We meet Kayla Stewart this Spring at a Feet in 2 Worlds workshop on Telling Immigrant Food Stories in San Francisco. During the workshop Kayla pitched an idea to a panel of editors from outlets including Civil Eats and Proof from America’s Test Kitchen who were interested in giving her the opportunity to develop it into a full story.
We are excited to offer you this behind-the-scenes look at how one of our trainees does the work of reporting following a Feet in 2 Worlds workshop.
Six years ago, I walked into a study abroad fair at the University of Houston with the intention of traveling to Italy. A black professor, the only one in the room, made eye contact with me, inviting me to come over to her table draped in the colors of the Ghanaian flag. Her pull—her call to hear of other options to see the world—would change the trajectory of my life and career forever.
On that 2013 trip to Ghana I tried my first plate of jollof rice. It was creamy and spicy. Its earthy flavor reminded me of jambalaya, a staple of southern cooking that I had grown up with.
I found a pleasant discomfort in the immediate recognition. Jambalaya is especially associated with Louisiana, my parents’ home state. On my first visit to West Africa, and the world beyond the U.S., I was almost desperate for clear connections between my Southern Black culture and my ancestral homeland. But I questioned whether what I was feeling in my bones was true. Then I started hearing the rumors.
Every person I met had some story about how jambalaya and jollof rice were connected.
To some extent, the rumors were true. While Black Americans had been separated from West African cultures, traditions, and customs after centuries of brutal, racialized slavery, our inherent cultural identifiers could not be erased by European greed and exploitation. Indeed, our cultural bonds transcended space, time, and tragedy, a reality that was most clearly illustrated by our food.
However, finding a linear connection—confirming that jambalaya came directly from jollof rice—raised a larger, more extensive series of questions. How exactly were these dishes connected, and what would migration patterns from the slave trade tell us about it?
For six years I thought about these ideas. Then Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo declared 2019 as “The Year of Return”; a call for the descendants of those who forcibly migrated to the Americas to endure several hundred years of racialized slavery to come back to their homeland. I responded to the call and had the unique opportunity of taking what’s been referred to as the African birth-right journey, while working on my thesis as a NYU GloJo graduate student. In addition to my thesis work, I decided to search for answers to my question: Where does jambalaya rice come from, and can jambalaya tell us anything about its origin story?
To begin my reporting I went back to my hometown, Houston, Texas. My food upbringing was a mix of the best of the South and Southeast U.S., and Creole cooking shaped my tastes and affinities for certain types of food. Jambalaya was one of them. Given that I was preparing for this huge trip, my mom was nervous, but willing and excited to make the dish with me. She had the shrimp, andouille sausage and chicken, along with the Creole Holy Trinity—celery, onions, and bell peppers.
As my mom and I cooked, I reflected on historical anecdotes that I had discovered. Jambalaya begins to appear in cookbooks around the mid-1800s, around the same time that Black cookbook authors begin showing up. My mom explained that jambalaya, for all of its goodness, really emerged so successfully because of how much sustenance it provided. My grandmother—her mom—was raised during the Great Depression, and the dish was popular with her large family.
Cooking with my mom and talking about jambalaya in our family was helpful from a mental standpoint. Seeing a parent before traveling on such an important trip is generally good for the soul. But from a reporting standpoint, it led to even more questions. What I thought would be a reporting journey largely between Ghana and Houston ended up leading me to Washington, D.C., and New York City as well.
A week after I cooked with my mom, I flew to Accra, Ghana’s capitol city, where the red-orange color of the roads mirrored the jollof rice that filled the food stands on every bustling street. As music blared across the roads and horns honked almost incessantly, I ate every Ghanaian dish I could get my hands on—fish and banku, groundnut soup, palava sauce, and of course, jollof rice.
The similarities hit me again. Having just eaten and cooked jambalaya a week before, the jollof tasted like it held the answers to my questions. Searching for clues, I connected with Omkar “Omi” Kamalapur and Mame Adjei. They host a food podcast called “What’s Your Flavor” and knew a ton about jollof. They had me meet them at a new Szechuan jollof rice joint in Osu, a neighborhood in Accra.
While enjoying Szechuan jollof with prawns and a side of shito (a word that means “pepper” in the local Ga language) sauce, we spoke about the intersections of Ghanaian food, life, and culture. Immediately, the conversation went to the all-in-good-fun jollof wars of West Africa.
