Celebrating Indigenous Foods of the Americas for Thanksgiving

Celebrating the History of Halloween

Old fashioned dinner pail

Celebrating Back to School

Celebrating America’s Birthday

Celebrating Earth Day

Mixed moss + reindeer moss (lichen) circle garden created by Antonia Demas

Planting a Garden

Honoring the Vital Legacy of Plants on Earth

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

It’s exciting to think that without the evolution of the humble moss, none of us would be here today” [1] Tim Lenton, University of Exeter, UK

Scientists believe that more than 450 million years ago the first plants slowly emerged on earth. They did not flower or contain seeds and reproduced by spores. The first plants were the mosses which also do not have roots. Slowly they spread on mineral rich rocks and eventually created soil as they decomposed. They grew on all continents and survived an astounding range of temperatures. Their requirements were for rain and sun but they were able to adapt to varied levels of each. During droughts they would hibernate and renew their vibrancy when rehydrated by rain. The rainwater leached out minerals from the rocks which contain potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which are necessary for new plant life. Over the course of millions of years, new plants which had vascular systems, flowers, and roots emerged. The mosses and other plants took in carbon dioxide and gave off oxygen which made it possible for new life forms (both plant and animal) to develop 40 million years ago. [2]

The evolution of soil being created led to a diversity of new life forms. Some of the ancient plants got their start millions of years ago thanks in large part to the mosses. The ancient plants that are still thriving today include the following:

  • Dawn Redwood, aka Dinosaur Tree
  • Horsetails
  • Norway Spruce
  • Cycads – including Sago Palm (See photo)
  • Lichens (not plants – fungus & algae)
  • Moss varieties
  • Dutchman’s Pipe
  • Ferns, including Staghorn Ferns (See photo)
  • Gingko Tree
  • Liverworts

Plants absorb great amounts of carbon, release oxygen and are a beautiful way to help mitigate climate change. Depending on your climate zone, the smaller plants that grow in warm climates such as the Sago Palm and ferns can be brought indoors as houseplants during the cold weather and will oxygenate the air in your house. The ancient trees such as Gingko and Dawn Redwood will grow for many years and will add shade and beauty to any outdoor landscape.

Arbor Day has been celebrated the last Friday in April and this year will be Arbor Day’s 150th Birthday! Plant a tree to celebrate this birthday – your tree very well may be alive in another 150 years! Most children would be excited to grow some of the same plants that grew during the age of the dinosaurs. Planting a dinosaur tree on Arbor Day will show our appreciation to these wondrous plants and creatures.

Sago Palm
Staghorn Fern

Ancient Plants as Houseplants

Ancient gardens are a fun way to explore our past. I get pleasure from mine every day and the endurance of these plants surviving over millions of years when dinosaurs roamed the earth demonstrate their strength, resilience, and successful survival strategies.

Brontosaurus on Moss & Stone
Dawn Redwood, aka Dinosaur Tree

School Gardens – A Brief History

The school gardening movement has an interesting history which developed first as part of the progressive education movement which included outdoor labs for nature study, and later to provide food during the war years when many farmers were enlisted in the war effort and not able to grow crops. The school garden movement began in Europe in the early 1800’s where it first took hold in Austria, Sweden, and Belgium and then spread to other European countries. The first documented school garden in the US was in 1891 in Roxbury, Massachusetts at the Putnam School.

When schooling became mandatory educators were especially concerned about urban youth, many of them immigrants who struggled with the language and poverty. Gardening was used to teach life skills like reasoning and problem-solving as well as to promote the value of physical work in the fresh air rather than memorizing lessons in a stuffy classroom. The idea was that gardening was not for the sake of the garden itself, but that it may lead the children into the life of the state meaning to civic engagement.

African American Children and Teachers in Independence Missouri School Garden

When World War I broke out and the U.S. got involved in the war there was a need to keep growing food to feed our troops and our allies fighting in Europe, as well as to provide food for those at home. Since men were sent off to fight the war, women and children were enlisted to grow food as an act of patriotism. Progressive educators used World War I as an excuse to adopt the first national standards-based curriculum supported by the federal government based on school gardens. The U.S. School Garden Army was created in 1917 with its motto “A garden for every child. Every child in a garden.” The government sent instructions to families on how to can and preserve the produce grown and the program became known as the “Victory” gardens with a massive effort to feed people during the war. Participating women and children developed new skills which many continued after the war ended.

“A garden for every child. Every child in a garden.”
Women work in a war garden, c. 1918. Location unknown. Library of Congress.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, a need for food, rather than education, became the primary motivation for cultivating community gardens. Europe was in the midst of a food shortage. To increase exports, the national War Garden Commission called on citizens to create vegetable gardens to satisfy their domestic need for food and have surplus to send overseas. Gardening became a patriotic act and all citizens were encouraged to participate. To increase exports, the national War Garden Commission called on citizens to become “soldiers of the soil” by planting “liberty gardens” or “war gardens” to meet some of their domestic need for food. Gardening became a patriotic act.

Poster depicting children participating in farm work by planting a garden during World War I via Wikimedia Commons

When World War II occurred, the skills developed as part of the Victory Garden period during the previous war were put to good use. People believe that the World War II “Food for Freedom” gardening campaign was so successful (40% of all fruits and vegetables consumed during this time was produced in the 21 million Victory Gardens leading to the highest percentage of fruits and vegetables in our diet in recent times) because so many of the adults participating in the program had belonged to the U.S. School Garden Army during World War I.

