Reshaping soul food's identity
"Soul food" is a term derived from the 1960s and the Black Power movement. It reflects the traditional foods — like collard greens, black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes — of southern African-Americans that have existed since the arrival of black people via the Transatlantic slave trade. Recently, I was exposed to the truth that Africans who were brought to the States via slavery brought food products and techniques for agricultural cultivation that are prevalent in American cuisine today. For instance, cornbread, a food considered to be a traditional all-American dish, has roots in southern black culture, where it is also known as hush puppies, johnnycakes and spoon bread.
My first job was at North American Rotisserie, and at the time, it was one of the few black-owned businesses in my suburb of Madison. Along with taking orders and cleaning the dining area, I was responsible for mixing the cornbread muffins.
The recipe at N.A. Rotisserie called for honey, a technique I'd never seen before. The cornbread was so perfectly moist and sweet that I didn't have to add butter. It was hard to resist consuming at least one muffin as soon as I took a tray out of the oven. At 16, I enjoyed working there, learning about food and seeing what a successful black family-owned business looked like. But I didn't always have a good relationship with soul food.
As an African-American who was raised in predominantly white towns, my childhood was haunted with an internal struggle to find the confidence to believe that I was good enough while battling a society that said everything about me was not as good as. Growing up a minority, it is hard to avoid the feeling of otherness that comes from looking differently and being treated differently from those around you. And without understanding the origins, an animosity toward soul food grew inside me, as I saw it as just another thing that pointed out how I was different.
In "The Souls of Black Folk" published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois writes about his experiences and how, even if he were comfortable in a situation, well-meaning white people would point out his blackness. He explains that all African-Americans are "born with a veil and gifted with second-sight in this American world — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. A peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."
I read this recently and was immediately brought back to my experiences when I first moved to Duluth a little over 10 years ago. This was the first time others pointed out my blackness. I was often told some version of a story about a player on someone's kid's basketball team. This would leave me perplexed, until I realized the thing I had in common with this person they were telling me about was the color of my skin. "He was so nice," is how they would always finish the story.
DuBois describes a similar type of encounter, "They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, 'How does it feel to be a problem?' They say, 'I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?'
"At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question: How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."
He wrote this more than 100 years ago and yet I find it completely relatable to my life today. But instead of seldom saying a word, I've decided it is time for me to own this history.
My mother is a third-generation New Englander, and my father arrived to the states as a teen from Malawi with his family. An average dinner at my home was curried chicken and rice. On holidays, my mother made fancy dishes like cheese and spinach quiche, and on Thanksgiving, sweet potato pie. We didn't eat a lot of traditional soul food, of which I thought to be fried chicken and collard greens with ham hocks and macaroni and cheese.
Because I chose to be a vegetarian at a young age, I felt disconnected from the association of soul food in helping to define my blackness. That changed when I was 21, following my newly divorced mother and my younger brother to Atlanta. I began working in the kitchen of The Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Ga.
There I worked under Chef Scott Peacock, who was a student and eventual caretaker of the famous Southern chef Edna Lewis. Fried chicken was only served on Tuesdays at the Watershed because the process required a week of buttermilk brine for the chicken, followed by frying in fresh lard for service.
My time in Atlanta was brief, but I was fortunate to discover a neighborhood called Little Five Points. It was there, for the first time, that I found a community of black people who were like me. In Little Five Points, I found neo-soul restaurants that offered vegan soul food, and the streets were lined with stores selling all-natural African products. I purchased a vegan soul food cookbook and learned to make creamy polenta and collard greens and barbecue tofu. Soon, I was inviting my friends over for soul-food dinners.
For a long time, I saw soul food as rich and fatty foods that were making black people sick through obesity and diabetes. I wasn't enlightened to the fact that Africans were cultivating sweet potatoes, peanuts, rice, collards and okra (the foundations of soul food), and that European slave traders brought these products with them. When slaves were preparing meals for their owners, they were incorporating the agricultural practices used in Africa.
Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie and Jessica B. Harris are the leaders in the area of the academic study of African Foodways. They have used the journals of slave owners and written testimony of slaves to document how food has traveled from Africa. They have begun the discussion of why food is an important part of identity within the African-American community.
The foodways of the African diaspora is a rich history. It is incumbent that as a society we know our history and that we acknowledge the contributions of to our daily lives that African slaves have made. Can you imagine a world without peanut butter?
¾ cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick) melted
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, mix all dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk egg and milk. Pour egg mixture into dry ingredients and stir until smooth. Add in butter. Pour batter evenly into a greased muffin tin and bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown on top. Makes 12 muffins.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken
3 pounds chicken pieces
4 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups lard
Whisk garlic powder, salt, pepper and paprika with buttermilk. Marinate the chicken pieces in a plastic zip-close bag for at least 8 hours and up to three days. The longer the chicken marinates, the more moisture it will retain when frying.
To fry chicken, place flour in a bowl and cover each piece of chicken in flour by dropping them in the bowl. In a large cast-iron pan, heat lard over medium high heat to 350 degrees. Place the chicken pieces in the pan and cook evenly on all sides until golden brown. Remove from pan and dry on a paper towel before serving. Serves 6.