Best known as "Bunk" from the TV series "The Wire," Wendell Pierce is now working to rebuild his old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park, one of New Orleans' first middle-class African American communities.
The words “soul food” may conjure up images of chitlins or catfish. But the concept of soul food is built on the complicated history of food and African American culture, traditions that can often be traced to the 19th century. Some scholars say that soul food, which is frequently associated with “greasy spoon” fare, is also misunderstood. We explore the cultural history of soul food and how it’s evolving in communities today.
- Missy Frederick Editor, Eater DC
- Imar Hutchins Owner, Florida Avenue Grill (Washington, D.C.)
- Adrian Miller Culinary historian; author, "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time" (University of North Carolina Press, 2013)
Johnetta’s Mixed Greens Recipe
This is my favorite thing to make in the soul food genre. I didn’t grow up eating collards. My mother usually made a combination of mustard and turnip greens. Turnip greens seemed to be the popular option for greens as I traveled through Tennessee. I love the peppery aroma that mustard greens give off while they’re cooking. I’ve lately been using smoked turkey parts to season my greens because they give good flavor with less fat. Yet, every once in a while, I go retro and put on a pot of greens with some ham hocks.
Makes 8 servings
2 smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey wings, or 1 leg (1 pound)
1 1/2 pounds turnip greens
1 1/2 pounds mustard greens
1 tablespoon granulated garlic or 2 minced garlic cloves
1 medium onion, chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
Rinse the hocks, wings, or leg, place them in a large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavorful, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the hocks, wings, or leg.
Meanwhile, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the hot stock, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged.
Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda, sugar, and salt.
Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot.
Catfish Curry Recipe
Fish curries were a popular Big House dish in the antebellum South. Both Martha Washington and Mrs. Randolph had recipes for this dish in their signature cookbooks. At some point, black cooks brought the dish into their kitchens. In 1939, Crosby Gaige’s New York World’s Fair Cookbook (from which this recipe is adapted) described catfish curry as “a favorite among the Negroes.”
Makes 4 servings
2 pounds catfish fillets
1 quart water
2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 4 cups)
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Boiled rice, for serving
Rinse the fillets under cold running water and cut them into 2- inch pieces. Place them in a medium saucepan and add the water, onions, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the fish is tender, but not breaking apart, about 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the fish to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep it warm. Boil the cooking liquid until it reduces to 1 cup, then keep it warm over low heat.
Combine the flour, curry, and butter in a small bowl. Mix with a fork or fingertips to form a smooth paste. Roll teaspoon- size bits of the paste into balls.
Return the cooking liquid to a simmer. While stirring slowly and continuously, drop the balls into the liquid one at a time, letting each one dissolve before adding the next. Cook until the sauce returns just to a boil and thickens to the consistency of gravy, about 5 minutes. Check the seasoning.
Pour the gravy over the fish and boiled rice, sprinkle some parsley on top, and serve hot.
From SOUL FOOD: THE SURPRISING STORY OF AN AMERICAN CUISINE, ONE PLATE AT A TIME by Adrian Miller. Copyright © 2013 by Adrian Miller. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on "Food Wednesday." Picture a plate of collard greens, fried chicken and mac and cheese next to piece of cornbread and a tall glass of red Kool Aid. Such an image may immediately call to mind the phrase "soul food," but the simple comforts of so many of these kinds of dishes are anything but simple.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAuthor and soul food scholar Adrian Miller scoured hundreds of cookbooks and traveled across the country to better understand food's place in the African American experience and the complicated history of race and poverty in the United States. But Miller also found that soul food is anything but a static concept and that there's a growing neo-soul movement popping up in restaurants around the country where vegetables healthier dishes are giving people a taste of home.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA movement that's already extending here to the capital. Joining us to have this "Food Wednesday" soul food conversation is Adrian Miller. He is a soul food scholar and author of the book, "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." He joins us from the studios of Colorado Public Radio in Denver. Adrian Miller, thank you for joining us.
MR. ADRIAN MILLERThank you for having me on your show.
NNAMDIJoining us in our Washington studio is Missy Frederick. She is the editor of Eater D.C. Missy, good to see you again.
MS. MISSY FREDERICKGood to see you.
NNAMDIAnd Imar Hutchins is the owner of the Florida Avenue Grill here in Washington, D.C. Imar, welcome to the show. Good to have you aboard.
MR. IMAR HUTCHINSThanks for having me on.
NNAMDIIf you're interested in joining this "Food Wednesday" pow-wow, call us at 800-433-8850. What comes to mind when you think of soul food? Has soul food played an important role in your life? Tell us your story. 800-433-8850. Adrian Miller, soul food seems to be something that's defined by individual experiences, family experiences. You grew up in Colorado, but your mother is from Tennessee, father from Arkansas. How do you define soul food and how is that informed by the kind of food that was around you when you were growing up?
MILLERWell, first of all, let me thank you for giving my family pedigree, because I lose a lot of street cred when people find out I'm from Denver, Colorado. In soul food circles. But, I think there's two ways to look at it. One is, I think, soul food is a traditional food of African Americans because African Americans have made contributions to the food of the Chesapeake Bay area, the low country, the Carolinas and Georgia and then the Creole cuisine of the lower Mississippi Valley.
