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Benne Cookies Taylor Ohlfest

Setting The Table

The dish that I am going to present to the class is called Benne Cookies. These cookies are made with toasted sesame seeds that get crispy when they cool, so the cookies are often described as brittle and are also known as benne wafers. Benne cookies are a dessert or treat served during Kwanzaa, which is a holiday which celebrates the heritage and culture of African-Americans. This holiday dates back as far as 1966 and is widely celebrated in the United States. Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th to January 1st every single year (Arlee Greenwood, 2014). The feast of Kwanzaa is prepared on the sixth day, in which the benne cookies are served. Benne cookies are traditionally made by African-Americans, or those who join in celebrating Kwanzaa. The purpose behind these sesame cookies is to represent the African belief that eating these sesame seeds is to yield good luck, which is something that is important to them (Olde Colony Bakery).

Benne cookies are also so important to African-American culture and religion because their ancestors brought over sesame seeds as slaves from East Africa through West Africa making its way to the Southern United States (Arlee Greenwood, 2014). Toasting the sesame seeds is a part of the process to make the cookie as well as including spices such as ground cinnamon and cardamom. The only issues I think I might encounter while trying to make this dish would be that I don’t have an electric mixer available. I was instantly attracted to the dish because it has cookies in the name of course, but also that it is related to African-American history. I was intrigued to learn more about the journey of how these seeds traveled all the way from Africa into this dish. I have personally never eaten sesame seeds so the fact that this dish is centered around them drew in my curiosity of trying new foods.

I believe this dish should be considered of religious significance because it is a part of the history of African-Americans. This dish is well known for its connection to the celebration of Kwanzaa that is celebrated by many here in the United States and many all over the world (Arlee Greenwood, 2014). The sesame seeds in this dish itself have a meaning of good luck to the African-Americans culture and seems to serve as a religious seed in their way of life. The seeds were brought here by African slaves, which then allowed Americans to be able to grow and harvest these seeds here in the United States. This would not have otherwise been possible. Benne cookies tell a story about the past of African-Americans as well as hold a present spot in the celebration of their important festival Kwanzaa. The benne cookie is religiously significant because of the story it tells and the way in which it is carried through a community of people from the same background and heritage who share the same traditional celebration.

Benne Cookies Through Time (Nutrition Facts)

These cookies are made with toasted sesame seeds, brown sugar, flour, and vanilla which makes for a very tasty treat that many enjoy. The sesame seed which is the main ingredient in this cookie can be traced back to the African slaves who brought it to the Southern United States. They traveled from Eastern Africa, where the seeds came from originally, and then through West Africa to the United States where it was spread for production. Sesame seeds were then planted all over the southern states to be maintained and able to be in dishes such as these cookies. It was much to my surprise that the seeds were brought here to be planted and were not originally grown here in the United States. Sesame seeds being brought here to the United States connects to social justice because the seeds being brought here allowed our society privileges such as creating jobs in the future and being able to create delicious dishes using the seeds. If these delicious seeds had not been brought here by the African American slaves during the slave trade we would not be able to enjoy the countless dishes that include these seeds such as these cookies.

Sesame Field

The recipe for these cookies or otherwise referred to as “wafers” can be traced back as far as 100 years (Arlee Greenwood, 2014). Experts have documented that the earliest evidence of the sesame seed in America was as early as August 1730 in South Carolina (Palmetto Box, 2017). Thomas Lowndes was a man in this time period who sent samples of the seeds from South Carolina to the Board of Trade and Plantation in England to see if he could make revenue off the seeds so he could start producing (Palmetto Box, 2014). It was not until the 1740’s until the plantation owners began to start cultivating the seeds. The African slaves came in high demand as the plantations began to grow because they knew best how to plant and grow the crop as well as how to properly extract oil from them which was very valuable at the time (Palmetto Box, 2017). This paved the way for the seeds to be involved in many dishes and cooking practices as well as the process being shared with people in the United States from the African Americans.

