Culinary history gives peek into the past


By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

Culinary historian Lavada Nahon gives history buffs a look at what it was like “Dining Dutch in the New World.” Melanie Lekocevic/Capital Region Independent Media

RAVENA — History is alive with the stories of our past, the ways our ancestors lived and the cultures they embraced.

We all know the dates of important events and the names of enterprising explorers, but did you ever wonder how people lived day to day? What they ate and how it all came to be?

The Ravena Coeymans Historical Society presented a look at the culinary history of the region at its October meeting.

Lavada Nahon, an interpreter of African-American history for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and a culinary historian focused on the mid-Atlantic region in the 17th through 19th centuries, with a special emphasis on the experiences of enslaved cooks, presented the talk, “Dining Dutch in the New World.”

This region was largely settled by the Dutch, and their influence on day-to-day life was substantial. Young students are frequently taught about the British settlements in the New World in colonial times, but the Dutch were particularly influential in the mid-Atlantic region and New Netherland, which encompassed what is now known as New York.

The Dutch, who were seafaring global traders, also dealt in the slave trade, which was a prominent industry in New Netherland, a fact few people acknowledge or know now.

“In 1625, the first men of African descent were purchased as enslaved people in New Amsterdam (now New York City). Very few people know that,” Nahon said.

Unlike the British-settled colonies, New Netherland was not started by royalty, but rather by a for-profit company — the Dutch West India Company — that sought to grow the population by offering large tracts of land to a select few individuals, who were then charged with attracting new settlers to the area.

One of the earliest documented sources of the Dutch attempting to encourage new people to move to New Netherland was the book “A Description of New Netherland” by Dutch author Adriaen van der Donck, published in 1655, that encouraged Dutch people to move to the colonies.

To explain what life was like here, van der Donck wrote about the fruits and vegetables native to this newly settled land — everything from maize to beans, grapes, blueberries, cherries, artichokes, wild onions, black walnuts, chestnuts, apples and more.

“He lists out more different varieties of fruits and vegetables than I can find in any grocery store today,” Nahon said.

The extensive colonization of lands around the world led to “one of the largest movements of food in human history,” Nahon said, with explorers sharing the new foods they discovered during their travels.

“The first is the Columbia Food Exchange, based on Columbus and all those people who came right after him,” Nahon said. “They were looking to get to India and they got sidetracked, but they couldn’t go back empty handed. They ate all the food from wherever they started to here, then they had to restock the ships, so they’re restocking both to show that they were actually here, but they’re also proving the food is good because they had to eat it on the way back. So suddenly, New World foods are everywhere.”

Foods unique to the New World that traveled back to Europe included maize, chili peppers and even turkeys.

How did food historians learn about how food was prepared? They looked at paintings and other artwork of the era to see what their food looked like.

If you think meals in the 17th century were spartan, dull affairs, think again.

“We’re always thinking (they ate) these one-pot meals that were kind of gray and they were really roughing it. No, they weren’t,” Nahon said. “The Dutch controlled the spice trade. They went to the spice islands, killed half the population and enslaved the rest, and took over the spice trade. And they are sending spices all over the world to this day.”

As Dutch colonists became prosperous, the women decided they wanted to chuck their domestic responsibilities.

“As the Dutch were gaining wealth, one of their big trade commodities were enslaved Africans,” Nahon said. “New York was the second largest slave market in the 13 colonies by the time we get to the early part of the 18th century.”

Many of the enslaved people who were “sold” at the slave markets in New York were transported to other colonies, but some remained in New Netherland, with some of the women being trained for cooking and other domestic duties.

But that training was far from easy.

“You’ve got an enslaved woman who’s been on a boat in the worst possible conditions for three months. You want to talk about PTSD?” Nahon said. “The enslaved were renamed the moment they got off the boat: they lose their African name so you’re disoriented, you’re looking at a land that looks nothing like what you left, you’ve got all of these people who look nothing like the people you left, the buildings are different, the trees are different, someone is yelling at you in a language you can’t understand, and then, let’s go into the kitchen.”

Enslaved women were expected to prepare meals for the family, but the kitchen is not like an African kitchen — the foods are different, the climate and kitchen tools are different, and how meals are prepared was unlike anything they had experienced in Africa.

“We don’t talk about the brutality. It’s straight-up stress,” Nahon said.

“It was a clash of cultures. The crops were different, the fish was different, the animals they’re butchering are different, religious tenets cause the feasts to be different,” Nahon said. “Europeans are used to eating whole haunches of meat. There are very few cattle in West Africa and in Central Africa.”

Nahon estimates it would take about two years of training to teach an enslaved African woman to prepare meals in the New World.

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