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Shakespeare & Beyond

Akara from Africa: Black-eyed pea fritters, inspired by Hercules


Akara. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

As our First Chefs recipe series continues, exhibition curator Amanda Herbert writes about a recipe for akara (black-eyed pea fritters) that draws on African traditions and was inspired by Hercules, a chef who was enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Michael W. Twitty, author of the James Beard award-winning book The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South (2017), developed this recipe for the Folger’s First Chefs exhibition and joined our curators in cooking it.

What is a black-eyed pea? The small bean with a black spot is of African origin. It was, and still is, popular among people from West Africa, especially in Nigeria and Cameroon. For many women, men, and children living in these parts of the world, black-eyed peas are integral to their diet, history, and sense of culture. Black-eyed peas are central to American diets, histories, and cultures, too.

When Shakespeare was writing and performing in Britain, black-eyed peas were a staple crop for West African people. As Europeans enslaved people of African origin in ever greater numbers, they loaded black-eyed peas onto ships alongside the women, men, and children they had forced into permanent bondage. Traveling across the ocean from Africa to the territories claimed by Europeans in South, Central, and North America, black-eyed peas were part of the meager, inadequate rations provided by slavers to their captives. But when they arrived in the Americas, enslaved people reclaimed black-eyed peas as their own. Rescuing leftover peas from the remaining stores sold from slave ships (in some legends, enslaved mothers hid African seeds and grains in their own hair and their children’s hair, in order to help ensure their survival), enslaved people planted and cultivated black-eyed peas in garden plots that were allotted for their own use. Black-eyed peas, a familiar and cherished food from Africa, sustained many enslaved people in the dangerous, deadly “new worlds” of the Americas.

Choosing Akara

When it came time to recreate a recipe that represented Hercules, one of our five Folger “first chefs,” we knew that we had some unique opportunities and challenges in representing his legacy. There are many surviving recipes written by and for George and Martha Washington. Hercules surely made some of these dishes, but were they “his” in the fullest sense of the word? Author, chef, and historian Michael W. Twitty helped us imagine the food traditions, touchstones, and tastes of enslaved people in the 18th century. What might people like Hercules have made for their own families, in their own ways, and according to their own choices?


That is not how akara is made. No flour is added. You soak the brown beans, not peas, peel the outer skin and ground them into a paste. Add blended onions and hot pepper, salt, spices and drop the mixture into hot oil. No flour is ever added.

Carmen — September 28, 2019

[…] Read more about akara, including a recipe to make the black-eyed peas fritters at home, on Shakespeare & Beyond. […]

ENCORES: A Conversation with Michael W. Twitty (2019) - The Folger Spotlight — April 28, 2021