Food in Schools

The World Wars brought attention to the fact that we needed to be more equable in the way we fed our population. School children did not have access to a hot lunch unless outside groups brought food to the school, usually run by volunteers. If you are interested in learning more about the history of the school lunch program, contact us about the publication Hot Lunch: A History of the School Lunch Program, by Antonia Demas. It became clear that the federal government needed to get involved in making food available to all school children, especially those who could not afford to purchase food or bring a nutritious meal from home. As any teacher knows, a hungry child is not ready to learn.

Both World War I and II exposed the fact that one third of the young men who tried to enlist in the armed services were rejected due to severe malnutrition stemming primarily from too few calories. Ironically, in today’s military, a third of the young men and women continue to be rejected for military service due to severe malnutrition but the cause is too many calories.

Another big problem that needed to be addressed was that there was a surplus of food produced in large part due to the success of the Victory gardens. Finally, after exposure that the richest country in the world had malnourished youth, the School Lunch Act became an Act of Congress in 1946. From its inception it served a dual purpose:

1. to assist with the health of the nation’s children

2. to ensure a market for farmers

School gardens were no longer seen as necessary for patriotism or nature study and their popularity dwindled. However, school gardens are experiencing a revival due in part to the fact that our children, especially poor children who get free breakfast and lunch provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have experienced a surge in diet-related diseases that previously did not affect children due to the processed nature of many of the foods served in schools and homes. It is fortunate that school gardens are making a come-back but the foods grown need to be part of the meal program and classroom education. Many people believe that children have an innate dislike for fruits and vegetables but without positive hands-on education that includes gardening and cooking, the kids are being sensible in rejecting foods they know little about.

I began integrating school gardens with food literacy education in the early 1970’s, while working with preschoolers at a Head Start program in Vermont. There are a few basic considerations that need to be addressed prior to working with children and community members in developing school or community garden programs. Future blogs will feature educational themes related to school gardens such as theme gardens, composting, creating healthy soil organically, companion planting, insects, food preservation, cooking from the garden and aesthetics.

The considerations we recommend you address prior to creating a school garden are:

  • Choose the site carefully – how much sun does it receive, do you have access to water, get a soil analysis done, do you need a fence, where are the tools going to be stored, are there plants that are incompatible with what you want to plant growing nearby, for example walnut trees emit a toxin that makes it difficult to grow tomatoes
  • Develop a plan to maintain the garden over the summer
  • Develop a plan to consume the food
  • Create a compost
  • Have a space where students/family members can sit, receive instruction and write in garden journals
  • Create an aesthetic design mixing flowers with vegetables and herbs
  • Have stepping stone paths and mulch so cultivated plants will not be stepped on
  • Maintain the garden year-round – there are few sights more depressing than an ill kept garden
  • Create opportunity for nature study experiments
  • Celebrate Earth Day in the garden and know that you are honoring planet earth!
Fenced garden to keep critters out
Tree stump seats & picnic table for outdoor classroom
First grade students enjoying garden

Earth Day

Earth Day became a national holiday April 22, 1970 as people recognized we were acting in careless ways that were destructive to the earth. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962 which was a wake-up call for many Americans. Oil spills, pesticides, and lead gas were spewing toxic materials into the atmosphere, water and soil, and the effects of these practices along with many others were measurable and destructive.

More than fifty years later we have clear evidence of the harm we have done to our planet by taking our precious earth for granted through our careless and destructive behavior. Climate change has reached a tipping point and we all must do what we can to reverse these practices starting now. Let us all do our part to honor our earth by listening to our environmental experts and engage in practices that will heal our beautiful planet. Planting gardens, growing trees, eating a plant-based diet are all steps we can take in this direction. We also must involve our children in taking personal positive and active steps in their daily lives to give hope to their future and the future of the planet.

Letter from Student, 1994

Happy Birthday Planet Earth!

“Blue Marble 2000”. NASA

[1] http://www.scienceclarified.com/everyday/Real-Life-Earth-Science-Vol-3/Soil-How-it-works.html#ixzz7P7ixVU9T

[2] ibid

Celebrating Women’s History Month

Honoring the Life and Legacy of Ellen Swallow Richards

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

“Schools should not teach how to make a living before they teach how to live.”
— Ellen Richards

Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, founder of the home economics and environmental education movements, was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts in 1842. Richards applied scientific principles to the way we live our lives and had a far-reaching influence and impact on improving conditions in society. Her story deserves to be well known. I first came across her name in 1988 while researching the history of the school lunch program while working on my Masters degree and then Ph.D. at Cornell University at the College of Human Ecology. Until I learned of the astounding accomplishment of this brilliant woman, I had no idea that the College of Human Ecology at Cornell would likely not exist if it had not been for her pioneering work done by Ms. Richards which transformed the way we live.

Ellen Swallow Richards was an only child whose parents taught school and were shopkeepers. They educated her at home until she was sixteen when she attended Westford Academy to learn classics. For a number of years she taught school, helped her father run his store, and cared for her sickly mother. At age twenty-six she enrolled in the newly opened Vassar College, where she studied science and had a special interest in chemistry.