After 1953 tourists could buy the Benne Wafers in Charleston, South Carolina at the Kikoses’ Colony Bake Shop which many people identify the couple who own the shop as the “creators of the well-known ‘Charleston Benne Wafer” (Post and Courier, 2015). Now known as the Olde Colony Bakery in Mount Pleasant, it produces more than 2,000 pounds of Benne Wafers every week! It was not until the 20th century that the seeds were used by tourism as a specialty of the South Carolina region. Today, the seeds are used in many dishes such as these benne cookies along with breads and desserts (Palmetto Box, 2014). Specialist during this time discovered that toasting the seeds made them taste buttery and helped intensify the flavor of the cookie which is still used to this day as one of the steps to make these delicious cookies. As shown the wafer goes back many decades from its first appearance in the United States from the African slaves to the cultivating of the crop and now to the kitchen where the seeds are used in an endless number of recipes.

Celebration of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a holiday of religious significance to the African Americans in which they celebrate their roots and culture. The holiday is celebrated from December 26th through January 1st dating back as early as 1966 (Patheos, 2009). Benne cookies are eaten in many African Americans homes during Kwanzaa as long as the holiday has been around as well as others who enjoy celebrating it due to the struggles they faced while bringing them to the United States. The cookies are also sought to bring good luck according to the African Americans culture which ties into well-being. The association between the sesame seeds and thought of good luck brought to those who eat them helps one to be happy, healthy, or comfortable with themselves which is the relative meaning of well-being. Religious freedom is relevant in this dish not only due to their ability to celebrate Kwanzaa where it is often eaten but also because the dish itself traces back to a deeper meaning of remembering their journey, religious practices, and culture. In this dish, environmental justice is present in the aspect that the sesame seeds are maintained properly in the process of cultivating them.

Kitchen Time

My kitchen time was a lot of fun even though my final product did not turn out like it was suppose to! I did my kitchen time with Laura and the process was really simple, I first measured out all my ingredients. Next, I softened the butter which I believe I softened too much based on the outcome of my dish! Then I mixed the butter with the egg, brown sugar, flour, salt, and baking powder. After that mixture was complete I added in fresh lemon juice and toasted the sesame seeds. I first tried to toast them on the stove top but they burned pretty bad so then I tried them out in a toaster oven and it worked great they were the perfect color! After the seeds were golden brown I added them to the mixture of all the other ingredients it smelled mostly like the brown sugar in the kitchen at this point and then I chilled the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes.

I used a teaspoon scoop to drop the dough on a lightly oiled sheet, putting them in the oven for 15 minutes at 325 degrees. When I opened the oven door it smelt like a beuatiful nutty aroma but I could not believe what I saw!! The baking sheet was completely covered with the dough and I did not have little individual cookies like I was suppose to have it was all mushed together. I think this happened because I softened the butter too much and my dough was not as soft and fluffy as it should have been because of it. I tried my dish even despite the outcome and I was not a very big fan of it. It was really thin and almost bitter all I could really taste was the brown sugar and a buttery nutty flavor with a little crunch from the sesame seeds. My outcome was not how I suspected but it was still a lot of fun cooking with a friend and trying something new! :)

Indegestion

My dish is the Benne Cookie, or more popularly known as the Benne Wafer. The main ingredient in this dish is sesame seeds which were brought to the United States by African Americans during the slave trade. This dish is most frequently made during the African Americans celebratory holiday called Kwanzaa. This is a huge celebration for African Americans where they remember their heritage and culture during a seven-day period. For those who do not believe in the celebration of Kwanzaa or even believe in the origin of how the seeds were brought to the United States could have an issue and oppose the religious belief aspect of this dish under one's religious freedom. This dish includes eggs which some may contest to for not being the best for your well-being in the relation to many who are on a vegan diet. Many people nowadays are gluten-free which this cookie is not which can come into a big well-being issue for those who eat a strictly gluten-free diet.

The United States grows sesame seeds which is environmental just, but the bad news is, that most of the sesame seeds grown here are intercropped with cotton. Cotton is a crop that is almost entirely genetically modified meaning there are many herbicide chemicals used on these cotton fields which also gets on the sesame seed crops (“Real Food”). The American Sesame Growers Association worked with the US Department of Environmental Protection to allowSmetolachlor which is another herbicide chemical to be used in sesame fields to contain the weeds (“Real Food”). This is a huge issue when it comes to environmental justice in this dish that many would have a concern with as well as myself especially knowing that the main ingredient is grown with the use of multiple herbicide chemicals!

