When Chikumo Fiseko was 7, she and her father of the Lungu tribe and mother of the Bembe tribe moved from Zambia to England; her mom had gotten a nursing job there. Although they journeyed to foreign land, they took with them their familial traditions, she said, making their new place feel like home.
No matter where you travel to in the world, Fiseko realized, there is one constant in every culture that is foundational to family and communion: food.
Now 28, Fiseko is a food and marketing consultant in Ireland. Her second business, “Nyina,” which means “mother” in her native language, pays tribute to the people in her family who were bakers. At just 15, Fiseko began making and selling baked goods, pulling from recipes passed down from her grandmother. She’s currently taking a small break from Nyina as she dedicates her time to traveling, but looks forward to getting back to baking muffins, brownies, cakes and more, she said.
According to Fiseko, she enjoys baking because she wasn’t expected to do it like she was expected to cook growing up. “I enjoy cooking so much more now that I’m older, because I don’t need to cook,” she said. “It’s traditional as an African woman to need to be able to cook.”
Fiseko has also realized she wants her children to grow up eating the traditional foods that her parents made. She’s currently working with her dad to create a cookbook full of their family recipes — including ones with caterpillars — that future generations can prepare and enjoy.
“My mum and dad are from two different tribes, but they both have similar stories,” she said. “With these caterpillars, you normally buy them and fry them with tomato and onion. It turns out there are some tribes that believe that women shouldn’t eat them because it makes you masculine.”
Today, many in the Black diaspora share a similar experience. It’s through passed-down knowledge of flavors and ingredients that Black families emulate recipes from their ancestors, they say, and continue to honor an integral part of their culture.
The transatlantic slave trade, which spanned across four centuries, uprooted Africans and their descendants from homes where they spent generations building traditions, spiritual practices and, of course, recipes. Eric Wright, an African American studies professor at Valencia College in Orlando, encourages his students to look at the current staple dishes of African descendants not as a stripping away but as a preservation of culture.
“My view is not about the things that people lost during the slave trade,” Wright said. “I focus on the things that made people human. The [slave trade] had a high turnover, but they also had these large communities that maintained their ethnic identities.”
When Wright teaches about the transatlantic slave trade to his students, he said he encourages them to imagine they are young teenagers being brought over to foreign land looking for community among others.
“If I’m coming from what’s now southwestern Nigeria to Cuba, no matter where I go, there’s going to be 20 to 50 people who speak my language and share the same kind of culture. So as this kid, I’ve got someone to teach me the ropes and a group of people that are preserving this culture,” he said. “In North America, we didn’t have that. If I’m a 17-year-old kid and I live in South Carolina, there’s no one speaking like me. There are people who look like me but don’t speak my language. But there is this Afro-American community.”
Instead, Wright said, there was the fusing of different African cultures in the United States during slavery, creating an outcome different than in other countries. In recent years, there’s been a push by Black families to both preserve their histories as well as reclaim what has been lost in the past 400 years. Wright said that protecting family recipes has always been important in this sense, because it’s a major component of culture. Now as older generations pass on those recipes — specifically the matriarch of Black families — younger generations are making an effort to safekeep their family’s cooking techniques.
Like Fiseko, Taniqua Carthens is making an effort to learn her 81-year-old great-grandmother’s recipes as she simultaneously acts as her primary caregiver.
“As I’ve been caring for her, I’ve also been having her guide me through recipes she used to make,” Carthens said. “She isn’t really in the mood to cook these days, but she doesn’t mind kind of guiding me through the process and helping me out.”
Her great-grandmother, who is in the early stages of dementia, coached her through making her collard greens recipe, which Carthens says is her favorite.
The 26-year-old says it breaks her heart that she doesn’t have other family members her age who have been intentional about learning and preserving family knowledge. And it can be particularly acute during this time of year.
“For as long as I can remember, my mom, grandma, great-grandma and aunts have come together to make traditional meals for the holidays or cookouts,” she said. “It’s something that has been ingrained in the family so cooking together and sharing meals is a really important part of us spending time together.”
And it reaches beyond that, too, according to Carthens; this time has allowed her to learn more about her family history — something that can be a struggle for many Black people because of systemic racism.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson intentionally failed to include Black historical sites, according to the Equal Justice Initiative: “Without the protections afforded by historic designation, some historically Black neighborhoods were actively destroyed: deliberately burned in the post-Reconstruction era of racial terror or displaced by highway projects, gentrification, and urban renewal in more recent decades.”
Many African Americans can only trace their family history and traditions back so far due to what genealogists call the 1870 “Brick Wall,” the first year African Americans were named in the Census.
For Carthens, it’s “important for someone to have that family history whether it’s oral history or an heirloom so that we can have those recipes and stories to pass on to generations to come.”
And although many women are intentional about learning their family dishes, for others, it’s a given.
Danielle Edwards was born and raised in Jamaica but moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, when she was 28. Because of the expectation in her culture for girls to be in the kitchen learning from older women in the family, she was cooking at a very early age, she said.
“The tradition is that — and I want to say forced because that’s how I feel about it — we’re forced to learn how to cook,” Edwards said. “For many, Sunday dinner is very important, so you start learning how to cook from that point. There is kind of a standard depending on your family that at some point you are put in charge of doing certain things.”
Edwards still proudly calls herself a Jamaican and clings to certain aspects of her culture although she now resides in Canada, she said. But she chooses not to cook at all on Sundays. For her, going to church and journaling are her only tasks for that day of the week — she prioritizes rest for herself that day.
“Right now, I’m learning to deconstruct my Jamaican culture and take the things that are valuable and good,” she said. “And I’m also learning that I don’t need to keep the things that aren’t great and I can create what Jamaican culture means to me.”