After graduating from Vassar she felt the need for further education so that she could pursue her interest in chemistry. This was during an era when access to higher education was not readily available to women and there was no science school in the country that admitted women. Undeterred, she applied to the newly opened Institute of Science and Technology in Massachusetts, (MIT). A woman had never been admitted to MIT and it took perseverance for Ms. Richards to be admitted finally as a “special student.” She spent four years there, from 1871-1875, as a student, student assistant, and assistant in the chemical laboratories. She later became the first female professor at MIT. While at MIT, Richards met her husband, Robert Hallowell Richards, professor of mining engineering and head of the new metallurgical laboratory.

Ellen Richards, the only female student at MIT, 1871-1875

In 1869 the Massachusetts legislature passed an Act establishing a State Board of Health. This Board was instrumental in paving the way for the public health movement. Its mission was to begin to regulate sources of pollution and to make the public aware of the effect of the physical environment upon their health:

Their mission was, “No board of health, if it rightly performs its duty, can separate the physical from the moral and intellectual natures of man. These three qualities of man are really indissoluble, and mutually act and react upon each other. Any influence exerted to the injury of one, inevitably, though perhaps very indirectly, injures another. As in the physical world there is a correlation of forces, so that no force is ever lost but only interchanged with another, so do these various powers and qualities of man act upon each other, and act and are acted on by the physical forces of nature that surround him.” (Hunt 1958:48).

The concept of seeing the interrelationships between people, ethics, and disciplines became one of the hallmarks of Richards philosophy.

The Board of Health had frequent contact with MIT and hired one of MIT’s professors, Mr. Nichols, to make a chemical analysis of water in order to determine the level of pollution from sewage and industrial sources. Professor Nichols hired Richards as his assistant, and it was in this job that she learned firsthand of the negative impact on the environment of man’s careless behavior. This was one of many experiences that led her to found Oekology (ecology) as a multi-disciplinary science in 1892. After coining the word she defined it:

For this knowledge of right living, we have sought a new name . . . As theology is the science of religious life, and biology the science of physical life . . . so let Oekology be henceforth the science of [our] normal lives . . . the worthiest of all the applied sciences which teaches the principles on which to found . . .a healthy . .  and happy life. (Clarke 1973:120).

Richard’s strong opinions about how to engage people in lifelong learning influenced her approach to education at all age levels. Two experiences vividly illustrated to her the child’s natural ability to learn. She taught classes on minerals for both children and teachers at the Boston Natural History Museum. Some of the material she presented to each group was exactly the same. She observed that the children were far superior at understanding certain concepts than were the adults. She decided to test this observation by teaching the same lessons about minerals to a group of elementary school students and to a class of undergraduates at Harvard. The results showed that “The children trusted to their own observations . . . and were able much sooner than the older pupils to identify and classify minerals” (Clarke 1973:201). This indicated to Richards that something was drastically wrong with the educational system if one result was that learning became more difficult with age. The child’s natural curiosity about life should be given a full range of opportunities for active experimentation.

Richards observed in this elegant and insightful quote, “The zest of intelligent experiment will add great charm to otherwise monotonous duties” (Hunt 1958:99).

In writing about early education for girls, Richards said: We must awaken a spirit of investigation in our girls, as it is often awakened in our boys, but always, I think, in spite of the school training. We must show to the girls who are studying science in our schools that it has a very close relation to our every-day life. We must train them by it to judge for themselves, and not to do everything just as their grandmothers did (Hunt 1958:99).

One view that Richards held strongly was that as soon as children entered school they should be taught about their environment to enable them to live in a rapidly changing world. Education should speak to this need and address real life concerns.

Ms. Richards wrote, Schools should be readily adapting to the new environment . . . but they aren’t . . . The family was foregoing its educational responsibility and schools are usurping it . . . But if the home is retrograding as an education center . . .schools are not advancing fast enough . . . Where will tomorrow’s leaders come from . . . Where will they lead us? Education must teach environment (Clarke :1973:201).

Richards was very critical of learning by rote and of learning fragments, rather than understanding the big picture. She wrote, “The human mind learns by putting things together, not taking them apart.” (Clarke 1973:202). She knew that children were capable of putting things together if given the opportunity.

“I envy a child who rides a bicycle without learning, he just jumps on and rides. We should give children a chance to do more. They do not require much teaching . . . We teach too much. The child is far quicker than the adult to grasp what is suited to him. We present to him something he cannot grasp–the large end–and he wisely refuses it. We call him stubborn when he is only wise. We forget that the abstract is arrived at only after much experience with the concrete. . . What we do to kill learning! We put young children on hard seats, in cramped positions, force into their heads a dead book which must not be crumpled or torn and exclaim: ‘Study! Study! Recite!’ And this when human instinct demands objects to be handled and put together . . . “(Clarke 1973:202-3).

Richards believed that the senses should be engaged in learning about the environment for the learning to be effective.

“Place the child in an environment rich in suggestion . . . furnish the [natural] materials for discovery . . . [s/he] needs pleasant surroundings– color, form, flowers, music–to express [his/her] ideas and to stimulate imaginative thoughts to become master of [his/her] environment. . .It is contrary to all the laws of [human] development to allow the child to pull pieces [of learning] without putting [them] together. [Yet] Botany and Zoology are . . . taught by dissection . . . the destruction of life which has built up the delicate structure . . . Not until the cycle so evident in all [of] nature can be understood in its entirety should [the] analytical habit be formed (Clarke 1973:203- 4).

