food What I Eat: It’s in My DNA
Americans, perhaps more than people who live anywhere else in the world, have a particularly complicated relationship with food. Our melting pot, made up of the cuisines of those who came here, both willingly and not, is filled with a dash of this, a sprinkling of that, and an endless array of ingredients from around the world that somehow ended up on the same continent. We fiddle, adapt, and fuse — or appropriate — in our restless quest for unique flavors. As Americans, maybe it’s just in our DNA to never be content with the old, always searching for the new.
I grew up loving my Granny’s cornbread, sizzling in a cast iron skillet as it came out of the oven just before we sat down to Sunday supper. Tender greens swimming in savory potlikker, smothered chicken with milk gravy and liberally seasoned with black pepper, tomatoes fresh from the garden, peeled and then dusted with just enough salt to contrast their natural sweetness. It was soul food, pure and simple, the food of my proud Southern heritage, created by the slaves from whom I’m descended and lovingly cooked by my grandmother’s hands.
In 2010, I decided to dig deeper, beyond my American roots, to find out who I really am. Using an African Ancestry DNA test kit, I discovered that my lineage traces back to the Yoruba people of Nigeria and the Bubi, an ethnic group that has lived on Bioko Island, just off the coast of West Africa, for more than 5,000 years. It was more than a revelation — it was a homecoming, an introduction to a heritage that had previously been unknown to me because, like many African Americans, my family’s ancestry was lost to slavery.
Yet, it never was entirely lost, because regardless of whether I knew it, my palate carries the flavors of the generations who came before me.
Naturally, once I got my test results, I was curious to find out more about the traditional foods of the Yoruba and Bubi. And, once I did, there it was: the full array of foods that I already loved, buried deep within my DNA from birth –- yams, cornmeal, peanuts, bananas.
Is it any accident that the foods I consistently gravitate toward form the basis of my ancestors’ diets? My Westernized cravings for peanut butter (by the spoonful, please, with a drizzle of honey), banana pudding, and sweet potato pie all find their roots in the foods of West Africa: groundnut stew, a silky peanut soup tinged with chile; akwadu, baked banana with coconut and citrus juice; asaro, yam porridge flavored with palm oil and crawfish. Even cornbread — arguably one of my favorite foods, laden with those Sunday supper memories — bears a certain resemblance to tuwo masara, a dish made of ground maize that is boiled and then hardened into a dough, perfect for dipping into a bowl of hot soup just like I might with a crusty corner of cornbread.
My love of spice may come from my Yoruba DNA; the Yoruba believe that spicy food contributes to a better life, hence the proverb, “The soul that does not eat pepper is a powerless soul.” When I went to culinary school, I learned all about the five mother sauces of French cuisine — béchamel, espagnole, velouté, hollandaise, and tomate — but perhaps my innate preference for deeply layered sauces really comes from the rich African tradition of cooking ingredients slowly over an open fire that already had existed for centuries. Piri piri sauce alone represents so many of my favorite taste sensations in one perfect combination: chiles, onion, pepper, garlic, lemon juice and zest, bay leaves, basil, and tarragon. I love to take those same flavors and use them on chicken wings, a modern interpretation of my culinary heritage.
At the same time, my exploration of the cuisine of my ancestors has revealed some ingredients that are extremely familiar but still aren’t my favorites. As I wrote in my most recent cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration, “Liking okra’s in my DNA. It’s native to Africa, and it’s a major Southern crop. Even so, I used to hate it. It’s a texture thing.” Searing those slimy suckers in a really hot pan to give them a crispy, caramelized crust cured me of that hatred.
Millet and sorghum, on the other hand, are grains common to West Africa that I have learned to love through my DNA discovery process. I didn’t grow up with either on the table, and they are relatively uncommon in the United States, so I really had to go out of my way to learn how to cook them. I was missing out all those years, but I never knew! The tiny grains of golden millet taste like corn and cashews had a love child. Toasting them slowly in a pan for 15 minutes brings out their nutty sweetness, and from there, you can do almost anything with them that you might with any other grain — cook them into a fermented porridge spiced with ginger and ground chiles, as is traditional in Nigeria, or serve them up as I do with roasted cauliflower and golden raisins, a kind of play on North African couscous.
Sorghum, as a syrup, was more familiar to me as a baking ingredient or slathered on a hot biscuit with butter. The less-recognized sorghum grain, which is satisfyingly chewy, is one that I’m now determined to popularize. Cook it up like steel cut oats for an African-inspired breakfast with coconut milk and diced mango and banana, or turn it into a perfect potluck salad, studded with butternut squash, fresh herbs, and topped off with toasted pumpkin seeds.
That DNA test has expanded and enriched my diet in ways I never expected when I took that first swab inside my cheek. The discovery of my Yoruba and Bubi heritage doesn’t keep me from enjoying many other kinds of foods and flavors from around the world, but it has helped me make a connection with the unnamed ancestors whose blood flows through my veins, and the taste buds they allowed me to inherit.
Carla Hall is a TV host, cookbook author, and entrepreneur.