You can’t talk about black history without talking about food

Published 9:01 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Black History Month, Richard Wright lecture and a new restaurant. What do these things have in common? Naturally, my favorite subject — food.

But not just any food, deep South, no frills, honest from the heart food. Or, as the rest of the world thinks of it — soul food.

Soul food is thought of the world over as the no-frills, use the ingredients you’ve got on hand, cooking of Southern blacks. When the same foods were prepared by whites it was just southern food.

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Soul food, food for hard times, whatever you call it, it can make you remember someone who fed you with all the love in their heart. It can also make you proud to be Southern or, if you have trouble with your Southern roots, it can embarrass you.

I guess to some up North it sounds rather foolish to go out and deliberately pick a green tomato when its fat, red, juicy brother is hanging next to it. But to those naysayers I would say you have never tasted my grandmother’s green tomatoes, sliced thin, dipped in a milk and egg bath, lightly dusted with seasoned cornmeal. Then fried in boiling grease that will blister your skin when it pops out. Those people have never cut one with a fork and heard the shatter of the crisp coating and watched the steam come forth as only perfectly fried food will do.

I imagine those people would also not understand how much my cast iron skillet means to me. It is the one my grandmother seasoned and cooked cornbread and biscuits in before she gave it to me when I got married. Yes, I suppose to them that never once washed skillet would be considered used and slightly cheap on her part. That is because they have never had my cornbread or biscuits that slide perfectly out of that seasoned pan with a flip of the wrist just like she taught me.

When slavery existed in the South, it was the black slaves who cooked in the fine mansions and also in their shacks along the fields. They used the ingredients that they had on hand and a few such as okra they smuggled with them from Africa. It was about taking the least of the least and turning it into food that would sustain them in body and soul.

It was the chitlins (small intestines from a pig) that were overlooked by people who thought they were too good to eat such things. These were cleaned, boiled or fried, just as they are today. There were the dried beans and peas saved from miserly crops.

And contrary to what the world would have you believe, not all soul food is unhealthy. When food is perfectly fried in boiling hot grease very little gets in the food. It is when food is fried in crowded pots with less than ideal temperatures that you get greasy food. A bowl of turnip, mustard or collard greens cooked with only a little piece of smoked pork, salt and a little pepper vinegar is not only a delicious feast, but also healthy.

“When people ask me about soul food, I tell them that I have been cooking ‘soul’ for over 40 years only we did not call it that back home,” said Bob Jeffries, a culinary historian, in “The Soul Food Cookbook.” “We just called it real good cooking, Southern style. However, if you want to be real technical on the subject, while all soul food is Southern food, not all Southern food is soul. Soul food cooking is an example of how really good Southern Negro cooks cooked with what they had available to them, such as chickens from their own back yard and collard greens they grew themselves, as well as home cured ham, and baking powder biscuits and chitlins.”

Up in the far reaches of Mississippi is the University of Mississippi, and given its hard history with segregation you might find it odd that there at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture is the birthplace of the Southern Foodways Alliance. John T. Edge, the director, is firm believer in the preservation of soul food and the reasons it existed.

I was able to attend a meeting there in 1999 and it was there that I listened to a talk given by the woman whose life was dedicated to soul food, Edna Lewis.

Mrs. Lewis was the granddaughter of a former slave and she “was born in a small settlement called Freetown in 1916, one of eight children. The farm had been granted to her grandfather, a freed slave. Growing, gathering and preparing food was more than just sustenance for the family; it was a form of entertainment. Without fancy cooking equipment, the family improvised, measuring baking powder on coins and cooking everything over wood.” (This was from Lewis’s obituary in the New York Times)

I will never forget this 82-year old woman talking in the softest of voices about the importance of the food she had grown up with. As she talked of how to perfectly fry a chicken, make a salad from dandelions greens, a perfectly smooth gravy and greens of every kind, I felt a new sense of belief in the food I had encountered when I was growing up in the homes of my grandmothers.