Richards stressed the importance of early education and exposure and interaction with the environment. Our experience has convinced us that early and consistent progressive training of human beings, whether men or women, by means of a knowledge of the objects in [the] laws of Nature is the best means of developing the powers of the human mind to grasp the meaning of the facts of history . . . to appreciate the best and finally, [for men and women] to take their place as makers of the history of the future . . .(Clarke 1973:204).

Richards devoted much of her effort to the field of nutrition. She lectured widely about food science urging the development of new food products for a better diet. She was appalled by some of the unsanitary practices in use at public restaurants. It wasn’t enough that food looked attractive or filled the belly — it must also provide the proper nutrients in the correct proportions to maintain health.

Richard’s chemistry background inspired her to write a book, Food Materials and Their Alterations, in 1886. Richards was highly critical of the food industry and decided to do “something for good food.” She created the New England Kitchen, whose purpose was “to provide the most nutritious food for the smallest sum of money.” In 1890 in Boston the New England Kitchen opened its doors to the public. Every aspect of meal preparation was on view to the public. A list of the nutritional content of the items on the menu was posted. A goal was to educate the public about the little understood science of nutrition. During Richards life carbohydrates and fat were studied but it should be noted that vitamins were not discovered until 1913-1948. Nutrition is an evolving science that is confounded by all of the new food products that did not exist in previous generations. The New England kitchen also served as a food lab, and products such as evaporated milk and formulated bread were developed and refined there primarily to extend the shelf life of products. This was especially important during the war years when food spoilage was a serious issue.

One purpose of the kitchen was to convince the poor that they could eat well without spending a lot of money. Because of the high quality and nutritional content of the food served, some of the best customers were wealthy but ill people. Community taste panels were organized to constantly improve the quality of the foods sold.

Soups became a popular item of the New England Kitchen and attention to test and improve their flavor from the watery version most people were used to put them in demand. The favorite soups were split pea and tomato. They sold for ten cents a quart and were popular for factory workers and workhouses. The recipes in this blog are for a summer and winter version of tomato soup and pea soup which are economical, nutritious and delicious, meeting the criteria of the New England Kitchen after extensive testing. In the spirit of refining the recipes we offer plant-based versions.

The New England Kitchen, in their desire to educate the public, invited people to observe the foods being prepared and posted quotes on their walls about healthy foods including the following:

“A man is what he eats.” -Ludwig Feuerbach

Preserve and treat your food as you would your body, remembering that in time food will be your body.” B.W. Richardson

“Nothing is so disgraceful to society and individuals as unmeaning wastefulness.” -Rumford

“The scientific aspect of food must be united in bonds of holy matrimony with a practical knowledge of the cook’s art, before a man can discourse learnedly of food.” -Fothergill

“There is no pain like the pain of a new idea.” -Bagehot

“The seat of courage is in the stomach.” -Unknown

The New England Kitchen received much attention and Richards was asked to develop similar models in other cities. The state of Massachusetts then asked her to set up an exhibit (representing Massachusetts), based on the New England Kitchen model, at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1893 the Rumford Kitchen, (named after Count Rumford (1753-1814) an American born inventor and scientist on the centennial of his death), opened its doors at the Massachusetts Pavilion for everyone to see. 

Because of the favorable response to the Rumford Kitchen, Richards was asked by a publisher to assist with the formation of a new magazine. The New England Kitchen Magazine became a regular format for Richards to present her views on foods and the food industry. She was also asked to speak about nutrition to the New England Medical Society. In that speech, Richards said,

“The science of human nutrition is to play a larger part in therapeutics than heretofore and it will be of great advantage to the physician to be able to prescribe certain food requirements with as much confidence as he [she] now prescribes medicine. At present, he [she] has less confidence in the cook than in the druggist, hence the latter has often to make good the deficiencies of the former” (Clarke: 134). Hippocrates stated in ancient times, Let Food be Thy Medicine. We now understand what we eat can have an impact on disease and that food can have healing properties.

While working at the Rumford Kitchen, Richards was asked to consult with Julia Lathrop who worked at Jane Addams’ Hull House, which was an experimental living venture at the University of Chicago which advocated for early education for children and day care for working mothers. Richards introduced a nutrition program with the Hull House staff and worked to ensure its success. The success of the Rumford Kitchen as a means of educating the public about the science of nutrition and sanitary procedures for food handlers, led Richards to tackle new ventures which are still in effect today.

Richards was concerned about the diet of young children, especially when schooling became mandatory in the mid 1800s. She knew that many children arrived at school hungry, often malnourished, without hope for a nourishing midday meal. As any teacher knows, a hungry child is not ready to learn. Until Richards became involved, janitors were the people responsible for selling school lunches. The janitors knew nothing about nutrition but found they could increase their income by selling food to school children. Often they prepared meals in a dingy closet or basement with no regard to food value or sense of hygiene. Richards argued that the meals should be prepared by trained personnel, that careful attention be given to nutritional content, that meals be prepared in a central location for distribution, and that schools provide proper facilities. Once they saw their income threatened, the janitors tried to organize a protest. They convinced store owners and restaurateurs to display signs in their windows saying, “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You What You Should Eat,” and, “I’d Rather Eat What I Want Than What Someone Says I Should” (Clarke 1973:136).

