African Culinary Ingenuity from Lima to Memphis

StoryDanielle BellComment

Nana (or Mattie Jones, as she is also known) had been awake since 5:30 a.m., barbecuing ribs, preparing chitterlings, and baking three hams—a cured country ham and two glaze hams topped with pineapples. In her backyard, she’d smoked a turkey and a duck bought especially for me. Her crown roast of pork was by then finished. Cajun cabbage stewed and collard greens bubbled on her stove top. Pablo and I arrived early.

We had come with plans to glean what secrets and insights we could get from the seventy-nine year old’s extensive life in food. It was a meeting I’d long anticipated—Pablo from Lima, Mattie from Memphis. Though there are forty-four years between them, both share an approach to cooking that reveres tradition, while relishing spontaneity and improvisation. I knew that they would be at ease in one another’s company.

Pablo and I made for an eager audience watching my grandmother as she prepared her apple sage dressing. While smashing celery and onion into day old cornbread she recounted scenes from her mother’s table: cow hearts stuffed with rice and smothered in gravy, crispy breaded pig ears, chicken livers and gizzards dredged in flour and fried. These were the foods of her South, where the humblest ingredients were served on the finest china one had. As mesmerized by her words as we were the smell of her ribs, we asked for a few to snack on and like all grandmothers she granted us our treats.

There was never a lull in conversation. After Nana told her tales of pig’s feet, lard, and buttermilk, Pablo spoke of the many flavors of Peru. He paid particular attention to the African contribution to Peruvian cuisine and culture, beginning with anticuchos. Though the Incas ate llama hearts in precolonial South America, anticuchos in their current form–heavily spiced bites of cow heart served on skewers–arrived by way of African Peruvian slaves. Much like the ears, feet, and innards North American slave owners cast off to their slaves, the Spanish elite, too, found offal and such cuts unfit for their own bodies. And just like American slaves Afro-Peruvians transformed organs and discarded bits of meat into grand culinary achievements. What’s more, although offal has only become trendy in the United States in recent years, anticuchos are ubiquitous. In Peru they are popular street fare and abroad it is rare to encounter a Peruvian restaurant that does not include them on the menu.

The origin of anticuchos resonated with Nana. Whether speaking of New Orleans, Chincha, or Port au Prince the story of Africans in the Americas is one of resilience and invention. Naturally, food belongs at the center of this narrative. When Pablo spoke of cau cau, an Afro Peruvian stew of tripe, potato, and aji amarillo, Nana offered a number of dishes from the American South that illustrated this shared history. Indeed, some were on the table before us: a can of pickled okra–a gift from a sympathetic friend whose crop had fared better than hers; ribs, one the toughest parts of the pig, marinated in vinegar, pepper, salt and spices, and grilled until tender, a process similar to that of anticuchos; collard greens seasoned with salt back pork and ham hocks; and chitterlings.

Ah, chitterlings. Perhaps no dish brings to mind American slavery and Black ingenuity more so than a boiling pot of pig’s intestines–certainly, you’d be pressed to find an ingredient lowlier than the guts of a pig. And yet, a plate of chitterlings topped with white vinegar and hot sauce is considered a delicacy, reserved only for special occasions. A dish so reverential that one wakes up at the crack of dawn to prepare them for a curious Peruvian guest.


With de Porres, our dinner series and catering company, Pablo and I are on a constant search for ingredients and dishes that evoke memory, history, and pleasure. Our recent holiday gathering around my grandmother’s table was a part of this journey. It continues here with my recipe for Hoppin’ John. Invented by American slaves and beloved by Southerners of all stripes, it is a mix of black-eyed peas, rice, and greens, seasoned with ham hocks. Traditionally it is eaten on New Years Day with the hope that it will bring good luck, as the black-eye peas themselves are sign of prosperity. This New Years Day Pablo observed two traditions. First we sprinted around our block, adhering to the Peruvian belief that a run at midnight will promise travel in the coming year. Next we dug into bowls of Hoppin’ John.

My recipe is a bit different from most, as it contains garlic. Additionally, I’ve chosen black rice over white. While either would be great, I prefer black rice in this dish for its nutty flavor, high nutritional value, and gorgeous color. However, do be sure to cook the rice separately. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with a pot of purple beans.

Pablo's and Danielle's Recipe for Hoppin' John

Photos by Chloe Apple Seldman.