Dancing Around History in Dahomey: The Cakewalk, Cannibalism and a New Kind of Pizza

Do you guys remember the events of Easter weekend? The postponement that turned out to be a flip around? The mustard that was supposed to be an entree? The switch in the travel schedule that sent us 3,200 miles in the opposite direction? If you answered yes, then you’ll know exactly where we are landing this week. If you are new to the blog or uncertain as to our past travel trajectories, you’ll find us here today…

…in Dahomey, our next stop on the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Not sure where Dahomey is? Don’t worry, at the start of this project, I didn’t know either. Let’s zoom out a bit and get a grasp on which section of the world we are talking about…

Dahomey is located in the crook of the African continent on the western side in between Nigeria and Ghana. If it still doesn’t sound familiar to you, there is good reason. Dahomey hasn’t existed on a map since 1975. These images above are from a 1948 school atlas, but if you looked on a modern map today, you’ll find the Republic of Benin in Dahomey’s place. Like Ceylon becoming Sri Lanka, Dahomey went through it’s own name change and declaration of independence in the 1970’s.

But before all that happened, Dahomey, had a bit of a tormented past. Originally colonized by the French, it was populated primarily by local tribes who were often at war with themselves.  Fighting was such a part of the culture, Dahomey even boasted a large tribe of professionally trained female warriors known as the Amazons. Numbering in the thousands, these ladies were ready to defend their land and customs at a moment’s notice and were the most feared women on the African continent.

The Amazons of Dahomey. Image courtesy of hadithiti.africa. Read more about them here.

Folklore states that centuries ago Dahomey was named after Chief King Dan who favored the local customs of cannibalism and human sacrifice. The name Dahomey literally translates as “the belly of Dan” and was a direct reference to greedy behavior and overstepping one’s boundaries.

Thankfully our recipe for this week does not involve any cannibalistic tendencies, but there was an element of gruesome prep work that I suppose Chief King Dan would have totally approved of. Before we get to the recipe though, there is one remarkable connection I wanted to share with you that forever ties the word Dahomey into popular culture. This achievement is not based in cooking, cannibalism, or human sacrifice, but instead based in song and dance.

In 1903, the first African American musical comedy to be written and performed by an all black cast was staged on Broadway. The play was called In Dahomey and was about a pair of con men, a lost treasure and a plan to colonize Western Africa.

Combining elements of vaudeville theater, minstrel shows and comedic storytelling, In Dahomey became such a popular show in both the United States and England, it enjoyed an unprecedented four year run and an international touring schedule.

Starring the talented trio of George Walker, Bert Williams and Aida (aka Ada) Overton Walker, it was also the first African American play to have its sheet music published…

In Dahomey sheet music. Photo courtesy of Songbook

The play was a major accomplishment in the progression of musical theater and also a major source of inspiration for the African American community. One of the elements that turned In Dahomey into such a crowd-pleaser was the inclusion of a popular style of late 19th century dance called the Cakewalk.

Started among plantation slaves in the American South, this precision style of boxy line dancing was similar to ballroom dancing. Cakewalk began as a bit of theatrical mockery directed towards the stiff and stuffy formality of dances enjoyed by the plantation owners. But it quickly turned into a tightly choreographed routine that was lauded by both the white and black communities for its elegant moves and high-stepping style.

As popularity of the dance spread between plantations, the cakewalk turned into a competition style performance of pride, dignity and talent.  Competitions were deemed special events, participation was encouraged, and winners usually received a freshly baked cake as a prize for best dancer.

Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914)

Aida Overton Walker was considered the queen of the cakewalk. Her performances alongside her husband, George Walker and their creative partner Bert Williams made them a famous trio in the theater world in the early 1900’s. A true believer in bridging  cultural differences through dance, music and the performing arts, Aida died tragically at the age of 34, but not without leaving a great impression.  This is a five minute theatrical interpretation of her extraordinary life and the contributions she made to the performing arts…

The overture for In Dahomey is sweeping, melodic and eight minutes in length. If you wanted to listen to it while you prepped your ingredients for this week’s recipe, it’s the perfect length for the amount of chopping that needs to be done. Here’s a link for listening…

 

The reason the Recipe Tour got so turned around last week was because of these little swimmers…