In 1894 Richards convinced the Boston School Committee of the value of having professionals produce the meals and she was put in charge of running a pilot lunch program. The city provided the space, equipment, and utilities. Through lunch money collected from students, the program was to be self-sufficient. Private donations provided for start-up funds and Richards operated out of the New England Kitchen. Typical foods served were pea soup with crackers; potato chowder; sandwiches made with peanut butter or jam and one-half pint of milk (Bryant 1913:165). Because of her leadership and the support she gained, Richards expanded the Boston school lunch program so that it was soon feeding 4,000 children a day (Clarke 1973:136). The program continued to expand at a dramatic rate and was taken over by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union after Richard’s death. Richards said, “I believe it will be held a crime in the twentieth century to lure young bodies and minds to college [school] under the pretense of education only to poison them slowly with bad . . . food” (Clarke 1973:137).

Richards reported in the Journal of Home Economics about an experimental program set up at the Winthrop grammar school in Boston, from January 1 to June 30, 1910 (Cronan 1962:13). This school had a kitchen to be used in cookery classes. The Home Economics class would prepare lunch for the entire school three times a week, with sandwiches and milk offered on the other two days. An assistant was hired to help in the preparation. Running the program in this manner made economic sense as well as providing the students with an educational opportunity. A penny per meal was more than adequate to cover the expense. Care was taken in selecting foods for nutritional as well as economic value. For example, skim milk was used since it was less expensive than whole milk and the only nutrient sacrificed was fat. By 1911 there were twenty-two schools in Boston with kitchens for cooking classes preparing school lunches based on this model. One objective was to provide a third of the caloric requirement for the day in the lunch. The students who prepared the meals learned not just cooking skills, but also how to order the foods, how to plan cost-effective menus, nutritional concepts, and organizational skills.

Ellen Richards influenced many aspects of the way we live today. Her contributions to the fields of education, ecology, science, health, and nutrition cannot be underestimated. She saw knowledge about foods as an excellent means of educating people in skills they would need for a healthy life.

We know that multi-dimensional experience with foods can increase dietary acceptance of new foods and promote acceptance of diverse people and cultures. Our children deserve to be served safely prepared food that reflects contemporary nutritional knowledge and learn at a young age the how and why this is so important to their future. Ms. Richards understood children’s natural curiosity about the world and saw this as a unique starting point and opportunity for education. She valued the impact of the home environment including the natural world and thought applying scientific principles to air, water, and food quality could elevate the human spirit. Her contributions to a vast array of disciplines deserve to be known by all and cannot be understated.

Ellen Richards should be a household name, a title she would be proud to own. Her legacy and pioneering efforts have had a profound effect on the way we live our lives. Let’ celebrate her legacy during Women’s History Month!


Bryant, Louise Stevens, School Feeding, Its history and Practice at Home and Abroad, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London, 1913.

Clarke, Robert, Ellen Swallow, The Woman Who Founded Ecology, Follett Publishing Company, Chicago, IL, 1973.

Cronan, Marion, The School Lunch, Chas. A Bennett Company, Inc., Peoria, IL, 1962.

Farnsworth, Nellie, Wing, The Rural School Lunch, WEB Publishing Company, St. Paul, MN, 1919.

Hunt, Carolyn L, The Life of Ellen H. Richards, American Home Economics Association, Washington, D.C., 1958.  

Smedley, Emma, The School Lunch, Innes & Son, Philadelphia, PA, 1920. 

Celebrating Black History Month

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

Soul food is the cuisine that was developed by African Americans, most of whom first came to the United States enslaved. It integrated a people’s culinary memories from the African countries of their heritage with the foods of the American Indians and American South. This specialized cookery was first developed by African Americans and is known for its creative use of often unusual ingredients. The enslaved people had to make-do with whatever their “masters” gave them in payment for their work or whatever they could grow, hunt, or fish. Typical items included the so-called “undesirable” cuts of meat (tongue, pig’s feet), cornmeal, wild greens of many kinds, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, peanuts, catfish, and small mammals such as squirrels or possums. It is a cuisine that grew out of inventive minds and limited resources.

Most enslaved Africans were brought to America to work on the big plantations in the southeastern United States. They were forced to work long hours doing hard, physical labor. It was up to the plantation owner to decide what foods would be given to the enslaved, who had to be supplied with enough food to allow them to have the strength and energy to work all day. But black Americans were very imaginative with the food resources given to them and they found small pleasures in getting together and sharing their meals at the end of a long day of physical labor.

Corn and pork were two staple items in the South for both slave “owner” and the enslaved. The slave owner would have smoked ham and corn pudding while the slaves were left with the “offal” (thought of as the waste parts of the pig), and corn mush. Offal included the feet, ears, jowls, and small intestines (chitterlings), of the pig.

There are practical reasons why corn and pork were featured items in the southern menu of rich and poor alike. Corn was a crop that thrived in climates that wheat would not tolerate, corn especially liking hot summer nights. Not only could corn withstand more rainfall than wheat without falling prey to disease, it also demanded less skill and attention in cultivation and harvesting. Also, corn did not require fine milling to render an acceptable flour for turning into an adequate bread. A common way to prepare ground corn was as hoe cakes. Cornmeal was mixed with water and placed on the blade of a hoe which was then placed next to an open fire to bake.