MILLERBut then, I believe that soul food is best described as the food that African American migrants took with them when they left the rural south and settled in different parts of the country. So, it's more of a limited repertoire of southern food, more urbanized but highly seasoned.
NNAMDIAs you say, your book starts where southern cooking ends and soul food begins. As strong as these traditions may be, you also write that soul food remains, quoting here, "unknown to some, unfamiliar to many and underappreciated by most." Why do you feel that way?
MILLERWell, I think it's because of the horrible reputation that soul food has. One, because of the unhealthy reputation, and so I think as people are searching for healthier foods and other things, they just haven't really explored soul food. Because they think they know the sum and total of it. And then, I think the other thing going on is the idea that soul food is slave food, and then by celebrating these foods, you're somehow internalizing white superiority.
MILLERAnd I really go into my book about how that's really, kind of, part of the story, but not the whole story. Soul food draws on many sources and many sources of inspiration.
NNAMDIImar Hutchins, as we mentioned, you're the owner of the Florida Ave. Grill. Your restaurant likes to say it's the oldest soul food restaurant in the world. Why is that?
HUTCHINSWell, actually, it's because we hired a gentleman named Adrian Miller to research this subject for us. And it's actually the way that Adrian and I met, and he researched the longevity, comparing it to other restaurants across the country, and was able to make that determination for us. It certainly...
HUTCHINS1944. It's not the -- it wasn't the first, but it's the oldest surviving one. There probably was countless restaurants, even in here in D.C. in 1944, when it started, but due to a combination of luck and hard work, it's been able to survive.
NNAMDILacy Wilson Sr. I knew him. Lacy Wilson Jr. I knew him. He took it over from his father in 1970, and now you took it over. What does the concept of soul food mean to you, and what did you -- what did it mean to you when you were growing up?
HUTCHINSWell, that's a good question. I'm actually, I've been a vegetarian since I was five years old. And most people know me more for having vegetarian restaurants. I had five vegetarian restaurants, two here in Washington at one time. So, it's kind of ironic, twist of fate that I would come to own probably the polar opposite of a soul food -- of a vegetarian restaurant.
NNAMDIYou grew up in Kentucky, and you've been a vegetarian since you were five years old?
HUTCHINSNo, I grew up in Philadelphia.
HUTCHINSI grew up in Philadelphia, but my...
NNAMDIWhere did Kentucky come in?
HUTCHINSMy mother was from Kentucky.
HUTCHINSAnd so I do have southern roots, and one of the things that Adrian hits so well in his book, and really opened my eyes to, even, is the fact that soul food is, what we're calling soul food today, is probably the original fusion cuisine. I mean, it's, there's so much African cultural retention in what we eat. It's also a blend of Native American or indigenous people and the European food ways.
HUTCHINSSo, what soul food means to me -- I think his definition is accurate. I think that it is, it's more valued by the migrants, those of us who migrated north or west, and it reminds us of home, in one way or another. But, it is at a cross roads, which is kind of the thesis of his book, and I'm very happy that he is bringing a conversation forward about what the future of soul food will be.
NNAMDIMissy as an Adrian, and as a food writer, how do you typically define soul food? One thing that Adrian writes is that fried chicken belongs to all of us.
FREDERICKNo, I think that's certainly true. And I think one of the interesting things about finding soul food in D.C. is you can find it in a lot of different places. You might find it in somewhere that's, you know, very traditional, very no frills. I'm thinking like Oohh's and Aahh's Café on U Street. You might find it somewhere that still kind of sticks to traditional recipes, but tries to give a bit more of an upscale atmosphere. I'm thinking of Carolina Kitchen as an example of that.
FREDERICKAnd you might find it in more of a high end restaurant, you know? Somewhere like Georgia Brown's, where you can have a really classy, you know, 25 dollar brunch with champagne and, you know, sit down, have a piano player going. And you can find it in all these different settings.
NNAMDIWhen you survey the food ecosystem in D.C. right now, would you agree with Adrian's thesis that soul food is something that people still might misunderstand or underappreciate?
FREDERICKI think that that's true. I think that people are familiar with certain dishes. Obviously, everybody knows, you know, fried chicken, people know mac and cheese, but they might not be as familiar of some of the, like, where, how the cooking came to be, or more traditional approaches to it.
NNAMDIAdrian, you've said that soul food is something that's based on place, though, not necessarily race. What do you mean by that?
MILLERWell, when you look at the ingredients that seem to have commonality in soul food, they usually are from the deep interior south, so it's a broad swap of land from the western part of the Virginias and the Carolinas running through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. All the way over into east Texas. And so it was really the foods that were grown there that get taken to other parts of the country. So, there are some things you just don't find in soul food joints, a lot, outside of the south.
MILLERA great example is okra. Now, it's changing because you're seeing okra show up in a lot of places as a fried bar food, but, in terms of steamed okra and things, it seems to be something that's more popular within the south, particularly in the Mississippi Delta area and the Carolinas and Louisiana.
NNAMDIIt's a food...
MILLERSo I kind...