“It’s from Senegal, so we’re not even in the game!” Mame said laughing over our food.
Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria all lay claim to having the best jollof. As we chatted, both Omi and Mame directed me to speak and cook with their friend, a home cook and aspiring chef who goes by Chef Kiko.
Chef Kiko was soft-spoken, kind, and incredibly smart. I met him at one of his weekend popups, a weekly tradition in the center of Accra that features a Chef Kiko original dish from another country that incorporates Ghanaian spices or cooking styles. Though he’d never left Ghana, he knew so much about the world around him, thanks to days spent reading and watching food and history videos on YouTube. He knew of jambalaya, and had strong opinions about the connections between the two dishes.
“I read a lot of recipes on jambalaya and I’ve done jollof so many times,” he said. “I realize they are one in the same. The only difference is, when the enslaved people went to America and they were trying to recreate the food they knew how to eat here, they had to use what they had there.”
Chef Kiko and I ended up cooking jollof rice together—a lamb version that was earthy and silky—similar to what my mom and I had prepared just a few weeks before in Houston. We laughed and chatted in the outdoor kitchen, listening to the sounds of the afternoon prayer from a nearby mosque. Kiko cooked his jollof with the same love and attention to detail as my mom had when she made jambalaya.
Despite this hands-on experience and many further conversations with Chef Kiko I felt stumped. With jollof rice apparently coming from thieboudienne, a Senegalese dish of red rice, fish, carrot, and cassava, I wasn’t even sure if I was in the right place. Chefs and cooks kept giving me versions of the same story, that the dishes were connected, and jollof was the ancestor. But by the end of August something still wasn’t clicking.
I flew back to the U.S., enriched by cultural immersion, incredible food, and new friendships, but angered by the growing reality that tracing the records that could provide answers would be really difficult, in large part because of the destructive nature of the slave trade.
Back in New York City, I scheduled a call with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, a famed food historian and chef. Her advice included good places in Harlem’s Little Senegal to enjoy thieboudienne and reorient myself, and to look at the Transatlantic Slave Database, which could help me identify some of the forced migration patterns of enslaved Africans.
My next stop was the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. A genealogist there named Hollis Gentry would be a helpful advisor and lead me to my next source.
The museum tells the horrific history of the Slave Trade and the experiences of Black Americans, but it also highlights historical examples of resilience and glory. I think that unique blend is why I could almost feel the joy of the visitors that surrounded me. One place where this was most evident was in the foodways exhibit, which is where Joanne Hyppolite works. Gentry said she just knew I had to speak Hyppolite, and she was right. In addition to what I was learning about the arrival and movement of slaves in the U.S., Hyppolite explained about the diets of enslaved and non-enslaved African Americans during the time in which jambalaya would have become a more prominent dish. As I interviewed Hyppolite, Gentry, and Harris, I realized how complicated this history is.
Later in my New York apartment, as I reviewed everything I had learned, I began to focus on ingredients, the final piece in this massive puzzle. The Carolina Gold rice and the tomatoes used in both jambalaya and jollof would have appeared in Africa and the U.S. because of European colonization. The role of colonialism in creating these dishes was frustrating, and yet I also recognized a sort of magic. The Europeans had tried to break down and annihilate a culture that refused to be destroyed. In addition to resistance, in West Africa and America, Africans on both continents had almost simultaneously created masterful, remarkable and delicious dishes using similar ingredients. No form of racialized slavery, racism, and colonialism could stop these cultures from growing, developing, and flourishing. And that, to me, was exactly the answer I needed.
The reporting, research, and final production took a tremendous amount of work, all of which would not be possible without the support of a number of wonderful people. I’m extremely grateful and indebted to my brilliant editors, my gracious employer and supervisor at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, the NYU Global Journalism department, and of course, the experts and historians who agreed to speak with me, cook with me, and answer dozens of questions over the course of six months.
Support for the Telling Immigrant Food Stories workshop comes from The International Association of Culinary Professionals’ foundation, The Culinary Trust, and its Growing Leaders Food Writing program. The Food Writing Program is funded with the support of the Boston Foundation. Support also comes from Grow and the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses.
Fi2W is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.