Review: Stirring the Pot

 

Cover of 'Stirring the Pot'

Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine. James C. McCann. Ohio University Press. 2009

Mary B. Sundal
Washburn University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

As part of the Africa in World History series, Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine by James C. McCann focuses on ingredients, meals, cooking, and cuisine as expressions of cultural identity. Contrary to popular (mis)conceptions about African foodways as a constant source of economic struggle, McCann explores food in African history “as a creative composition at the heart of all cultural expressions of ourselves as humans” (p. 2). To do so, McCann relies on primary historical resources, and work from geographers (e.g., Judith Carney), anthropologists (e.g., Audrey Richards), and novelists (e.g., Chinua Achebe) to provide readers with the rich sensory experience of African food. Furthermore, he weaves in contemporary recipes, and not just those found in cookbooks but “recipes” he collected from African cooks. Women described the basic ingredients necessary for a particular dish and the sensory experience of cooking and tasting. “She uses onomatopoeia (tuk tuk) to suggest the sounds made by the bubbling stew when it reaches its proper consistency. She uses her hands to indicate amounts and how to stir or to taste. In other words, to tell you how to make the dish, she has to show you using sounds and gestures. Written words convey little of the true sense of how to cook shiro wet sauce” (p. 85). It is in these descriptions that I found McCann’s illumination of the cultural aspect of food and cooking to be the most effective.

Stirring the Pot covers a hefty array of food related topics, which proves to be both the book’s strength and weakness. In part one, “basic ingredients,” McCann describes the availability of ingredients during precolonial and colonial times to show how these foodstuffs became staples in African cooking pots. Chapter two provides a great resource—one that could easily be incorporated an Anthropology of Food or Peoples and Cultures of Africa university course—on the cultural importance and environmental requirements of starchy staples including African grains such as finger millet, teff, and indigenous yams as well as New World grains, mostly importantly maize.

Turning away from African foodstuffs broadly, part two traces the development of Ethiopian highland cuisine to a specific event:  Queen Taytu’s feast in 1887. “The feast was thus one of the first acts that presented the new center of the Ethiopian state and its assertion of a site from which Menilek (and Taytu) sought to build a new political culture and claim a new national identity” (p. 71-72). McCann convincingly argues that Taytu’s feast was the point at which a national cuisine emerged in Ethiopia. While I truly enjoyed reading part two—especially the detailed descriptions of Taytu’s role as a female cook, household manager, and political leader—this section seems a bit disjointed from the rest of the text and could have been expanded into an entire text on its own.

The third part of the book, “Africa’s cooking: Some common ground of culture and cuisine” returns our attention to the history of West Africa, the central and southern maize belt, and maritime coasts. McCann argues that unlike in Ethiopia, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa does not have clear national cuisines but “broader patterns of cooking and signature foods the connect regions” (p. 107). Through a description of the cultural variation of starchy food preparation and consumption, McCann effectively shows how cultural diffusion—through intra-continental trade, the Atlantic slave trade, and colonialism—altered food habits and daily sustenance but did not eliminate core characteristics of West African diets. Much of the data for McCann’s argument comes from two female anthropologists, Margaret Field and Audrey Richards, who examined women’s contributions to daily sustenance by recording (and publishing) the oral traditions of food preparation. The second section in part three details the influence of culture contact on local women’s interpretations of diet throughout the maize belt. McCann here tackles how maize became the “food of choice” replacing sorghum, millet, and rice in African cooking pots. In addition, McCann categorizes the various relishes, or vegetable sauces, African women used to complement maize porridge. Again, McCann relies quite heavily on anthropological sources for these accounts, making part three particularly attractive for use in anthropology courses.

The final part of the book examines diaspora cuisine as two waves of culture contact:  the Atlantic slave trade and African emigration to the New World since the 1970s. McCann provides a host of recipes to compare African American, Creole, Brazilian, and Caribbean cooking to their West African counterparts. In this section McCann also returns to the thread of a national cuisine as Ethiopian fare appears to be the most popular African cuisine (re)produced in the New World.

Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine is an informative book and is suitable for a diverse audience, including anthropologists interested in food preparation and consumption both across the African continent and in the diaspora. While the underlying theme of food as a living history of culture change is evident throughout the text, the four parts of the book have a very broad focus making the text more episodic than a thorough examination of one topic. However, the diversity of topics adeptly meets the African in World History series’ goals of making African history accessible to secondary students, university students, and general readers to “stimulate further inquiry and comparison” (p. xi).

 

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Filed under Africa, anthropology, anthropology of food, cooking, cuisine

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