere to develop a whole culture around racial chat...

About the Instructor

Through years of unearthing his African American heritage, bestselling author of The Cooking Gene Michael W. Twitty discovered undeniable ties between his ancestors’ past and his own palate. Now he’s teaching how you can get a taste of your family history through food. Explore the migrations that informed the ingredients in your kitchen—then re-create the dishes that helped shape who you are.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Michael W. Twitty

James Beard Award–winning author of The Cooking Gene teaches how to trace your culinary roots through the food your ancestors ate.

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