The issue of slavery and its effects on indigenous culture attracted significant attention in the 1970s and 80s. Unlike in the modern era, where people can openly discuss slavery, the issue’s sensitivity often compelled authors to devise creative approaches to the issue intentionally to avoid criticism and potential backlash from people with diverse opinions. In Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake Shange chose to creatively explore the impact of slavery on cultural identity and belongingness using traditional Gullah cuisines and recipes. The Gullah community of African descent existed as an isolated group and a distinct culture characterized by a unique creolized language and distinguishable recipes. While recipes are often considered as step-by-step instructions on preparing certain dishes and foods, Ntozake Shange creatively used the instructions to reveal the key elements of the Gullah life, the female-centered culture. Therefore, in Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, recipes are used as a defining characteristic of the Gullah culture. It textually unites Sassafras, Cypress, Indigo, and their mother, the main representatives of Gullah life.
The primary role of recipes in the novel is to emphasize the uniqueness of the Gullah culture. According to Clark (151), most enslaved people were not only assimilated into the new world but consistently manipulated to lose their defining and original culture. As a result, most enslaved people lost their initial languages, recipes, and cultural practices as they “adjusted” to the new environments. In Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake intentionally emphasized women’s role in functional Gullah society. As evident in the novel, Gullah women mainly taught one another through apprenticeship. Young girls such as Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo learned critical aspects of their culture primarily through female mentors and resource persons such as Hilda, their mother. Sharing recipes and lessons on taking care of oneself emerges as the major cultural lessons passed over from mothers to their daughters. Ntozake equally portrays the adoption of foreign recipes as a deviation from the definitive traditional culture. For example, Hilda, the mother of the three sisters, grew increasingly worried when she discovered through a letter to Sassafras, living in California by then, that the daughter had started to celebrate “Kwanzaa” instead of Christmas (Elder 104). As a result, she shares with Sassafras a recipe for “Duck with Mixed Oyster Stuffing,” one of the traditional Gullah cuisines for Christmas.
Recipes are equally used to signify cultural unity and belongingness. In Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, Ntozake presents unique recipes for every celebrated occasion. More importantly, the recipes are not only used as means to feed oneself; Ntozake uses recipes to recall the uniting rituals by telling stories about what foods are available for every occasion, who prepares the same, and the cultural implications. As the girls in Hilda’s family gradually evolve into women, foods and recipes are consistently used as a compass to direct them home and unite them, especially when the physical distance from Gullah land threatens their cultural identity (Clark 159). For instance, the three sisters, Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, are united in Christmas breakfast after a long period of separation. Food plays a critical uniting role; the quartet unites to share a sacred food of catfish, a tangerine, papaya, and lemon, “trio marmalade.” (Elder 101). Hilda insists that she prepared the food just like Albert, the late family patriarch, who liked it. Since her daughters are always separated throughout the novel in search of nee black culture, Hilda uses recipes, often recording her cooking and sharing recipes with them to keep them glued to their Gullah culture.
In the text, Ntozake uses recipes and food to divert the readers’ concentration from the different lifestyles and interests of the three daughters to important celebrations in the Gullah culture. Through the other chapters, the author takes the audience through the various interests exhibited by Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo. For instance, Sassafras, the eldest daughter, takes over her mother’s interest in textile weaving and art. Cypress, the second daughter, is a ballet dancer and, as a result, connects with her mother mainly through food and music. Lastly, Sassafras, Indigo, the youngest of the three daughters, possesses some magic which drives her into a spiritual realm and is exhibited through their obsession with her dolls and endless interactions with the natural world (Elder 100). Amidst all the above differences, the author uses recipes and food to divert the reader from the daughters’ life’s intrigues to emphasize the importance of recipes.
The author equally uses food to emphasize its cultural importance among the Gullah people. One such early occasion in the novel’s opening sections is the Christmas breakfast. The celebration comes after the three daughters had spent much of their time away from their mother and far from each other, pursuing different interests. Although the emphasis is on the roles of recipes and foods, Hilda’s food is packed with lots of love and history, often allowing her to closely communicate with her daughters, their ancestors and Gullah land. Such occasions are only possible where there is cultural food. Another celebratory occasion comes. For instance, the mere presence of food creates an ample environment for Hildah to remind her daughters of their roots. Therefore, food offers Hildah a head start, helping her delve deeper into aspects of the Gullah culture in an appealing manner while indirectly communicating her discomfort with foreign cultures. She starts with discussions on the recipes for the sacred food before bringing her late husband into the picture (symbolize ancestors) and mentioning the general practices on such occasions.
Ntozake’s decision to include recipes and food in the novel is primarily due to her interest in the unique Geechee culture of Gullah land. The novel is set in Charleston, a land mainly inhabited by enslaved people from West Africa who were bought in the 17th century to work on rice, cotton, and indigo plantations. The presence of enslaved people on the island led to an emergence of an agriculture-based culture with strong links to African language, names, cuisines, and folk tales as means of connecting the inhabitants to their roots (Clark 154). Ntozake’s interest in foods and recipes and subsequent inclusion among major themes of the novel is to emphasize the unique efforts by the Gullah community to preserve their culture. The Gullah community was mainly known for its “women’s work” culture, a term used to describe culturally female domestic chores such as weaving, cooking and storytelling that were perceived as the responsibility of women (Elder 106). The above vital life lessons were passed from one generation to the other through recipes and tales with an intentional emphasis on aspects that distinguished the Gullah culture from the American practices and emphasized the former’s link to African heritage. Hence, as enticing as the recipes in the novel could be, the author’s intention is not on the nutritional value of the foods and recipes but on their unique cultural roles.
In conclusion, Ntozake’s Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo offers a unique artistic view into the impacts of slavery on indigenous cultures. While different authors have explored major impacts such as language, dress codes, cultural festivities, and lifestyles, Ntozake diverged from such topics to examine the role of food in preserving culture and cultural diversity. Consequently, in every circumstance where the three daughters, Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, drifted away from the Gullah culture, Hildah, their mother, used food to bring them back home and closer to their traditional culture. Therefore, Ntozake used the recipes and food to emphasize that culture can be preserved using the simplest approaches, such as food. However, such initiatives often require unmatched zeal and a sharp mind to always pick the best meal for every occasion.
Patricia E. Clark, 2007. Archiving Epistemologies and the Narrativity of Recipes in Ntozake Shange’s “Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo”. Callaloo, Vol. 30, No. 1, Reading “Callaloo”/Eating. The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 150-162
Arlene Patr, 1992. Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo: Ntozake Shange’s Neo-Slave/Blues Narrative. African American Review, Indiana State University , Vol. 26, No. 1, Women Writers Issue (Spring, 1992), pp. 99-107