The fish store is closed in the neighborhood until at least mid-May, so sourcing fresh regional shrimp was a new challenge. Luckily, the farmers market saved the day with their new drive-thru Saturday market and a vendor that offered fresh (albeit frozen) Gulf Coast shrimp. As you can see in the image above these guys came scampi style with their heads intact. If we were in France or Italy this week, this might have been an interesting attribute to a regional recipe, but in Dahomey, the technique called for diced shrimp, so off the heads had to come. Chief King Dan approved:)

This was the first time, I ever removed the heads from any creature and I must admit, it was not my most favorite activity. Powering through this aspect of food prep, I couldn’t bring myself to photograph this tumultuous process for the post. Instead, I gathered all my bravery, followed this how-to video and avoided looking the little guys in the eye. Eventually my cleaned up shrimp looked like this…

On the menu this week, we are making Shrimp Dahomienne, an easy shrimp and pork saute that I thought was going to turn out one way but actually turned out another. The serving suggestion for this recipe was a ring of pureed black-eyed peas, so originally I thought Shrimp Dahomienne was going to be a soupy stew-like dish similar to Beef Bourguignon or Mushroom Marsala. Instead, it turned out to be a rich, dense sauce with a thick consistency closer to tomato puree than soupy stew. A breeze to make, it requires minimal prep work, just one saute pan, and an unusual combination of ingredients. The only thing I changed as far as the recipe goes was switching out ham for pancetta (just a personal preference), but other than that made the recipe as is. Until it came to the serving suggestion part. More on that after we go through the recipe.

Shrimp Dahomienne

(serves 4-6)

1 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 cup peanut oil

1 cup raw shrimp (about 1 dozen medium to large size shrimp), cut into 1/2″ inch cubes

1 clove garlic, finely minced

3/4 cup ham, cut into 1/2″ inch cubes (I used diced pancetta)

1 bay leaf

1 cup canned tomato sauce

1 hot red pepper, seeded and chopped

Cook the onion in the peanut oil until it just starts to brown. Add the shrimp and cook , stirring constantly, about 5 minutes.

Add the garlic and ham and cook for another five minutes longer, stirring.

Add the remaining ingredients…

and cook about 15 minutes longer, stirring frequently.

Remove from pan and serve.

As you can see from the above photos, the last 15 minutes of cooking greatly reduces the sauce. By the time it is ready to pull off of the stove, it resembles more of a chunky chutney with just trace amounts of peanut oil lingering behind. That’s what reminded me of pizza sauce. Dark red and dense like a can of tomato paste, this mixture is so full of wonderful, deep, rich flavors. The pancetta adds salt. The shrimp adds a mellow hint of the sea. The red pepper adds zesty spice. The onions and tomatoes add a sweet acidity. I think the pureed black-eyed peas would have been too mushy a consistency with this mixture. Their grayish color not as appealing.  So instead, I spread this shrimpy  mixture on pizza dough and topped it with slices of fresh mozzarella, and basil from the garden…

and then popped it into a 500 degree oven for 10 minutes.

Just before serving I squeezed a little fresh lemon juice over the whole pizza and added a couple more leaves of fresh basil. I love when your instincts turn out to be right on target. This Shrimp Dahomienne pizza turned out to be delicious! The pizza dough added satisfying crunch along with a complimentary foundation for all the flavors, and soaked up the oily pools of sauce. I’ve never really been a fan sea swimmers on pizza before, but this recipe definitely has me rethinking shrimp on a pie.  The shrimp taste was subtle and when combined with a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of fresh basil, it tasted more bright than briny.

An easy, casual meal, pair it with a cold, crisp glass of pinot grigio and you have a new type of springtime/summertime pizza that is lightly seasoned with scents from the sea.

One of the things I love so much about exploring these vintage recipes are the little surprises that show up each week. Just this one recipe alone opened up a wealth of newly discovered history that combined musical theater, dancing, women’s history and African culture. I learned a new kitchen skill (how to behead a shrimp) and in turn that made me made me appreciate these 12 swimmers much more for the life they gave to this recipe.

There’s a lot of talk these days about everyone getting restless at home because of the quarantine. I understand. It’s hard not to feel caged in. Especially when you are missing your friends and family, your restaurants and parties and get-togethers and happy hours. If this is you and your boat, let’s pass the time by sharing some culinary adventures. Coronavirus or not, cooking knows no boundaries. Surprises ensue. Stories begin. I’d love to hear what you guys are making these days. If you have any fun recipes or anecdotes you’d like to share about food-related things you’ve discovered during quarantine, please comment below. I’d love to feature them, here on the blog, in a special upcoming Quarantine in the Kitchen edition. Hope you’ll be a part of it!

