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Candomblé is the most widely practiced religion among African-Brazilians of the Bahia region. Like some forms of Santeria and voodoo, it coexists with Catholicism in a complex system in which Yoruban nature spirits are syncretized with Catholic saints. For instance, when practitioners of these religions celebrate the feast of Saint Catherine in a Catholic church, they are simultaneously worshiping the Yoruban orisha Oshun, goddess of freshwater lakes and streams.
The names of the orishas vary from sect to sect, but on each feast day, adherents prepare the nature god's favorite food. And when a voodoo or Santeria priestess wants to encourage a certain spirit to visit someone, she will place its preferred food on the supplicant's head. The three vegetables I chose from Pearl's steam table are each claimed by several orishas. Obatala, voodoo ruler of the clouds, likes black-eyed peas, and Chango, the thunder spirit, is partial to yams.
Carurú, an okra stew, is the food of the Ibeji, the twin gods of procreation and reproduction. While it may be the food of the gods, Voeks doesn't recommend the dish. "It tastes like slime with seeds in it," he says. The symbolism is pretty obvious.
2442 Times Blvd.
Houston, TX 77005-3223
Category: Restaurant >
Region: Kirby-West U
Pasta Tchiapatoulas: $12.95
Curry chicken: $7.75
Pearl's Soul Food Café, 7730 West Bellfort, 713-773-3040. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Smoked pork ribs: $6.99
Lunch special (meat, three vegetables and corn bread): $4.99
Side dishes: $1
Voeks has done a lot of detective work on the mystery of how West African plants came to the New World. He has shown that in some cases, freed slaves actually returned to Africa and shipped the missing ingredients. But in the case of okra, yams and black-eyed peas, he thinks there is a much simpler explanation. "There is no documentation, but the logical conclusion is that the Portuguese brought them over." Slave owners, simply trying to keep their laborers healthy and productive, procured the African vegetables with no idea they were aiding them in the practice of the slaves' outlawed "paganism."
While voodoo and Santeria have long been considered pagan cults by mainstream Christians in the United States, things seem to be changing. According to Tanu T. Henry, a staff writer for Africana.com, these religions are enjoying a renaissance among people of African descent. A voodoo conference in Philadelphia and a study group in California got the ball rolling in 1997, he says, and now African-American celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon. Self-help author Iyanla Vanzant is a Yoruba priestess, he reports, and actor Wesley Snipes not only embraces Yoruba but is helping to popularize a spiritual form of Afro-Brazilian martial arts and dance called Capoeira.
Henry quotes James Lorand Matory, professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, who sees a new wave of black pride sweeping the world now that apartheid, American Jim Crow laws and African colonialism have all been abolished: "African religions are entering the mainstream because black people throughout the world have gained the courage to become adherents of them," Matory says.
There are no black-eyed peas at Fusion Café, manager Ludwell Taylor tells me. There's no okra, either. They do have yams sometimes, though. I'm trying to understand what makes this African-American restaurant so different when Taylor drops the bomb.
"We don't really look at it as an African-American restaurant," he says. "Over the last three weeks, I'd estimate our clientele has been 70 percent white."
And what about the the restaurant's name? "The concept is diversity," he says. "The fusion is a blend of different cuisines, but also a fusion of black and white Americans, all coming together in one restaurant."
It seems that mainstream white Houstonians are avid consumers of African-American cooking, especially when it's done in their neighborhood and to their tastes. They may not be eating okra, black-eyed peas and yams like they do at Pearl's, but give them time. Capoeira dance classes are already a popular extracurricular activity in Houston schools -- for both white and black kids. And I predict religiously significant Yoruban foods will be turning up soon at a holiday celebration near you. (Think sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving, black-eyed peas on New Year's Day and any excuse for gumbo.)
In fact, Yoruban food traditions are so much a part of the culture of the American South that we barely notice their Africanness. Fusion Café's success in Rice Village is a striking illustration of how deeply West African culture is rooted in the United States.
"The Future of Fusion" looked at five Houston fusion cuisines in an attempt to understand what the foods say about the cultures that created them. The complete series can be found online and will be presented at an academic panel titled "Global Food? Fusion, Creolization and Hybridity in Culinary Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Houston this November.