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Capturing the soul of African-American foodscape

Pork chops smothered with thick gravy, greens seasoned with ham hocks or smoked turkey, sizzling fried chicken, cornbread, sweet potato pie scented with nutmeg and cinnamon are as much a part of the African-American foodscape as low and slow cooking, tradition and warmth of family.

When the enslaved West Africans arrived in the United States, so did foods such as okra and black-eyed peas; cooking techniques such as smoking, salting and roasting; and combinations such as stews with starch and grilled meats with vegetable sauce.

Slaves ate catfish “because the gentry won’t eat them. They were considered trash fish as they lived in ditches and had a muddy taste,” says author and food historian Jessica B. Harris, “and chicken was part of their diet because it was ubiquitous and easy to raise.”

African-American cuisine has gone through several names — slave food, Negro food, Southern country cooking and down-home cooking among others — over the centuries. But of all the names, soul food and Southern food are the ones most commonly used.

Black History Month offers a chance to examine this style of cooking and how it is changing.

“Southern cuisine is the mother cuisine of the Southern states,” says Adrian Miller, a culinary historian and soul food scholar. “And soul food is derived from Southern cuisine but has its own culinary signature.”

To understand soul food, he says, one has to understand its layers: It’s different from other African-American-inspired regional cuisines such as creole (red beans and rice, gumbo, grits, grillards), low-country (shrimp and grits, rice-based perloo, okra dishes) and Chesapeake Bay-area (steamed blue crabs, hominy, Maryland fried chicken); it’s the food of the Deep South Black Belt that stretches from the western Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama to Mississippi and the eastern part of Louisiana; and it’s the food of the migrants who went to other parts of the country and appropriated it to what was available in those regions.

Mr. Miller says in the South, the line between Southern and soul foods are blurred but the distinctions become clearer when one steps out North. However, he adds, “in the South, soul food features a variety of meats like chitlins (innards of the pig), oxtails and pigs’ feet, which Southern doesn’t. And soul food has more seasonings.”

Black Southern food bursts with flavor because of the emphasis on seasoning, says Dora Charles, who had worked with celebrity chef Paula Deen for 22 years and then quit after she felt that she was treated unfairly. Ms. Charles’ grandmother taught her to season chicken the night before it was fried and to enliven the flavor in cornbread, rice, beans and greens by adding fry-meat grease from bacon, chicken or pork chops.

In her cookbook, “A Real Southern Cook,” Ms. Charles uses her Savannah seasoning, made with Lawry’s seasoned salt, salt, powdered or granulated garlic and black pepper, for egg, meat and vegetable recipes.

Ms. Charles says she also was taught to eyeball measurements, adjust heat by listening to popping sounds and waste nothing. “Country people in the South cooked with what little they had, and had to made it work. So they used neck bones, tails, ears and feet,” she says.

Contrary to the current belief and practice that soul food is fatty and meat heavy, it was down-home healthy way back when, Mr. Miller says. Greens were central to the cuisine and so were other seasonal vegetables as meat was a luxury. “Slaves also did not have access to white flour and white sugar and instead used molasses and whole wheat,” he says.

And that’s something 87-year-old Mildred Council, better known as Mama Dip, can attest to having grown up on a farm in North Carolina. “We ate what we grew and raised on the farm,” she says. “We cooked our fresh vegetables with the skin on, and collards with the bones from the ham to keep the flavor.”

The cookbook author and owner of the famed Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill, N.C., was raised by her “amazing and patient” father after her mother died when she was 2, and she started cooking for the family when she was 9. Fried chicken was made only on Sundays and her family didn’t do a lot of other meats because they could not afford it.

“I would first soak the chicken in salted water so that the salt gets to the bones. Then I would use self-rising flour to give the meat a good crust, use salt and good black pepper, and fry it in lard,” Mrs. Council recounts.

Mrs. Council calls her style of cooking collard greens, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cornbread as Southern country and features them in her eponymous restaurant where she now helps to peel potatoes, put flour in the machine and clean chitlins.

With each passing generation, African-American foods have taken on new accents. Nicole Taylor, 37, who was raised in Athens, Ga., and moved to New York City in her early 20s, has written a cookbook that embraces Dixie in a Brooklyn kitchen. “I wanted to tell a story about my family and its past. I also wanted to show how other cuisines have slowly weaved into the lives of Southerners,” she says.

In “The Up South Cookbook,” she shares recipes for the classic grits, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread and also for zaatar crowder peas, collard greens with soy sauce and sesame seeds and smoked trout deviled eggs, showcasing that her book “is a bridge to the past and a door to the future.”

Pittsburghers Annette Betts, Lillian Cannon and Carleen King say soul food also is about the emotion that goes into prepping the food, time spent with family and tradition.

“It is food that is cooked with heart, soul, love, laughter and involves conversation,” says Mrs. Betts, a retired chef who had a catering business in Sheraden. She says while her ancestors ate pigs’ feet and ears, she doesn’t. “Back then you starved or you ate them. It was survival not a disgrace. Now, I’m eating high on the hog.” On New Year’s Day, in keeping with tradition to eat pork, she makes a roast for her family.

Ms. Cannon, a stand-up comic from Broadhead Manor who goes with the stage name I Ain’t Skinny, says she basically lived in the kitchen and watched her mother cook. “Soul food is atmosphere, something that is comforting,” she says.

Soul food conjures up memories of being with family from cooking a meal to sitting down and enjoying it for Mrs. King, who co-owns Carmi Soul Food Restaurant with her husband Mike in Allegheny West. She started out in the kitchen when she was 4 by helping her grandmother peel boiled yams with a butter knife.

Much as she believes that soul food reminds her of a tradition of where a recipe came from and who taught it to her, she also is open to innovations and adapting with times.

When she was first introduced to shrimp and grits, she had never heard of it before. “It was very delicious but I thought it would be even better if only it had ...,” she says. So she improvised on it, and used stone-ground grits with peppers, onions, cheddar cheese and blackened seasonings. It is now a hit with Carmi’s customers.

Another favorite is the smothered pork chops, a tweaked version of her grandmother’s recipe. While her grandmother simmered the meat in a pot of brown onion gravy for 40 minutes until the meat fell off the bones, Mrs. King follows a quicker approach. “We don’t simmer the pork chops in gravy. Instead we still served the chops with onion but cover it with gravy,” she says. “My grandmother’s method won’t work commercially.”

Growing up, Mrs. King always had greens seasoned with pork. “But these days with people moving away from pork, we use smoked turkey in our collards to stay with our customers’ needs,” she says. The restaurant also serves turkey ribs in addition to pork ribs.

High-end restaurants are adding $24 fried chicken, chicken and waffle, Nashville hot chicken, pigs’ feet and oxtail soup to their menus these days, Mr. Miller says, but that does not mean that African-American cooking is in the middle of a belle epoque. He thinks it is more in a post-modern age now. “There’s no longer one type of soul food, and it’s splintered into several sub-cuisines — traditional, healthy, upscale and vegan,” he says.

He hopes more black chefs will embrace soul food rather than distance themselves from it.

“It needs to be part of their repertoire,” he says. “How many French chefs say that they don’t want to associate with rustic French cooking?” 

Arthi Subramaniam: asubramaniam@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @asub.