MILLERGo ahead. Oh, no. So, I was just trying to trace where things kind of develop, take root and then how they spread across the country, and a lot of it is simply a matter of where people ended up, and if they could get the foods by train or by car, without that food spoiling. So, collards is one of the iconic soul food dishes across the country because that was the one that easily shipped around the country without spoiling. Same with dried black eyed peas.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you have questions or comments about soul food on this "Food Wednesday." Give us a call. 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you consider soul food to be unhealthy? Do you think soul food contributes to the obesity epidemic in the United States, particularly in the African American community? If so, give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Adrian Miller. He's a soul food scholar and author of the book, "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." Imar Hutchins is the owner of the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, and Missy Frederick is the editor of Eater D.C. Adrian Miller, while researching for your book, you looked through slave narratives, old cookbooks, other archival matters, all focused on black cuisine. You wound up searching through over 500 different cookbooks, some dating back to the early 1800's. What, exactly, were you hoping to find?
MILLERWell, I was trying to find just some kind of culinary DNA, I guess, and just see what the continuity was between what folks were eating in the 18th and 18th centuries and what we eat now. And, hopefully, to find some documentation of that evolution or progression of the cuisine. It wasn't always documented as well as I would like, so I had to piece things together. And I often interviewed the elders just to see what their childhood memories were, just to kind of fill in the blanks. But, it was interesting to see that there is continuity.
NNAMDIYou also visited 150 soul food restaurants in 35 different cities. How did you go about creating that itinerary for yourself?
MILLERYeah, I call that my year of living dangerously, because a lot of friends were worried about me while I was doing all that rich food eating. So, what I would do is, I would just tap my friends, the network of my friends, and just ask them for recommendations where they lived. I would look at online reviews, like in Yelp. And then I reached out to food writers in certain places and just asked them for their recommendations, and then I pieced together the itinerary. Now, if you were my Facebook friend, you came along with me for the ride, because I would post pictures of every meal and let you know where I was and what I was eating.
MILLERBut, yeah, I found out a lot of interesting stuff. I can tell you real quickly, L.A. gets the prize for the weirdest soul food. They have soul food hamburgers, soul food hot dogs and other things. But, I think my favorite soul food spot was Cleveland, Mississippi. Just the food they were putting out there, and that's in the Mississippi Delta area, was really outstanding.
NNAMDIImar, do you ever go through old cookbooks like that for inspiration for your project?
HUTCHINSActually, I do. I collect a number of old cookbooks. I mean, what I, what my mother kind of did when I was growing up was to try to come up with vegetarian twists on soul food classics so that she could keep me fed. And, you know, I guess I'm trying to rediscover the DNA also.
NNAMDIWe're talking with you on the phone if you call 800-433-8850, as does Kingston in Annapolis, Maryland. Kingston, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KINGSTONYes. Good afternoon, Kojo.
KINGSTONI had a question for the visitor. I grew up in southern Maryland. There's a dish called potato pie. It's sweet. I've never heard of it outside of Maryland. I Google it for the recipe. Nothing comes up. I've made it a few times, just shooting from the hip. Does the author have any idea, is that part of the soul food thing, or, it's definitely a black thing. I've never seen it anywhere else.
NNAMDIPotato pie's sweet?
KINGSTONIt's potato pie. And it's sweet. It's just like...
NNAMDIOh, potato pie, it is sweet. Adrian Miller, potato pie?
MILLERYeah. So, no, I have seen potato pie in a lot of old soul food cookbooks, , at least African American cookbooks because these were before the term soul food was really coined and applied to food. But, yeah, I've seen that and I think the caller is talking about a pie using white potatoes. Because we all know that the orange sweet potato pie is pretty iconic. But, yeah, I see a lot of white potato recipes that are sweet. So I think it's part of the soul food repertoire.
NNAMDISo Kingston, you said you've tried it, kind of throwing it together on your own. Are you really looking for a recipe?
KINGSTONYeah, I Googled it and nothing came up. And so I kind of took a sweet potato recipe and just substitute it with white potato. And when I go to get-togethers the people seem to like it, but my grandparents -- my grandmother and my great aunt made...
NNAMDIWell, Imar, isn't that the stuff from which great chefs are made?
HUTCHINSExactly. I mean, so much of the what we're calling soul food tradition is really oral tradition as Adrian uncovers in his book. I mean, so much of it is the recollections of an old man or woman about what his or her grandmother used to do. And, you know, as he alluded to, we didn't -- weren't able to document so much of our history in writing. But at least it was able to carry on.
NNAMDIWell, you're clearly a part of that tradition, Kingston. Thank you very much for your call. We're taking a short break. When we come back if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call on this Food Wednesday. We're talking Soul Food. The number's 800-433-8850. What does your idea of soul food dish consist of? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking soul food today with Missy Frederick, editor of Eater DC, Imar Hutchins, owner of the Florida Avenue Grill here in Washington and Adrian Miller. He is author of the book "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. He joins us from studios at Colorado Public Radio in Denver. Imar Hutchins and Missy Frederick join us in our Washington studio. You join us by telephone if you'd like to join the conversation, that is, by calling 800-433-8850 or sending email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIAdrian, we talked with food historian Michael Twitty on this broadcast not too long ago and he spent a long time talking about how you can trace the food ways of so much of modern American cooking across the Atlantic Ocean back to Africa. Where do you see those African influences or, well, Caribbean influences on cuisine that we might find here in the Chesapeake region?
