September 08, 2014

Soul Food

Listening to Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, and Imar Hutchins, owner of the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, D.C. (which calls itself the "Oldest soul food restaurant in the world"), on Kojo Nnamdi's WAMU radio program speak about the origins, history and evolution of soul food got me to thinking.

In particular, I was intrigued by Miller's comment (as quoted by Nnamdi from Miller's book) that soul food is "unknown to some, unfamiliar to many and under-appreciated by most."  Miller explained that many people have a misconception that soul food is unhealthy and is a significant contributor to the growing obesity and health issues in the African American community.  Part of the problem, he reasoned, was the lack of understanding about soul food's history and roots.

I spent a number of years living in the States and frequently ate what were referred to as soul food dishes - fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, corn bread, catfish, sweet potato pie, to name a few.  At the time (mid-1980s-early 1990s), the vast majority of these dishes I consumed were in either casual, family-style restaurants (many would be referred to as hole-in-the-walls) or in the homes of friends and colleagues.  Today, many of these dishes have been adopted and modernized on menus of celebrity chefs like Art Smith (Art & Soul, Table 52) and Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster, Ginny's Supper Club).

I thought I had a good idea of what soul food was - home-style, family cooking that had its roots in the southern USA and was influenced by the diet of West Africans who were sold into slavery.  But while listening to Miller and Hutchins, I realized that there was more to it.

I spoke with Tren'ness Woods-Black, granddaughter of the late Sylvia Woods, the "Queen of Soul Food" who opened Sylvia's Restaurant in New York's Harlem neighbourhood in 1962.

According to Woods-Black, the term "soul food" was popularized in the early 1960s during the heart of the civil rights movement around the same time that the terms "soul music", "soul brother" and "soul sister" were also regularly being used.  Soul food was a reference to the way African Americans had been cooking for generations with its roots in southern plantation cooking.  But, Woods-Black continued, we have to look back even further in history to understand the origins of the core ingredients and style of cooking.

Woods-Black relates what many food historians, including Miller, believe that the diet of West Africans (bitter greens, legumes, rice, yams, fish) are the building blocks of soul food.  When the enslaved West Africans were transported to the rural southern US states, they adapted their dishes and cooking techniques to the local ingredients that were available.

Collard and mustard greens, sweet potatoes, corn bread, fried chicken, smoked fish, black-eyed peas, rice dishes and chitterlings (and other pig parts) were ingredients indigenous to the rural south and formed the core of the dishes that ultimately would be known as the inspirations for soul food.

But as Miller explained on Nnamdi's show, soul food derives from nostalgia.  As African Americans migrated from the south and settled in various parts of the country, soul food represented a connection to home.  Woods-Black attributes the immediate success of Sylvia's to serving an existing demand as the majority of the Harlem community in the 1960s had originally migrated from the south.  The restaurant was an instant neighbourhood success.  But that shouldn't be a surprise.  Food is in so many cultures the focal point for bringing people together and extending hospitality.

Miller writes that soul food is a reinterpretation of the "festive foods" prepared by African Americans in the south.  A cultural cuisine based on the fusion of West African, European and Aboriginal American ingredients and techniques served on holidays and special occasions.  Following Emancipation and the migration of African Americans from the south to other part of the US and with the increased availability of southern ingredients to prepare the dishes, the foods traditionally consumed on Sundays and special occasions were, according to Miller, now being consumed several times per week.

These "festive" dishes often were richer, fattier, saltier and sweeter than the traditional everyday foods, thus, as Miller says, contributed to soul food's image of being unhealthy.  In his book, Miller lays the table with a meal he says is representative of the soul food diet.  Fried chicken, catfish, chitlins (pig intestines), black-eyed peas, mac 'n'cheese, greens, candied yams, corn bread, hot sauce, banana pudding, peach cobbler, pound cake and sweet potato pie.  The list is similar to the one conveyed by Woods-Black.

Both Miller and Hutchins expressed on Nnamdi's program that while some soul food dishes may be unhealthier than others (as is the case with any cuisine), fast food and processed foods are more to blame for the obesity and health issues in the African American community (and in society in general).  And, writes Miller, while many soul food restaurants have closed (due to a combination of economic, social, political and cultural reasons), there does appear to be an opportunity for the resurgence of soul food through both a return to its roots and its reinterpretation by mainstream chefs.

We often hear health professionals advocating for the consumption of legumes, dark leafy greens, fish, chicken, sweet potatoes and root vegetables as a means to control/prevent everything from obesity to diabetes to cancer.  These foods, according to Miller, Hutchins and Woods-Black, are all traditional building blocks of soul food.

As part of the research for his book, Miller spent a year eating at 150 soul food restaurants in 35 cities.  He encountered several that were taking a healthier approach - focussing on vegetarian, some vegan and eliminating processed ingredients and less healthy cooking techniques.  While this may sound like a modernization of the cuisine, Miller says that it is more of soul food moving back to its roots.

There also seems to be a surge in everyone from mainstream restaurants to celebrity chefs putting their spin on soul food dishes.  Chicken and waffles can be found everywhere from Art Smith's Table 52 in Chicago to casual restaurants in Edmonton.  Kale, mustard and collard greens seem to currently be the "in" ingredients.  Whether some restaurants actually know the roots of these dishes is another story.  Preserving soul food's historical significance while allowing for its modernization, as Hutchins stated on Nnamdi's program, is key for soul food to survive and thrive.

There is little question that soul food has its roots in the rural south.  Miller though clarifies another misperception that the dishes forming the foundation of the cuisine were strictly consumed by enslaved or impoverished African Americans.  The dishes, says Miller, were also consumed by white slavers (prepared by enslaved African Americans) and, after Emancipation, by impoverished white Americans.

In many ways, every culture has its version of soul food.  A cuisine that is represented by struggle, making the most of what you have, living from the land and family.  These cultures also seem to place food as the focal point of family gatherings and special occasions and have a great appreciation and respect for what they do have.

So then, what is soul food?  Miller quotes Chef Wayne Johnson of Seattle, who impresses, "Soul food is not a cuisine.  It's a product of who's cooking it and where it's coming from.  You should put love in your food.  Machines don't have soul.  You can't get it from something that's manufactured."

Perhaps therein lies the answer.  Maybe it's less important to define soul food as it is to understand and appreciate its context with respect to the people, places, culture and history from which it was born.  By respecting tradition, remembering history and evolving with the times soul food will always maintain its place as a significant part of American culture.