Pork was popular because pigs were easy to raise. A spring piglet grew fast enough for slaughter in the late fall which meant that it did not have to be fed and maintained over the winter. Pigs are notorious scavengers and often they were set free to rummage through the woods for food until just before slaughtering time. This meant that they were relatively self-sufficient in terms of care and did not require grain. However, since swine are efficient converters of grain to meat (much more so than cattle), frequently they were penned and fed corn a few weeks before they were killed. Preservation of the entire animal was possible through salting, smoking, and storage in a brine solution. Pigs contain a lot of fat that was rendered into lard for cooking so for this reason, much of soul food cookery involves frying.

In 2006, Dr. David Pimentel, an innovative scientist at Cornell University, did groundbreaking work comparing plant versus animal protein to the amount of energy required primarily from fossil fuels and fertilizers to produce food calories from plants or animals. He found that conventional corn’s ratio was 1:4 and the ratio for pork was 14:1 (see chart at the end of this article). As the earth struggles with climate change it is important that people appreciate the amount of energy that plants versus animals require. Consuming plant protein instead of animal foods is one step that will have a major impact on slowing down the devastating effects of climate change.

Our goal with this blog is to take traditional recipes that honor diverse cultures and modify them by eliminating animal products to demonstrate how delicious the recipes can be while improving the health of people and the planet. African Americans used animal products primarily as condiments to flavor their dishes in the early days of slavery and came up with a unique cuisine. We are currently at a crossroads and can choose to consume foods that don’t deplete the earth’s resources while enjoying tastes that are highly satisfying.

The ingenious one pot gumbos and stews created with whatever ingredients were available give testimony to the adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Many of the items created by African American cooks are now considered to be exotic gourmet fare. Most meals were cooked in one pot and the term “pot likker” comes from this practice. Also known as “pot liquor” the juices from the greens, salt pork, and stew, remaining in the pot after serving, were considered the tastiest portion. People would fight over who was the lucky one who got to drink the pot liquor. Often the liquid used to cook vegetables is thrown out by cooks which is a big mistake nutritionally speaking. The liquid used to cook vegetables is very rich with nutrients.

Most enslaved families were given a small plot of land on which to grow vegetables for their own consumption. Turnips and turnip greens were favorite items along with collards, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas. These high protein beans were brought from Nigeria and have the advantage of being delicious fresh and were easy to dry and store for later consumption. Black-eyed peas are also called cow peas because they were first fed to cows in the United States until the white plantation owners realized how delicious they were.

The transatlantic slave ships transported peanuts (groundnuts), sesame seeds, also known as benne seeds, black-eyed peas, and okra to the United States. Peanuts originated in Brazil and traveled a circular route from South America, to Africa, where they were a popular food item, to North America. African American horticulturist George Washington Carver developed over 300 uses for the peanut. He focused his research on peanuts, nitrogen-fixing legumes, as an alternative to the soil depleting crop of cotton. Okra is a member of the cotton family which also includes the hibiscus flower which can be made into a refreshing tea. Okra is the immature pod of the plant and is classified as a fruit because it contains seeds. Okra is also called ladies fingers and is very popular in the American South. It is often coated in cornmeal and fried, and frequently used to thicken the popular gumbos.

A fun activity can be done with okra to create interesting and beautiful artwork. All you need is okra, paint, and paper.  Slice the okra and remove (or keep) the seeds. Dip into paint and press on paper in whatever design you like.

A former enslaved person describes typical fare:

Us slaves was fed good plain grub. Before we went to de field us had a big breakfast o’ hot bread, ‘lasses (molasses), fried salt meat dipped in cornmeal, and fried taters. Sometimes us had fish and rabbit meat. When us was in the field, two women would come at dinner time with baskets filled with corn pone, baked taters, corn roasted in de shucks, onion, fried squash, and . . . at supper time us had hoecakes and cold victuals. Sometimes dey was sweet milk and collards.”

“Most every slave had his own little garden patch. .. Most every plantation kept a man huntin’ and fishin’ all the time . . . On Sundays us always had meat pie or fish or fresh game and roasted taters and coffee. On Christmas de marster would give us chicken and barrels o’apples and oranges. ‘Course, every marster weren’t as free handed as ours was” (Taylor 1982:84).

Hunting was a popular pastime and supplemented the diet with animal protein. Squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, muskrats, and possums were featured in stews. The possum was especially valued because it contained a relatively large proportion of fat and it was one of the easiest animals to catch. When chased by a dog or human, it would inevitably climb a tree and perch on one of the low branches. All the hunter had to do was shake the branch and the possum would fall down and “play possum.”

Fishing also provided a free source of animal protein to the diet. Catfish were the fish of choice and they were breaded in cornmeal, fried, and consumed bones and all. The bones provided an excellent source of calcium. Catfish stew, often made with fish heads, was highly seasoned with hot pepper and spices.