MILLERYeah, so it's stronger kind of in the earliest part of the slave period but the typical West African meal is some kind of starch with a savory soup, stew or sauce served either alongside or on top. And so you see a lot of signatures like fish eating, a lot of greens. Bitter green were eaten in West Africa, rice, root crops and other things. Where because of the temperate climate here you couldn't necessarily do an exact substitution of those things but you start to see them replicated.
MILLERSo instead of eating bitter leaf, which is grown in West Africa, over on this side of the Atlantic African Americans eat bitter greens, collards, mustard, turnips, cabbage and so forth. And there's some fish that translate over here. So like tilapia, catfish. There are species of those in West Africa and you can see how African Americans could see those fish over on this side of the Atlantic and make those substitutions.
MILLERAnd I think one of the big things is using meat -- and in the West African case it would be fish, smoked or salted or dried fish, to season a meal. And so you see that happen over here as well. And sometimes pork was used for that purpose.
NNAMDIWell, the question that I am -- the issue that I am most curious about, Adrian, a lot of people might look at red Kool-Aid and not think much of it. You say there's more to red drink than meets the eye. How so?
MILLERWell, I want to publically profess that I believe that red Kool-Aid is the official soul food drink. Now I notice a generational change going on. A lot of the young ones seem to like purple drink, but I'm for red Kool-Aid. So there are two ancestral red drinks that come across the Atlantic during the slave trade. A lot of people have probably had them and not even known it. So one is cola tea. There're red and white cola nuts in West Africa and a popular drink is to make a tea out of them.
MILLERAnd then another one is called bisop (sp?) which is a tea made from the hibiscus flower, which comes to Jamaica, is known as sorrel in the Caribbean as a Christmastime drink. But then it starts to spread around Latin America and South America and it gets known as Agua de Jamaica. So people probably had that in a Mexican restaurant or they've had red zinger tea or hibiscus tea. And so those two drinks have the same formula as red Kool-Aid, which is get some water, color it red, sweeten to taste.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Missy, you have noted on your site that more and more high-end chefs and restaurateurs are trying to spin off, well, less high-end projects. More and more people are starting places that offer things like chicken, waffles, donuts. What's behind this?
FREDERICKAbsolutely. Yeah, comfort food has been a trend, you know, in the food world now for going on five or six years in D.C. I think part of it had -- started with the recession. You know, people were looking for something that they could relate to at a cheap price. And then some of these foods have just, you know, sort of taken on a life of their own. You know, we had one fried chicken and donut place open up and all of a sudden there were five that were going to be coming.
FREDERICKAnd, you know, there're foods that people crave. There's foods that people relate to from childhood and there're foods that chefs can kind of put their own personal spin on as well.
NNAMDIHow much of this is about nostalgia? People talk about comfort food. How much of this is about triggering that part of our brain?
FREDERICKI think a lot of it is and I think that also can be challenging to chefs because people have a very specific idea in their head on what dishes should taste like. And if you're playing with that and playing with the food that people grew up with, they're going to want it to taste like their mom's. And so when it doesn't taste like that, even if it tastes great you're going to get some backlash for that.
NNAMDIWell, here's one I think, Imar, you might want to deal with. Here's Katrina in Washington, D.C. Katrina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATRINAI want to know how mac and cheese got to be considered a soul food. I grew up mostly in the South. I come from a long line of southerners. I don't remember any traditions of pasta making or cheese making or anything like that.
HUTCHINSWell, it's actually a very good question but Adrian addresses it rather extensively in his book. It's -- to his surprise and really mine as well, not everyone knows what mac and cheese is. And it's not as universal as I would've thought. And its roots actually do go back to what you might call slave food. It’s kind of a long story but it's not improper to place it within the soul food tradition. And maybe Adrian could speak more about that.
MILLERYeah, what I'll add is, so mac and cheese goes back several centuries actually. And it was royalty food for a long period of time. So it was high-end and it comes into soul food because it gets to the antebellum south in the big house kitchens. And often it was enslaved African Americans doing that cooking. And so that's where they gained the expertise for that dish and started incorporating it into the soul food tradition as a special occasion food. So it was something on the weekends or on holidays. And then overtime as the price falls, it starts to become more of an everyday dish as well. So it's really the big house cooks that bring it into the cuisine.
NNAMDIKatrina, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Douglas. Douglas is in Hyattsville, Md. Douglas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGLAS (CALLER0Thanks for having me today. I just wanted to give a shout out for some really healthy soul food out there. There's a place in Mount Rainier called Sweet and Natural. And, man, they have -- if you want to talk about mac and cheese, it's the best mac and cheese I've ever had, greens. And it's all vegetarian so (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIImar Hutchins begs to differ, but go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead, Douglas.
(CALLER0Okay. Well, yeah, that's all I just had to say. I just got to -- that place is just amazing. I'm going there for lunch, so thanks for having me.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because, Imar, these ideas about what soul food is are not cemented. They're not indelible. You're a vegetarian, as you mentioned earlier. How are you trying to incorporate that kind of taste into what people expect from a restaurant like the Florida Avenue Grill?
HUTCHINSWell, that's a good question. I mean, what we are really trying to do is to evolve the menu and to start a conversation really. And that's why we are inviting Adrian tomorrow. We're calling it...
