June 23, 2021

cafeaberto

Is Food In You

Rice and beans are an African staple adapted to many areas

5 min read

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For the past six months, we have been interviewing North Carolina-based chefs, who generously shared their expertise in making recipes from Nigeria, the American South, Brazil, and Puerto Rico for a one-of-a-kind journey into how our plates came to look the way they do. Explore food of the African diaspora here:

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Feijoada. When chef Whitney Thomas first tried the popular dish, she wasn’t at all familiar with Brazilian cuisine. But she recognized in its flavors an African-American staple much closer to home.

“I said, ‘It’s beans and rice!’ That’s a part of the African diaspora. Everyone has their version of it, whether it’s pinto beans in the South, rice and peas in Jamaica, black beans and rice in Puerto Rico,” she said. No matter where Black people went, there were just certain food traditions we carried with us and recreated out of what was available. We made the best out of our surroundings.”

Thomas has always been something of a culinary detective. She left UNC Chapel Hill her junior year to pursue her love of cooking, and with no formal training worked her way up from dishwasher to executive chef by asking questions, putting in work and researching. She’s one of the few Black women to head top kitchens in Charlotte, including Mico, a Latin-inspired fine dining concept inside the Grand Bohemian Charlotte hotel, 5Church and Fahrenheit. Studying rare cookbooks is one of her favorite pastimes, and Thomas said learning the origins of the rich, earthy stew, seasoned with slow-braised cuts of pork, was an inspiration.

‘Nothing went unused.’

The name feijoada is derived from the word feijão, Portuguese for beans. Portugal colonized Brazil, and from the 16th century to the late 1800s, Brazil trafficked more Africans than any other country in the world. Black women simmered beans in pots all day with the least desirable cuts of meat — ham hocks, pigs feet, portions their captors thought beneath consumption — while they and their families were forced to labor in cane fields. The seasonings were simple salt and pepper. At the end of the day, with a side of rice, a hot meal would be ready.

“The practice of cooking the beans with rice was also African,” said Sheri Castle, an award-winning food writer and cookbook author. “But it wasn’t considered elegant food. Even the beans’ vines and hulls could be fed to cattle. Nothing went unused.”

Feijoada.JPG
Feijoada by Chef Whitney Thomas, formerly of Mico Restaurant in Charlotte, N.C. Jeff Siner [email protected]

From these humble beginnings, the national dish of Brazil was born. It is ubiquitous: eaten on weekends, at parties, large family gatherings and sporting events, and enjoyed by the rich and poor alike. Traditionally, it’s served with rice, kale greens and orange slices to cut the heaviness.

Lessons around grandmother’s stove

Thomas created a mostly traditional feijoada for Mico’s spring menu, with the added twist of chorizo and andouille sausage, but kept things straightforward. The simple techniques and patience required to prepare it brought back memories of her grandmother’s kitchen in Reidsville, North Carolina, where she learned her first lessons in cooking as a precocious 3-year-old.

“I used to stand on a chair at the stove, stirring the pots, thinking I was doing something,” Thomas recalled, her wrist whipping a wooden spoon so effortlessly that it seemed to blur. “But being there with her, learning small tasks like shelling beans and cleaning collard greens, gave me experience.”

She incorporates other lessons she learned around her grandmother’s stove, as well. Eyeballing seasonings, or measuring by the creases in her palm, is an old skill passed down for generations in Black households.

“My grandmother never measured anything — she just knew what she was doing and tasted as she went,” Thomas said with a chuckle.

Beans and rice were a regular meal, one of those nourishing, one-pot crowd-pleasers that links everyone to a common memory. Thomas said that’s where she learned to respect the character of the food.

“There’s something to be said for letting the flavor of the ingredients speak for itself. Good food can be simple and tasty,” Thomas said. “You can do a couple things to bring out the flavors and enhance them, but you don’t have to add 15 million spices just because they’re available.”

While experimentation has its place, some dishes stand on their own, a testament and homage to the people who made them. Thomas hopes when people eat feijoada, that’s what they tap into. And of course, she hopes they actually love it as much as she does.

“It makes me feel good to know I’m making someone else feel good,” Thomas said. “That’s one of my main motivators.”

At the time of this interview, Thomas was chef de cuisine at Mico. She is now executive chef at the Wylie Hotel in Atlanta.


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Feijoada

Chef Whitney Thomas of Wylie Hotel Atlanta

Ingredients

  • 1 pound dry black beans (soaked overnight)

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 4 ounces bacon, chopped

  • 1 pound pork shoulder, chopped

  • 4 ounces chorizo, chopped

  • 4 ounces smoked or Andouille sausage, chopped

  • 1 ham hock or pig foot

  • 4 ounces oxtail

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced

  • 3 tomatoes, diced

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 3 bay leaves

  • 8 cups water

Method of production:

  1. Cover beans with water and soak overnight.

  2. In a large, heavy-bottom soup pot over medium heat, add oil and bacon. Cook until fat renders and transfer bacon to plate.

  3. Use the same saucepan to brown oxtail, pork, chorizo and sausage in batches. Set aside.

  4. If needed, add more oil to the pan. On medium-high heat, sauté onion and garlic until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook for another 3 minutes.

  5. Drain and rinse soaked beans. Add beans to pot, along with all meats, pepper and bay leaves. Do not add salt (this can make beans tough). Add 8 cups of water.

  6. Bring mixture to boil and reduce heat to low. Cover and let cook for 2-2½ hours, or until beans soften.

  7. If stew is too watery, uncover the saucepan and continue to cook for an additional 20 minutes to allow some liquid to evaporate. Add salt to taste.

  8. Serve with white rice, orange slices and greens.

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Emiene Wright is a Nigerian-born, Southern-raised journalist in Charlotte with bylines in the NAACP’s national Crisis magazine, Our State magazine, CharlotteFive and The Charlotte Observer. When she’s not digging deep into arts and culture, she’s cooking the spiciest food imaginable. Find her on Instagram @m_e_n_a_writes.

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