Next week we are heading off to England via the kitchen to make a sweet treat of a dessert that celebrates the start of strawberry season. See you then!

11 thoughts on “Dancing Around History in Dahomey: The Cakewalk, Cannibalism and a New Kind of Pizza

  1. What a great post, Katherine! Thank you. I learned a LOT (like the origin of the word “cakewalk”) and loved the pictures. Like you, I have never liked the idea of seafood on a pizza but this recipe looks really good. Looks like you are surviving the lockdown just fine!

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    1. So glad you found the post so interesting Karen! You should definitely give the shrimp pizza a try and let us know what you think. The pizza dough that I like to use makes a very thin flat bread style pizza, but this recipe could also work on crackers or a fresh baguette. It is versatile in many ways. We are doing our best to manage and navigate these unusual days. It was challenging going straight from the aftermath of the tornado right into the coronavirus but I’m so thankful (so thankful!) for the blog, and the shop, and the Recipe Tour diversions. How are you? How are you faring during these times? Hope you are still writing?!

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      1. I will give it a try one of these days! I make pizza every Sunday night but usually use canned pizza sauce (yes it’s true). When I don’t use canned I like to saute whole cherry tomatoes until they char and split. For seasoning I just add salt, pepper and some crushed fennel. The cherry tomatoes have a lot of flavor on their own. Like yours, it’s chutney-like in consistency. It’s my favorite sauce except it makes such a mess of the stovetop. Ugh. Hence the canned……however, I do make my own pizza dough & hope this counts for something. Have been doing it for years with my trusty KitchenAid, making a double recipe and freezing the other half for the next week. It’s not thin though. Glad you are doing well and have plenty of diversions. I’m not writing–am in a sort of empty-in-between state. Not sure how long it will last. Meanwhile, we’re fine here.

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      2. Oh Karen! That is so fun for Pizza Sundays! Will you share your pizza dough recipe with us? I’m always on the hunt for a good one. So glad to hear you guys are doing okay. Don’t worry about the writing, it will come back:)

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      3. I just made this dough on Sunday! It’s easy:
        Warm up 1 1/2 cups water and pour into bowl of a mixer w/dough hook. Add 1 T sugar and 2 t yeast. Let sit for a couple minutes. It will foam.
        Add 4 cups flour, 1 T salt and 3 T olive oil. Mix for 10 minutes at power level 2 (i.e., low).
        Dump into an oiled bowl and let double. It makes enough for two (or three thin) pizzas. So at this point I cut it in half and put one half in the freezer and the other half on an oiled baking sheet. Let the dough sit for 10 minutes or so before stretching out into a large round (I just push it into shape with my fingers).
        Because I like a crispy crust I always bake the plain dough first for 5 minutes, then remove to put on the toppings, then put back in the oven for 15 minutes (less if it’s getting too brown). I bake it at 450 degrees F.
        This dough is not “authentic” by any means. It’s really more like bread than a proper Italian pizza dough. But we like it!

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      4. Oh thank you thank you so much Karen for sharing your recipe! I cannot wait to try it! It sounds delish. And like you, I like crispy thin crust too. I’ll make it this week and let you know how it turns out:)

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      5. Karen! We made your wonderful pizza dough tonight. It was SO GOOD! Thank you so much for sharing the recipe. If it is okay with you, I’d love to share it in an upcoming newsletter and blog mention (with a credit to you of course!). If you have any concerns about this, please let me know. I’m so excited to have a new reliable pizza dough recipe, as I’ve probably tried over two dozen in the past few years and by far this one was the best:) Thank you for the new favorite! We might have to start a Sunday dinner night tradition in our house too:)

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      6. Katherine, I am so glad the pizza dough recipe worked for you! It’s not “authentic” but it is very foolproof, freezes well, and I like the honest homemade taste. You are most welcome to use it in your blog. I should clarify that I didn’t invent this recipe and cannot claim credit for it. I got it from —have no idea where, it’s been so many years. I have a faint recollection that the original called for part regular flour and part cake flour, but because I am lazy I just use all regular flour. Otherwise, I make the recipe as it was written by whoever. 🙂

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      7. It is definitely wonderful recipe Karen! And no worries – that’s okay that you didn’t “Invent” it:) It’s always my goal to share really good recipes here so I’m happy to include this one in the mix. Thank you again so much for sharing!

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