NNAMDIGoing to be there at 6:30 tomorrow, right?
HUTCHINS6:30 tomorrow. We're -- we've started a series called the soul food thought leaders series. And the idea is to really start to have a conversation that I don't really see happening too much, which is about what is the understanding that we need to have of the past in order to understand the present and really direct a way forward for the future.
HUTCHINSSo some things, for example, we did 70 years ago that we don't want to do anymore because we know better now, right. But some things we want to maintain. We want to -- we don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So what we're trying to do is to -- it's kind of a balancing act which is to preserve that historical relevance and institution. But also to modernize and to lead the way forward.
NNAMDIMiss Frederick, that's something that's also happening in the so-called neo-soul restaurants, right?
FREDERICKAbsolutely. I mean, it's something that's not really unique to soul food. I mean, another example that I can think of is sort of diner culture. When you first think about, you know -- and Florida Avenue Grill sort of is -- you know, walks that line but you think about, you know, diner food. You think hash browns, you think greasy fare, you know. And then you look at a place like Silver Diner which is, you know, one of the first diners in the D.C. area, they've completely overhauled their menu, you know, over the past couple of years to emphasize healthy and local ingredients.
FREDERICKAnd how do you sort of market that as a positive change without alienating the people that, you know, really came to the dinner for that grease fix in the first place?
NNAMDIAdrian, you say that a resurgence of vegetables can help to bring soul food back home. What do you mean by that?
MILLERWell, when I started looking at what the enslaved were actually eating, I mean, it was close to vegetarian and vegan cuisines. It was eating vegetables in season. It was not -- there were not a lot of processed ingredients because in that caste system processed ingredients were reserved for upper class whites. So they were using whole wheat flour. So things like white sugar, white flour, again, was something that happened on the weekends or happened on special occasions.
MILLERMeat was used very sparingly. And so I just think that the resurgence of kind of vegetarian and vegan cuisine is not a departure from traditional soul food. It's really a homecoming because that's closer to what people were actually eating.
NNAMDILet's hear from Tac -- oh, you wanted to say, Imar?
HUTCHINSI was just going to say something that Adrian and I have talked about before is -- and that he really hits in the book -- is that it's kind of a misconception that soul food is killing black people. You know, that's what you hear all the time but the reality is that I would say fast food may be killing black people. If you ask a kid on the street when's the last time they had what we're calling soul food, it may be a year ago at a family reunion or something.
HUTCHINSWhat we eat every day is processed food. They're not eating food that's cooked over a stove by a human being that's recognizable and traceable to where it came -- how it grew where it was raised in nature. They're eating something that's overly processed and almost not even a derivative from anything in nature.
NNAMDIA very important distinction to make, right, Adrian Miller?
MILLERAbsolutely. Couldn't have said it better.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Katherine who said, "I grew up in Memphis, Tenn. My fondest memories are of cornbread, barbecue, coleslaw, collard greens, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, etcetera. I had a more difficult time with okra. Now I'm vegetarian and trying to recreate these recipes. Any suggestions?" Imar?
HUTCHINSWell, there's a lot of wealth of kind of people experimenting with ways to recast what we consider soul food in a healthier or in a vegetarian way. I mean, the point that Adrian made before is worth repeating, which is what we're calling soul food today is not what we historically ate as white people as -- or what we call slave food. It's -- as he talks about in the book, it's the Sunday food. Like every ethnicity, as he elucidates, the Sunday best food is what becomes the cherished food. And that's what becomes main streamed.
HUTCHINSSo it's just a reality that we didn't have a lot of meat because meat was not plentiful and wasn't -- if it was it wasn't given to slaves to eat. What we had was the legumes, the potatoes, the root vegetables, the -- I mean, all the things that are 90 percent of what the menu was. So...
NNAMDIAdrian, any advice for your emailer Katherine trying to recreate these recipes as a vegetarian?
MILLERYeah, before I give the advice I just want to add on to that. If you listen to what nutritionists are telling us are the things that we need to eat, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, more fish, more chicken, all those -- those are all the building blocks of soul food. But in terms of advice, there's some great cookbooks out now. Imar's cookbook is a priceless treasure so you can't get that one. But I would encourage her to check out Bryant...
MILLERI know. Some of these things.
HUTCHINSNot here to (unintelligible) myself.
MILLERI would encourage her to check out Chef Bryant Terry's "Vegan Soul Kitchen," which I think she'll get some inspiration from that. And then if she can go online and just look up soul vegetarian, I think she'll find some use -- cookbooks that are very good. So there's some out there.
NNAMDIOn now to Tac (sp?) in Landover, Md. Tac, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TACHi, good afternoon. Love the show.
TACActually I have two questions. I'm from Louisiana and I remember my neighbor used to grow a squash. They called it mirliton and it was cooked. I was wondering if any of your guests have ever heard of it or know another name for it. And also I wanted to know if your author could explain the difference between Creole food and Cajun food. Thank you. I'll take the answer off the air.
NNAMDIMirliton and Creole and Cajun, Adrian Miller.
