Black New Orleans Chefs Rewrite a Whitewashed, Tourist-Driven Culinary NarrativeHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, New Orleans, food, culinary history, Creole Culture
Chances are you’ll still be thinking about it days later. Last Meal is that delicious — and even more unsettling.
It is inspired by ndambe, a dish that Dakar NOLA’s chef, Serigne Mbaye, ate while growing up in Senegal. But a version of that dish was also fed to enslaved West Africans just before they boarded ships to the United States.
Last Meal, like the peas fed to those in bondage, contains palm oil, which is high in saturated fat. Kidnapped Africans needed to be “fattened up” before being loaded onto ships, so slaveholders could “protect their investment,” Mr. Mbaye explained to about 30 guests in January. He shares this story at the start of every meal at Dakar NOLA, which opened in November.
“I’ve seen people cry plenty of times when talking to me about the black-eyed pea soup,” he said during one of several interviews. “We need to let people know where the food came from. The story isn’t always going to be pleasant.”
It’s a particularly resonant story in a city whose image as a haven of merriment and great food, and as a living portal to history, has been cultivated for well over a century. New Orleans is also a majority Black city that was once the site of the largest slave market in the United States, where by one estimate more than 135,000 people were bought and sold.
Startling racial inequality is not just a fact of the past in New Orleans. Today, the median income of Black households here is 36 percent that of white households, and about half of all Black children live below the poverty line, according to the Data Center, a Louisiana-focused research firm. These disparities are similarly reflected in the amount of acclaim and fortune that flows disproportionately to the city’s white chefs and restaurateurs.
Mr. Mbaye created Dakar NOLA expressly to help diners understand the crucial role that enslaved laborers played in creating New Orleans’s famous cuisine, and connect that history to the city today.
Mr. Mbaye, 29, is part of a generation of Black chefs and scholars who say they want to dismantle the “whitewashed” stories on which the tourist economy of New Orleans rests — deeply abridged versions of the past that are at odds with the experiences of Black residents.
Their emphasis on the influence of Europeans, especially the French, is belied by the legacy of Black chefs in New Orleans kitchens, said Lolis Eric Elie, a New Orleans-born writer and food authority who has become a mentor to Mr. Mbaye.
“What does it do to your notions of white superiority, to know this thing that we thought was all French is not all French?” Mr. Elie said. “To know that the creators of this great culinary tradition were people of African descent?”
That legacy extends back to the era of slavery, said Zella Palmer, a food scholar and the director of the Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture at Dillard University. She pointed out that most of the enslaved people first brought to Louisiana in the early 18th century came from West Africa, including Senegambia, and that Africans sold into slavery were commonly targeted by human traffickers for their specific skills.