Sweet potatoes are members of the Morning Glory family, native to Central and South America. They are not related to potatoes, despite their name.  Frequently confused with yams in the United States, they differ in a number of ways.  Sweet potatoes are moist in texture while the yam is of a drier consistency.  Sweet potatoes take anywhere from 90 – 150 days before harvest while the yam, which is larger, takes double the time – up to a year.  The most important difference between sweet potatoes and yams is from a nutritional perspective sweet potatoes have an extremely high beta carotene content, which protects the body against disease among other benefits, while yams contain very little of this super nutrient.

Sweet potatoes deserve high dietary esteem not only because of their abundance of beta carotene, but also because they are low in calories, and high in potassium, vitamins A, B, C, & E, iron and calcium.  Sweet potatoes are one of the only plant foods that contain an excellent supply of vitamin E, without also being high in fat, such as nuts, seeds, and oils. In Africa the leaves of sweet potatoes are eaten as a green that are a great source of vitamins and nutrients. Colors of the underground tuber range from yellow to orange, red, and purple.

It was the Portuguese who first introduced sweet potatoes to Africa and then Asia, where they remain an important crop to this day. The English learned about sweet potatoes on a slave trip in 1564 in which they brought back both slaves and the foods they were eating that were unfamiliar to England. It is very interesting to note that many of the foods fed to slaves were thought to be of inferior quality, such as sweet potatoes, are in fact of superior nutrition than the food that the “master” consumed, which were viewed as more desirable and of higher status. 

When Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto (c. 1500 – 1542) entered Louisiana, he found the Native Americans living there were consuming sweet potatoes.  They have long been a food associated with the American South and a defining food of southern cuisine and soul food cooking.  American colonists did not begin growing them until 1648 in Virginia, and, despite their association with Thanksgiving, they were not a featured food at the first Thanksgiving.

One of the most important ingredients in soul food cooking is the use of greens. Greens are easily grown in gardens and there is an abundance of wild greens. With some knowledge of plants, you can harvest a variety of free greens. African Americans loved a variety of different greens including collard, turnip, kale and mustard.

An ingredient African-Americans used to sweeten recipes was molasses. Molasses is made from sugarcane. Sugarcane is one of the plants that sugar is made from. In the process of boiling the sugarcane down, a dark liquid called molasses is squeezed out. There are three different types of molasses: light, dark, and black strap. Light molasses is made from the first boiling of the liquid, dark from the second boiling, and black strap from the third. Molasses can also be made from sugar beets and sorghum. Sugarcane grows in hot climates and molasses was a food the African-Americans used because it was a sugar byproduct and viewed as not as desirable as refined white sugar. It is ironic that many foods that are seen as lower status are actually more nutritious. Molasses is a good source of calcium, potassium, and iron whereas sugar is a poor source of all nutrients and its redeeming characteristic is that it provides quick energy. However it causes tooth decay.

To liven up the cuisine, a hot sauce called Tabasco sauce was often used. Tabasco sauce is made from the Tabasco pepper. The pepper is native to a state in Mexico called Tabasco, which means “damp earth.” The pepper is extremely hot and is made from Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt in a process that takes three years. The peppers are mashed and placed in a wooden barrel to ferment for three years. In the U.S. Tabasco sauce is made in Louisiana and has been made in the same factory the same way, since the Civil War.

There is a spotty historical record of soul food recipes since most of the cooks who created them were illiterate. The slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write because the masters realized that literacy would make it possible for the slaves to organize and protest their situation. Black Americans could be punished by death if they learned to read or write. It was against the law in many states to teach enslaved people to read. Recipes were kept alive through memories and passed down from the generations.

For an enslaved family living on a plantation and working the fields all day, mealtime was something to look forward to at the end of the day, a time of sharing food, singing, and socializing. Soul music evolved as a heartfelt expression of feelings, intertwined with the process and smells of cooking. Soul food involves a generous accepting attitude towards food and life as much as it has to do with the actual preparation of foods. Pleasure was taken in the hearty gumbo or stew simmering on the fire to be shared with friends. Both soul food and soul music evolved as a way to make you feel good all over and to speak to your very soul. Soul food involved taking what was available and using it in interesting, creative, and delicious ways.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that soul food was named and the recipes recorded. Black Americans who moved to northern cities longed for the food developed in the south and recorded the recipes. During this period soul music became popular too, and African-Americans began to take pride in their cultural heritage. It was during the 1960’s that Martin Luther King worked so hard for the civil rights of his fellow African Americans that both soul food and soul music became known and appreciated in mainstream culture.

It is a sweet irony that many of the foods that were made available to enslaved people and thought to be undesirable such as dark leafy greens, whole cornmeal, and less fatty animal products used often as a condiment rather than as a main course are superior to those foods the plantation owners ate from a nutritional perspective. Let us celebrate the food legacy that African Americans created not only during Black History Month but throughout the year!

Recipe for Soul Stew

Celebrating the New Year with Hoppin’ John, a Southern American Tradition

By Antonia Demas

For over 4,000 years, the ancient world developed calendars related to agricultural or celestial events such as the flooding of the Nile in Egypt or the vernal equinox in Rome. It was not until Julius Caesar got his mathematicians and astronomers in 46 BC[1] to figure out a calendar that would not vary depending on the position of the sun or moon that January 1 became New Year’s Day for most of the world. The New Year was a time for new beginnings, paying off debts, reflecting on the past and resolving to do better in the future. It was also a time to prepare special foods that would bring good luck and good health in the coming year and predict the future.