MILLERYeah, so I have heard of mirliton. I have not heard it called by another name. And I really associate it only with Creole cooking. I just have not seen it in any other part of the country. So -- but it's good stuff so thanks for bringing that question. And then the difference between Cajun and Creole, just to oversimplify, Cajun is really the rustic cooking of Louisiana and Creole is the sophisticated urban version of that cooking.
MILLERSo a great example is gumbo. So in a Cajun gumbo you're probably going to get duck, some kind of game as well as sausage. And they do eru and okra to thicken it up. But then the Creole version what you might get in New Orleans may be a chicken and andouille sausage or a seafood gumbo. And I think the Creole flavor profile is much more subtle, again showing more of an urbanized kind of approach to things.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you'd like to make a comment or ask a question about soul food on this Food Wednesday. We're talking with Missy Frederick, the editor of Eater DC. Imar Hutchins is the owner of the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington. And Adrian Miller is a soul food scholar. He is author of the book "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Here now Francis in Silver Spring, Md. Francis, your turn.
FRANCISHi. Thank you for the opportunity to talk. I actually am from Pennsylvania but my dad was from Charleston, S.C. in Johns Island area where they had the Gullah or Geechee people.
FRANCISAnd we used to -- and I know how now to make okra soup with shrimp and sometimes we eat okra and tomatoes and corn and it's very good. And it's very similar to the African stew of course. And also in that area they had a lot of barbecue pigs. I know people don't want to hear that, you vegetarians there, but the Gullah people, Geechee people who were in South Carolina. And I wish that they had some of that. And we've lost so many soul food restaurants in this town but it's an art to learn how to cook that food.
FRANCISAnd there's a way of making the okra where it's not slimy. You just cut it up and fry it in butter and then you put it in a stew and it's not slimy at all.
NNAMDII like slimy.
MILLEROh. Thanks for the tip.
HUTCHINSI would just piggyback on that thought to say that cooking this way is really almost a lost art at this point. Young people are not really cooking. People are not really cooking like they used to. And we are actually -- something that we had to really endeavor to do a couple years ago to make sure that there were some young people that learned from the elders before they passed away, how to make the kind of things that you're talking about there because it's not something that's in the mainstream.
NNAMDIMissy, let's return to the idea of nostalgia for a second, because some of the homage to certain kinds of history in the District have rubbed raw nerves. Some of the upscale restaurants that gives nods to black history and gentrifying neighborhoods for example, have been accused of swagger jacking. Can you explain?
FREDERICKThat's true, yeah. Basically, sort of the concept behind that is, you know, these places that, you know, they'll take a piece of, you know, of black history, but then they'll turn it into this sort of, you know, upscale place that's going to appeal to the people that gentrified the community, and people sort of feel like they're cashing in on the black history rather than honoring it. You've seen people criticize everywhere from Eatonville, which is a place on U Street, to some of the bars on U Street called Brixton, you know.
FREDERICKAnd even like people that approach certain dishes that have like sort of a historic DC background like mumbo sauce or half smokes. You'll see chefs trying to put an upscale spin on that and people will kind of give the same negative knee-jerk uncomfortable reaction to that.
NNAMDITo what extent are people also irked by the problem of Washington more broadly, lacking affordable quality restaurants and having too many restaurants serving comfort food at very high prices?
FREDERICKI think that's absolutely the case. I mean, if you're going to open up a restaurant in one of these, you know, high end, you know, neighborhoods, you're going to pay very expensive rent, and that means the cuisine is going to probably be priced accordingly. But people, you know, they might be willing to spend $30 a plate for, you know, something like veal, but if they're paying for something they feel like can cook at home like macaroni and cheese or fried chicken, there can be more of a backlash.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break...
MILLERCan I just add...
NNAMDIPlease, go ahead, Adrian.
MILLEROh, I was just going to add, that's one of the things that cracks me up. Some many of these foods were denigrated, you know, pigs' feet, ox tails, and now they're showing up on white tablecloth restaurants and people are paying $20 for it.
FREDERICKThat's absolutely the case. Have you ever bought a short rib now in the grocery store for a cheap price? That used to be like the bargain meat, and now because short ribs have, you know, resurged so much, it's, you know, it's $40 for the chef's take on short ribs, you know, at a restaurant.
NNAMDIIf you have called stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you think of neo soul restaurants as embracing black culture in a healthy way, or do they exploit the culture for money-making reasons? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday. We're talking soul food with Adrian Miller, author of the book "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time." Missy Frederick is the editor of Eater DC and Imar Hutchins is the owner of the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington DC where Adrian Miller will be featured, among others, tomorrow evening. You can find a link at our website, kojoshow.org, to the Florida Avenue Grill. And I'd like Imar Hutchins to provide an email address for other people who might be trying to reach him.
HUTCHINSYes. It's very important that you have a ticket for the event tomorrow, and if it's sold out, when you go -- go to floridaavenuegrill.com to buy a ticket. If it's sold out and you'd like to come, you can email me. We may add a second seating at 8:30 if there's enough demand. My email address is email@example.com.
NNAMDIAnd the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation is 800-433-8850. Adrian, in your trek across the country, you noticed that soul food's creative energy burns brightest in the restaurants that are targeting an upscale vegetarian or vegan clientele, but where does the future of soul food stand for lower income Americans who are not necessarily attracted to these types of restaurants, or cannot afford this type of neo soul cuisine?