Within this dish comes the opportunity for social justice in the means of spreading one's wealth in knowledge about African American history. One way to distribute this wealth of knowledge would be cooking this dish with your children so they can be informed and have fun cooking as well (“6 Things”). Some may oppose this display of social justice due to the fact of teaching children the harsh reality of African Americans’ journeys and struggles at too young of an age could be too much for the child to know. The dish can have some backlash as to social justice as well for the fact that African Americans brought the sesame crop over which was native to their homeland and the United States has continued to grow them as well as continue to make a profit off the sesame seeds.

I feel that many could also have an issue with this dish due to the fact that not many are educated on the true background of its main ingredient, sesame seeds. The seeds represent so much more than just an ingredient in this dish; it represents the history in the struggle many African Americans had to endure. The crop was brought to the United States way of the Slave Trade which was not an option for African Americans. They were tortured and forced to come to the United States in the worst conditions one could ever imagine. These seeds were a remembrance of their home land and something they could be proud of here in the United States. I feel that when people are not educated on this, they like to disagree with the reason people associate the cookies with Kwanzaa and African American history in general causing issues between all kinds of people which can also relay to social justice.

Just Desserts

Throughout this journey of cooking my dish I realized that I picked this dish because it was something completely new to me. I had never heard of the Benne Wafer before and as I started to look it up the main ingredient in the dish, sesame seeds it told an amazing story of the African Americans journey and religious ties to the seeds. This dish really showed me that I tend to stick to the same foods I grew up eating but also that my curiosity to try new foods is very relevant in my eating habits. I have never had sesame seeds before besides on top of a hamburger bun so the excitement of getting to make sesame seed cookies really drove me to this dish and completing it for this project. During Kwanzaa, this dish is made in remembrance of the African American struggle during the slave trade which was when the sesame seeds were brought to the United States.

While making the dish I often thought of the struggle African Americans endured while bringing the seeds here and imagined myself cooking them for their religious holiday Kwanzaa. The religious significance was felt greatly while cooking the dish because I had the background knowledge on the sesame seeds before making the cookies. Throughout learning about the Benne Wafer, it made me realize that many of the ordinary foods I eat could also have religious significance that I had not thought much about before. My relationship to food I ordinarily eat is in its own way religious to me because it is everything I enjoy and was raised eating so it hits a soft spot with me about good times and reminds me of my childhood. I loved being able to make this dish and learn something new about religious significance to ingredients as small as sesame seeds along with helping myself discover my own religion to food.

Works Cited

Greenwood, Arlee. “Benne Wafers: Holiday Cookies for Kwanzaa | CBC Parents.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 24 Dec. 2014, www.cbc.ca/parents/food/view/benne-wafers-holiday-cookies-for-kwanzaa.

“History of the Benne Wafer.” Olde Colony Bakery | Home of the Original Charleston Benne Wafers, Gourmet Cookies, and Specialty Bread! | Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, USA, Olde Colony Bakery, 8Nov. 2015, www.oldecolonybakery.com/history-of-the-benne-wafer/.

Greenwood, Arlee. “Benne Wafers: Holiday Cookies for Kwanzaa | CBC Parents.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 24 Dec. 2014, www.cbc.ca/parents/food/view/benne-wafers-holiday-cookies-for-kwanzaa.

“History of the Benne Wafers.” PalmettoBox.com, Palmetto Box, 26 Sept. 2017, www.palmettobox.com/blogs/sc/history-of-benne.

“History of the Benne Wafer.” Olde Colony Bakery| Home of the Original Charleston Benne Wafer, Gourmet Cookies, and Specialty Breads! | Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, USA, Olde Colony Bakery, 8 Nov. 2015, www.oldecolonybakery.com/history-of-the-benne-wafer/.

“Kwanzaa: History and Recipes.” Patheos, Patheos, 11 Dec. 2009, www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2009/12/kwanzaa.

Raskin, Hanna. “Dine like a Charlestonian Highlights on Local Traditions and Foods Colony Bake Shop Made City’s Benne Wafers Famous.” Post and Courier, 12 May 2015, www.postandcourier.com/food/dine-like-a-charlestonian-highlights-on-local-traditions-and-foods/article_779dld55-47b4-5ebf-ab2b-482633aff8c0.html.

“Real Food Encyclopedia | Sesame.” FoodPrint, Grace Communications Foundation, 2019, foodprint.org/real-food/sesame/.

“6 Things to Do with Children to Honor Black History Month.” Edited by Bonnie Riva Ras, Goodnet, 18 Mar. 2019, www.goodnet.org/articles/5-things-to-do-children-honor-black-history-month.

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