There are many traditions around the world that use food to symbolize good luck and prosperity in the new year. In Italy lentils are eaten on New Year’s Day because they look like gold coins. In Japan on New Year’s Day long noodles are slurped so they won’t be broken to represent longevity.

In the American South, black-eyed peas are eaten on New Year’s Day to bring luck and prosperity in the new year. There are many regional variations of black-eyed pea dishes, which often includes greens, some form or pork for flavoring, and in the South Carolina low-country, rice. This post features Hoppin’ John, a Carolina low-country dish which is traditionally made with field peas (a smaller variety of cowpea), rice, and pork. Field peas are hard to find outside the Carolinas, so Hoppin’ John is usually made with black-eyed peas outside of that region. Hoppin’ John is a one-pot meal, making the preparation and clean-up simple and easy.

It is believed that black-eyed peas bring prosperity because of their round shapes that represent coins. Hoppin’ John is often served with collard greens and cornbread, which both symbolize prosperity based on their green and golden colors representing paper money and gold. Sometimes, a coin was added to the dish or placed under a plate before serving, and the person who gets the coin is assured good fortune in the coming year. The origins of the name Hoppin’ John are unclear, but one theory is that people were so excited to eat this dish, they hopped around the table in anticipation!

The star of Hoppin’ John is the humble black-eyed pea. Black-eyed peas are worthy of celebration due to their stellar nutritional qualities. They are actually a legume, high in protein, potassium, and fiber, while containing no cholesterol and very little fat or sodium. Despite their nutritional value, historically, some people thought black-eyed peas to be livestock feed unfit for human consumption, hence another name for them is “cowpeas” since they were fed to cows. Other names include field peas, whippoorwills, Jerusalem peas, Tonkin peas, and Marble peas. They have a subtle earthy, nutty taste and a firm texture.

Legumes have long been thought of as “the poor man’s meat”. Because of their many benefits, they deserve to be re-branded as a superfood. Not only are they full of nutrients, but legume plants also fix nitrogen in the soil which improves soil health and plant growth. Legumes are easy to harvest and store over winter months without refrigeration in most cases. Encased in pods that split open when ripe, they are seeds that contain the nutrients the plant needs to grow if given proper soil, water, and sunlight.

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa, unlike most legumes which are indigenous to the Americas. They were brought to America in the 1600s, along with other indigenous African crops such as rice, okra, yams, melons, and sesame seeds, otherwise known as benne seeds. These foods have had a big influence on American agriculture and cuisine. Legend has it, West African women braided black-eyed pea seeds into their hair before being forced on slave ships. This ensured they would be able to grow and eat a familiar favorite food in their future.

Exactly how black-eyed peas came to symbolize good luck is unclear, but one likely explanation is linked to West African folklore surrounding the “evil eye”. People would carry a black-eyed pea in their pocket to protect themself from the curse of the lurking evil eye. Similar beliefs are shared in Greek and Mediterranean cultures, where people wear an amulet of an eye to ward off the glare of the evil eye.

Rice was brought to the United States from the Rice Coast of Africa, now Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The South Carolina coastal region became a huge rice plantation that specialized in Carolina Gold rice which became famous worldwide. It was the agricultural expertise of enslaved West Africans that made the rice industry possible in America.

Nutritionally speaking, the combination of legumes (beans and peas) and whole grains (such as rice, corn, and wheat) provide a nutritional powerhouse that have many advantages such as being economical, easy to prepare and grow without taking up as many environmental resources such as land and water as the majority of animal foods do. Most cultures have their own versions of rice and beans, with very different flavor profiles ranging from Hoppin’ John and red beans and rice in the U.S., variations of rice and peas throughout the Caribbean, beans and tortillas in Latin America, lentil dhal and rice in India, to rice and soy-bean combinations throughout Asia.

Our wish is for 2022 to be a year of health, peace, and good luck for people and the planet. Happy New Year!

Celebrate the new year with Hoppin’ John!

Start the new year off right with our super healthy version of Hoppin’ John. We omitted the pork, added collard greens, and substituted brown rice. Enjoy!

How to make Hoppin’ John

  1. Saute onion, pepper, tomato, garlic, thyme, spices, salt & pepper over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Add black-eyed peas, brown rice, and enough water to cover by 1 inch. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.
  3. Add collard greens and cook until rice and peas are tender, about 15 minutes. Add more water as needed.
  4. Garnish with scallions and serve with hot sauce.

Vintage cornbread molds

Food is Good to Think Blog

Welcome to the “Food is Good to Think” blog! The title of the blog is a quote from the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. This quote is the framework for the Food is Elementary curriculum and the work of the Food Studies Institute. We love this quote because food is fascinating to think about as it can be related to almost any topic, and food nourishes the body and mind which enables us to think.

In keeping with our goal to educate the public about healthy eating and the history of culinary traditions, the purpose of this blog is to provide free information, recipes, how-to videos, and fun cooking activities for people of all ages to learn how various traditions and beliefs about food have evolved over time and remain today.

We welcome your feedback, photos of recipes from the blog that you prepare, and tax-deductible donations to the Food Studies Institute. Email your photos to ariel@foodstudies.org and we will post them on the blog for others to see. Please feel free to share this blog with those who you think will enjoy engaging in these activities.