MILLERYeah. Well the interesting news I found is that in a lot of those traditional soul food places, they are making the transition to vegetarian and vegan, particularly with the sides. So young people can still go the places that they're interested in or they're used to going to with their family, and discover that these foods can be good and can be made inexpensively. So I think a lot of it is just getting the word out about it.
MILLERJust to plug into something you said earlier, one of the interesting trends I see is that I find a lot of people are very interested in watching cooking on television, but not necessarily doing it at home. But I think that may be changing with the rise of celebrity chef culture. I think more young people are starting to get interested in cooking. So I think there's tremendous opportunities to get them plugged in, and I'm glad that people like Imar are doing things consciously to bring young people back to connecting with the food that they eat.
NNAMDIAnd before I go back to the phones, Adrian, some of the nostalgia invoked by soul food evokes complicated emotions. You write a fair amount about the civil rights movements and you describe soul food as something that became, quoting you, "edible black power." What do you mean by that?
MILLERYeah. So the interesting trick in the sixties was to take this shared cuisine, because what I found is that for the most part, blacks and whites of the same socioeconomic class were eating the same foods. And so the idea was to take this shared cuisine and then make it something identifiably black, and I recall in the book that there was a time in 1966 when there was this manifesto published in the New York Times essentially saying, okay, white people. You don't know what soul food is, and you can't even understand it, and you can't cook it.
MILLERAnd that was news to white southerners who were eating these foods for centuries and making these foods. But I think that's the divergence where you see soul become black and southern become white, and we see it -- the legacy of that today. If you were to think about who is a celebrity chef identified with southern cooking, I don't think an African-American is going to come to mind.
NNAMDIHere -- who would come to mind?
MILLERSo in terms of southern cooking, I mean, it's Paula Dean. It's going to be Trisha Yearwood, the Dean Brothers, the Lee Brothers. You know, there are a lot of people, good folks, but they're the ones that kind of get played up in media circles for soul food. To the extent that...
NNAMDIWhich sometimes leads to lawsuits, but that's another story.
MILLERRight. Right. Yeah. Exactly. But in terms of actual soul food, I mean, the big time African-American personalities on the Food Network for example, cook a variety of things, not necessarily soul. Like for instance, the Neelys and Sonny Anderson, and then even G. Garvin, I think they equated with a broader cuisine and not necessarily soul.
MILLERSo I think it's time...
MILLER…time for a soul food celebrity. I think we need a soul food celebrity out there, chef.
NNAMDIWe might be talking to one. Here...
MILLERThere you go.
NNAMDIHere is Patricia in Silver Spring, Md. Patricia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICIAHi Kojo. I've enjoyed your program for almost 20 years, and hello to your guests. I normally do not take the time to call in on the program, but when I heard you all talking about the white potato pie, I thought that was an oddity of my dad who was from (unintelligible) in South Carolina I have never heard anyone talk about white potato pie. And when I have mentioned it, you know, people, you know, they had never heard about it, you know, making pie out of white potatoes.
PATRICIAAnd I must admit, when my father first presented to us, we were skeptical -- skeptical, rather. But when we tasted it we begged him to just continue to make it because it was so good. And can I also say another soul food that I haven't heard mentioned it hot yeast rolls.
NNAMDIHot yeast rolls?
PATRICIAYes. Hot yeast rolls. That was my mom's specialty.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that Adrian Miller? Did you discover that along the way?
MILLERI did, but just for the purposes of my book, in the representative soul food meal that I created, I focused on cornbreads, because I thought were just kind of more emblematic of the cuisine. So I talked about hot water cornbread, skillet cornbread and things like that. But yeah, yeast rolls are definitely part of it. And that's the controversial thing. When I put my meal together, a lot of people gave me a hard time for what I left off the plate, but had to make some tough choices. I got yelled at for not including neck bones.
NNAMDIPatricia, so you see that this was not unique to your father.
PATRICIAYes. This is the first time I've ever heard it, and I'm dating myself, but that's 55 years ago.
NNAMDIWell, now, your dad had a lot of company it would appear, Patricia. Thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Sarah in Chantilly, Va. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAHOh, hi. This is Sarah. I spent a fair amount of time in Haiti, and they cook Mirliton. It is the same vegetable that in the United States is sold as Kale.
SARAHThe steam it very slightly, and then sauté it in butter, and it's absolutely delish.
NNAMDISee, one of the things I like about our listeners, you put up a question, you'll find a listener in this audience who can answer that question. Sarah, thank you very much for sharing that with us.
SARAHMy pleasure. Thank you for doing everything you do.
NNAMDIWe move onto Krista in Silver Spring, Md. Krista, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KRISTAHello. Love this show. Thank you so much for this show. I'm a health and wellness coach, and I was doing some research recently about soul food to write a book because I focus on the black community and our problem with obesity and diabetes and stuff. So I was really impressed with the discussion around the origins of soul food, and the fact that the greens and all the healthy food and the non-processed food that comes from our slave history is there. And I had a hard time finding a lot of information on that when I was doing my research.
