Updated: Aug 26, 2019
“The kitchen is life,” says Atiba Berkley, reflecting on his family and his upbringing. “My family is from NYC by way of the Caribbean and cooking old recipes is a rite of passage. Food is more than just nutrition, it connects us to where we are from and who we are.”
“Okra, rice, cornbread, greens & stews all have this consistent thread of the influence from the African Diaspora just like Blues music does,” he continues. “We often create our most vivid memories around food and music.”
Cornbread, pork, rice, okra, grits and greens. These are the predominant and undeniable foods of the American South and, as Berkley points out, they go hand in hand with blues music. “Once I moved to the South,” he says, “I realized that Blues was still being played and that these foods that often called Southern Cuisine or Soul Food are actually Blues Foods.”
It is true that from Sonny Terry’s “Custard Pie Blues” to James Cotton’s “Digging My Potatoes,” the Blues and food have always been deeply intertwined.
During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, food variety and food knowledge was brought across the ocean. Once in the Americas, enslaved Africans were often given paltry rations and poor quality foods to subsist on. However, their food heritage and deep culinary proficiency merged with economic necessity and survival to create recipes with what was available, adapting the coarsest ingredients into sustenance–and into new traditions.
As a result, much of today’s southern cuisine, or Blues food, has a clear lineage to Africa. One-pot rice recipes like jambalaya can be traced back to West African jollof, and Hoppin’ John is similar to waakye of Ghana and thiebou neibe of Senegal. Southern staple greens dishes, such as cooked collards and mustard greens, bear resemblance to Ethiopia’s gomen wat; even the South’s ever-present barbeque is derived from enslaved people’s creating vinegar and hot pepper flavorings to mask the poor flavor of the substandard cuts of meat they had access to. (Source: The Black Foodie)
The sounds and rhythms we associate with Blues traveled these same routes and rose from similar conditions alongside Southern cooking. A wide variety of African musical traditions merged with European traditions to create a new music, evolving from field chants into ragtime, gospel, and Blues. Like Southern foods, stringed instruments such as the guitar and banjo can be traced back to West African kora, and the call and response technique commonly used in Blues harkens back to African roots and, later, field hollers.
A Shared History of Struggle
Beyond African knowledge and traditions, Berkley points out that “Blues culture was also birthed through the struggles of the poor, the enslaved & the oppressed in rural areas of the South.” Some of the most powerful and inspired creations of both Southern cuisine and Southern sound were born out of poverty and hardship.
In short, these art forms share a tradition of making something out of nothing.
To Berkley, this history and connection was not something that should not be overlooked at the Carolina Blues Festival. “For 34 years, the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society has also done a great job of celebrating blues music and spreading education through music. But part of that education is to embrace all the elements of Blues culture,” explains Berkley.
“We felt it was important to add a second and free day to the Carolina Blues Festival so that the entire community could access the experience. The Blues & Foods Marketplace is designed to create an access point for those who might want to be able to access Blues culture through food and community interactions and smaller musical acts.”
“And because we are introducing and highlighting food– in particular, Southern food– as part of Blues experience this year, we knew we also needed to speak truth about how our communities continue to struggle with poverty and hunger,” says Berkley. “Reaching out to Second Harvest for their expertise on food insecurity made sense. We want to draw the connections, and create ways for Blues fans to acknowledge the roots and give back.”
***THIS EVENT IS OVER! And it was GREAT! However, we encourage you to check out the ongoing work of our friends at the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society here: https://piedmontblues.org/ "