Sadé Carpenter published a wonderful essay in the Chicago Tribune yesterday about cornbread dressing, a fixture at Black family Thanksgiving celebrations that is most definitely not stuffing. Cornbread dressing has its roots in a West African dish called kusha, which culinary historian Toni Tipton-Martin describes as “a couscous-like dish of steamed or boiled grains of millet or sorghum.” In America, it evolved into kush, in which the millet and sorghum were replaced by cooked corn mush or crumbled cornbread. Michael Twitty, another food historian, uncovered recipes for kush in the Slave Narratives, a collection of oral histories compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression.
Carpenter expands this bit of history into a meditation on the Black experience in America and the rise of young Black chefs and food writers who use their work to honor their ancestors. One of those chefs, Mashama Bailey, opened her restaurant, The Grey, in what used to be a segregated Greyhound bus station in Savannah, Georgia. Another, Kwame Onwuachi, reminded the crowd at the James Beard Awards when he collected his award for his book Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir that it had been just 54 years since segregation ended in American restaurants.
Carpenter is thankful for these chefs, and to historians like Tipton-Martin and Twitty, for helping her recover her own culinary history.
Cornbread dressing is so much more than a Thanksgiving side dish. Food is always so much more than physical nourishment. It’s my connection to family, known and unfamiliar, from Chicago to Mississippi to West Africa. 2019, more than any other year, has revolved around trying to find kinship, seeking more information about my past, my roots and my ancestors. Seeking the knowledge that, for centuries, has been denied to me and people who look like me.
Her essay is a reminder that not everyone’s Thanksgiving looks the same. But she’s been kind enough to include a recipe if anyone would like to celebrate like her own family.