KRISTAAnd also, you know, as you look further into history, you know, you find that all those good foods were co-opted into fast food restaurants and as they're saying, people are eating at fast food restaurants, people are eating processed food and not cooking, and that's really what's causing our obesity epidemic. I also lived in West Africa and got to experience the great colorful food that was there as well. But I wanted to ask, how can we get the word out about the real origins of soul food and the fact that there's a lot of healthy food that was involved, and the fact that it was not processed food. And these secondly, I just wanted to say that vegetarian is not always healthy food.
NNAMDIIt also depends on...
MILLERSo is it too crass to say...
NNAMDIAdrian Miller is saying I'm trying to get -- I'm trying as hard as I can to get the world out here. Have you heard of the book "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine One Plate at a Time"? That's my contribution to this effort.
MILLERThank you. I was going to ask if it would be too crass for me to say the same thing, so I'm glad you did.
NNAMDIYeah. I decided to say it for you. But Krista, thank you very much for your call. Adrian, how would you describe the relationship of soul food to something like barbecue, which through much of the south is something that belongs to everyone of every culture, of every color, but is also something that takes on very different shapes, forms, depending on whether you're in pigcentric North Carolina or brisket-crazy Texas.
MILLERYeah. So I did wrestle with whether or not to write about barbecue in my book, but it's grown into such its own thing, that I decided that's for a future effort. But a lot of soul food joints will have barbecue on the menu. So it's definitely complimenting the cuisine. But, you know, barbecue is something of Native American origin that enslaved African-Americans were pressed into making by slave owners, so that's where the black kind of association with barbecue begins and grows, to the point where for the latter 1800s, well into the 20th century, African-American pit master were dominant on the scene.
MILLERBut must like southern cooking today, you just don't hear much reference to African-Americans with barbecue, and I think that's a shame given the contributions to the cuisine.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Migali (sp?) 'in Burke, Va., who writes "One of my favorite cookbooks is Joyce White's 'Brown Sugar: Soul Food Desserts From Family and Friends.' Could the guests please comments on soul food sweets and desserts?" Start with you, Adrian.
MILLEROkay. So in my book I tried to pick one food item per chapter, but I just couldn't do that with desserts. Because when you go to an outing, you usually have a tray of desserts that you bring back. Yeah. The four that I settled on were banana pudding, pound cake, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler. Now, a lot of people say well, where's the pecan pie? And my comeback on that is, outside the south, you just don't see pecan pie as much in soul food joints as you do inside the south.
MILLERAnd I was trying to thread the needle and get a representative cuisine for the entire country. But those are the four that I think are critical. And then, you know, you've got red velvet cake and coconut cake, I think, as runner up.
NNAMDIIt's got to be sweet potato pie for me. I don't know about you Imar.
HUTCHINSWell, I love it all. And I saw Adrian struggling to try to eliminate things. He said, when you're a kid, what do you do? You take a little bit of everything on the plate when it's time for dessert.
NNAMDIHow about you, Missy?
FREDERICKI'm probably partial to the red velvet myself, but a good sweet potato pie is definitely worth seeking out and kind of hard to find.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. Here is Kate in La Plata, Md. Kate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATEHi everyone. I'm so glad you to my call. I have one question about -- I go to a lot of barbecue places.
KATEAnd I've noticed that some of them will have macaroni and cheese and beans, and the other ones will have coleslaw or potato salad, and there's not a mix between them. And then another quickie is they could describe Maryland soul food, because I swear there is such a thing but my friends disagree with me.
NNAMDIWhat has your research told you about this, Adrian Miller? Maryland soul food?
MILLERSo, I think this goes back to your question about place rather than race. And so one of the variations that I see in the Maryland area is that soul food tends to be more seafood rich, but whiting seems to be the fish of choice in that area, more so than I would say catfish. And I saw a lot more kale in Maryland than I see collards and other greens in other places. So those were kind of the big differences. A lot of traditional Maryland soul food has kind of gone by the wayside.
MILLERThere were some gourmet dishes like Terrapin which was a turtle dish that was big time a hundred years ago, and you just don't really hear it as much. And then you don't hear a lot of people making beaten biscuits anymore. So I think there was an identifiable Maryland soul food, but it just hasn't -- the tradition hasn't been kept up. In terms of the barbecue, I think that's just a reflection of whether the proprietor has southern roots or not. Because the coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad are pretty standard across the country, but somebody from the south is going to throw in greens and mac and cheese with the barbecue.
FREDERICKAnd one of the interesting things about barbecue in DC is the fact that places are opening up that are not just barbecue places, but are specific region barbecue. Like for example, Hill Country, that's Texas barbecue. That's not just, you know, generic barbecue. So that's sort of been a trend as well.
NNAMDIAnd I think we have time for one more very quick call. Glenn in Reston, Va. Glenn, you have about 20 seconds. Go ahead, please.
GLENNYeah. One on the earlier callers had asked about Mirliton.
GLENNAnd they're called (word?) also, and you can find them sometime around here as (word?)
NNAMDIAnd you know this, Glenn, because you're from New Orleans, right?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Glenn. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Adrian Miller is the author of the book "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time." Adrian Miller, thank you for joining us.
MILLERThank you. Really enjoyed it.
NNAMDIImar Hutchins is the owner of the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington DC. Imar, thank you for joining us.
HUTCHINSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Missy Frederick is the editor of Eater DC. Missy, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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