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The Gradual Loss of African Indigenous Vegetables in Tropical America: A Review

  • Ina Vandebroek
  • Robert VoeksEmail author
Article

Abstract

Leaf vegetables and other edible greens are a crucial component of traditional diets in sub-Saharan Africa, used popularly in soups, sauces, and stews. In this review, we trace the trajectories of 12 prominent African indigenous vegetables (AIVs) in tropical America, in order to better understand the diffusion of their culinary and ethnobotanical uses by the African diaspora. The 12 AIVs were selected from African reference works and preliminary reports of their presence in the Americas. Given the importance of each of these vegetables in African diets, our working hypothesis was that the culinary traditions associated with these species would be continued in tropical America by Afro-descendant communities. However, a review of the historical and contemporary literature, and consultation with scholars, shows that the culinary uses of most of these vegetables have been gradually lost. Two noteworthy exceptions include okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) and callaloo (Amaranthus viridis), although the latter is not the species used in Africa and callaloo has only risen to prominence in Jamaica since the 1960s. Nine of the 12 AIVs found refuge in the African-derived religions Candomblé and Santería, where they remain ritually important. In speculating why these AIVs did not survive in the diets of the New World African diaspora, one has to contemplate the sociocultural, economic, and environmental forces that have shaped—and continue to shape—these foodways and cuisines since the Atlantic slave trade. Since these vegetables are neglected and underutilized species (NUS) that represent the biocultural heritage of the African diaspora in the Americas, their culinary traditions merit intensified scholarly attention and conservation efforts.

Key Words

African diaspora edible plants Neglected and Underutilized Species cuisine ethnobotany AIVs traditional foods leaf vegetables Atlantic slave trade. 

Resumen

Las verduras de hoja y otras hortalizas verdes forman un componente crucial de las dietas tradicionales en el África subsahariana, utilizadas popularmente en sopas, salsas y guisos. Aquí, revisamos las trayectorias de doce prominentes vegetales indígenas africanos (VIAs) en América tropical, con el fin de entender mejor la difusión de sus usos culinarios y etnobotánicos por la diáspora africana. Los doce VIAs fueron seleccionados de trabajos de referencia africanos e informes preliminares reportando su presencia en las Américas. Dada la importancia de cada uno de estas verduras de hoja y hortalizas verdes en las dietas africanas, nuestra hipótesis fue que las comunidades afrodescendientes en América tropical continuarían con las tradiciones culinarias asociadas con estos VIAs. Sin embargo, una revisión de la literatura histórica y contemporánea, y consultas con especialistas científicos, muestra que se han ido perdiendo gradualmente los usos culinarios de la mayoría de estos VIAs. Dos excepciones notables incluyen la okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) y el callaloo (Amaranthus viridis), aunque esta última no es la especie utilizada en África y el callaloo solo ha alcanzado prominencia en Jamaica desde la década de los 1960s. Nueve de los doce VIAs encontraron refugio en las religiones de origen africano Candomblé y Santería, donde siguen siendo de importancia ritual. Al contemplar por qué estos VIAs no sobrevivieron en las dietas de la diáspora africana del Nuevo Mundo, uno tiene que considerar las fuerzas socioculturales, económicas y ambientales que han formado—y continúan formando—a estas prácticas alimentarias y culinarias desde el comercio transatlántico de esclavos. Dado que estas hortalizas son especies desatendidas y subutilizadas (especies vegetales promisorias) que representan el patrimonio biocultural de la diáspora africana en las Américas, sus tradiciones culinarias merecen una mayor atención académica y más esfuerzos de conservación.

Resumo

As verduras e outras hortaliças verdes sempre desempenharam um papel fundamental na dieta da África Subsaariana, onde são utilizadas em sopas, molhos e cozidos. Dada a importância destas espécies nesta região, este manuscrito tenta retraçar a difusão dos usos culinários e etnobotânicos de doze hortaliças Africanas (AIVs) usadas pela Diáspora Africana na América tropical. Tais espécies foram selecionadas a partir de obras de referências Africanas, e em estudos preliminares descrevendo suas ocorrências no continente Americano. Nossa hipótese previa que as tradições culinárias associadas a estes vegetais seriam mantidas pelos Afrodescendentes vivendo no novo continente. No entanto, revisões da literatura tanto histórica quanto contemporânea, bem como consultas com especialistas no assunto, nos mostram que estas tradições culinárias vêm diminuindo gradativamente. Duas exceções importantes são o quiabo (Abelmoschus esculentus) e o caruru/bredo (Amaranthus viridis). Esta última, a qual não é mesma espécie cientifica usada na África, se tornou popular na Jamaica apenas depois dos anos sessenta. Nove AIVs estudadas, entretanto, ainda são amplamente utilizadas em religiões de matriz Africanas, tais como o Candomblé e a Santería, onde são consideradas de grande importância ritualística. Uma vez que estas AIVs não foram mantidas na dieta do dia-a-dia da Diáspora no Novo Mundo, é preciso então considerar os possíveis fatores socioculturais, econômicos e meio-ambientais que influenciaram, ou que ainda influenciam os costumes e tradições associadas a estes vegetais para os Afrodescendentes Americanos. Tendo em vista que estas espécies negligenciadas ou subutilizadas (NUS) constituem uma importante parcela da herança biocultural da Diáspora Africana nas Américas, é imprescindível que maiores estudos e esforços de conservação biocultural sejam executados.

Notes

Acknowledgments

Much of the material in this review was provided by specialists in the field. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Bill Balée, Almecina Balbino, Douglas Daly, Fabiana Fonseca, Ligia Funch, Charlotte Greene, Bruce Hoffman, Sonia Peter, John Rashford, Tinde van Andel, and Case Watkins. In addition to her primary position at the New York Botanical Garden, Ina Vandebroek also has adjunct appointments at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES), Yale University; Biology Ph.D. program, Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY); and the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B), Columbia University. All pictures were taken by Ina Vandebroek.

Funding Information

Ina Vandebroek’s research in Jamaica was sponsored by grants from the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration (#9339-13 and HJ-161R-17).

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© The New York Botanical Garden 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The New York Botanical GardenInstitute of Economic BotanyThe BronxUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geography & the EnvironmentCalifornia State University—FullertonFullertonUSA

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