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Eatymology: Chicken and Rice

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Eatymology: Chicken and Rice
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Tom McCorkle

Chicken and Rice

[chi-kən ən(d) rīs]

n: A humble dish that’s journeyed from slavery to freedom in the American South.

So many of the ingredients considered hallmarks of Southern cooking share a West African lineage, from okra to field peas to sweet potatoes. But there may be no African foodstuff that has sewed itself into the fabric of the region’s cuisine quite like rice, the backbone of a dizzying number of iconic dishes (jambalaya, red beans and rice, dirty rice, hoppin’ john, and limpin’ susan, to name a few). Chicken and rice, a staple that spans continents, evolved at the hands of those enslaved on Lowcountry rice plantations. Relegated broken bits of rice (and on a good day, less-desirable scraps of meat), they spun out one-pot meals that would over time resemble the pilau and bog we know today. “They didn’t get the good stuff served in the big house,” says Baltimore chef David Thomas. “They got the broken rice and cooked it the best they knew how.” At his restaurant, Ida B’s Table, Thomas honors the traditions of his ancestors by cooking what he calls “modern soul food.”

Chef David Thomas of Ida B's Table in Baltimore, Maryland.

To celebrate Juneteenth—the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the States—he shares a chicken and rice recipe that’s rooted in African tradition. He plates grilled guinea fowl atop jollof rice, a mainstay in West African cuisine. Juneteenth is observed on June 19, the date in 1865 a Union general delivered word to Galveston, Texas, that slavery had been abolished—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the end of the Civil War. Like most Juneteenth foods, Thomas’ has a deep red hue, a symbol for resilience in bondage. “It takes a long time for us to get a grip on our history,” he says. “It’s not always pretty, but we survived it. We came through on the other side.”

Guinea Fowl and Jollof Rice