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New Online Portal Chronicles the Culinary Legacy of the African Diaspora

“Feast Afrique,” a digital tool created by food historian Ozoz Sokoh, features nearly 200 texts spanning 1828 to the present

Ozoz Sokoh's new digital database features books, videos, recipes, audio clips and other resources celebrating West African culinary traditions. (Photo by Juana Arias for the Washington Post / Getty Images)
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Food historian Ozoz Sokoh’s blog, the Kitchen Butterfly, is known for its mouth-watering exploration of global cuisines, from spicy West African jollof rice to Parisian crepes and croissants. Now, reports Mary Bilyeu for the Toledo Blade, Sokoh has expanded her slate of offerings to include a digital library celebrating the culinary legacy of the African diaspora.

“African, African-American and African-Inspired knowledge are not often acknowledged in culinary practice,” writes Sokoh in the introduction to Feast Afrique. “I want people to know this and see that African culinary excellence exists because it’s hard to know who you are without knowing your history.”

The online archive features nearly 200 recipe books and works of culinary scholarship spanning 1828 to the present. In addition to the library, Feast Afrique showcases video clips, an audio collaboration with spoken word poet Tolu Agbelusi that explores “the ways in which food culture was and continues to be impacted by colonialism’s revisionist approach to history,” data visualizations, and recipes.

As TRT World reports, Sokoh decided to create the resource after reading Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks this past June. Within three or four days of finishing the compilation, she had identified between 40 and 50 relevant books; by September and October, she was spending days at a time adding to her growing collection.

Sokoh tells TRT World that she embarked on the project to “showcase the legacy of West African culinary heritage” and publicize freely available resources.

In the “Read” section of Feast Afrique, visitors can peruse various cookbooks, dictionaries and biographies related to food from the African diaspora. Highlights of the collection include Practical West African Cookery, a 1910 text that contains one of the first documented recipes for jollof rice, and Rufus EstesGood Things to Eat, one of the first cookbooks written by an African American chef.

Though Sokoh has enjoyed a successful career in the food industry as an adult, she actually abhorred eating as a child. Growing up in Nigeria, she often refused to eat and was regularly hospitalized due to malnutrition, per Vonnie Williams of Atlas Obscura. But when she was 9, Sokoh took a trip to Edinburgh with her family and fell in love with food.

“I guess it was a combination of exertion from the walking, and we were in this other place that opened me up to eating,” she tells Atlas Obscura.

Sokoh continued to develop her palate as a blogger and culinary historian. She started the Kitchen Butterfly in 2009, cataloging how iterations of West African dishes have spread throughout the diaspora, and soon realized that many enslaved cooks had preserved African-influenced recipes from their home countries, including Brazil, Haiti and Jamaica.

“The goals for them and I were to feel the same: to find comfort, to pay homage, to document history,” she says to Atlas Obscura. “As a Nigerian, it was shocking to discover that Nigerian cuisine—which I had always taken for granted—existed in this exalted, celebrated form abroad and had endured all sorts of tragedy and trauma, but still stood supreme.”

According to Atlas Obscura, Sokoh created the digital library in order to organize her findings in a more streamlined and scholarly way, exploring food “with more of a rigorous, research-based eye.” She’d planned to start a print journal version of the project in 2013 but postponed the project following its proposed editor’s passing.

Now, Sokoh is returning to her vision of chronicling the African diaspora’s culinary traditions.

“Everything that we see on the plate says something about history, culture, trade, lineage, strength, and survival,” she tells Atlas Obscura. “Food on a plate tells the story of life.”

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