When I approached people, black and white about this article I was surprised at the negative things that were said to me. They ranged from comments about too much grease to one who told me “never mind, no one cares how black people eat.” But there were good comments too.

“Soul food is made with plain food and seasoned up with love.” “That’s the cooking my mama did, in her little tiny kitchen without any of the gadgets I have now.” “Soul food is about being black, being hungry and find away to feed your family.”

The thing is here in the South the history of food is intertwined with blacks and whites. From slaves to poor whites honest food, simply prepared from the heart and necessity, is a gift to the body and soul.

Many of the foods I consider to be soul food and I cook from habit are like the ones from your family. I just make them, there is no written recipe. I don’t even think about it as I mix, chop and stir, they are a part of me as only things from our own history can be. But as I make them my grandmother’s words remind me to just barely mix my dumplings before I pat them out so they won’t be tough, buttermilk makes the best cornbread and tomato gravy is just as good for breakfast as it is for dinner.

Even as I put these recipes into print I know they will evoke comments, both good and bad. After all the greens aren’t how your me-maw made them and everybody knows perfect fried chicken isn’t made like that and who makes their cornbread like that. One comment that I got when I asked for a recipe was “you don’t use a recipe to make good soul food.” But these recipes are meant to be a jumping off place. A place for you to begin finding your own soul to be passed down in the food of your family generation after generation.

I bet if I measured out my cornbread as I make it you find that it comes pretty close to this recipe. I will admit that I like the look of yellow cornbread rather than white but I never, ever, cross-my-heart, put any sugar in mine.


1 1/2 cups white cornmeal (not mix)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 3/4 cups buttermilk or soured milk (yes, you can use plain but I swear the taste is just not the same)

2 eggs, lightly beaten

3 tablespoons shortening

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Mix the cornmeal, salt and baking powder together in a bowl. Stir in milk and beaten eggs together and then mix well into the dry ingredients. Cut the shortening into chunks and place in a 10-inch (seasoned) cast iron skillet. Place the skillet in your preheated oven and let it set there until the shortening has melted and gotten hot but not smoking. Take the skillet and swirl the melted shortening around to coat the sides and bottom. Pour the remaining shortening into your batter and stir well. Pour the batter into your heated skillet and put in the oven. Let it bake for about 40 minutes or until golden brown and crusty on top. Remove from the oven turn out onto a plate. Let set for about 10 minutes before slicing into wedges and buttering.

Edna Lewis

A recipe for turnip greens just seems silly to me, but I guess there are people out there that have never prepared them or some how missed their mama making them. One thing you have to remember is to rinse them at least twice. There’s nothing worse than greens with sand in them. Don’t panic about the unhealthy pork in here, it’s 4 or 5 slices divided among about 6 people. I have friends who add a little onion, one who adds garlic and another who swears by the chicken stock. I guess my greens are a little plain, except for the vinegar and salt I just don’t think they need much. Heck, I don’t even tear mine into pieces.

Turnip greens

4 or 5 slices of bacon, chopped

4 cups of water or chicken stock

4 pound of turnip or mustard greens, rinsed well, and the stems trimmed off

1 tablespoon of cider vinegar

Salt to taste

Put everything in a large stockpot. Bring it to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Cover the pot and let simmer until the greens are tender. Check your salt, the fresher the greens the less seasoning they need.

The most important thing to remember in frying chicken or anything else is that your grease must be really hot and don’t crowd the food or you will drop the temperature to much and your food will be greasy.

Fried Chicken and Cream Gravy

1 chicken, about 2 to 2 1 / 2 pounds, cut up

1 cup flour


Black pepper


Shortening or Oil for frying

(when I have the time I like to cut up my chicken, yes, I buy a whole one not the parts, cut it up, rinse it well and soak it in buttermilk over night)

Have a deep heavy skillet or Dutch oven with oil or hot fat about two to three inches deep. Be sure your skillet is deep, remember the oil will bubble up.

Combine flour, salt and pepper and place on plate. Dip each piece of chicken into the milk and then into the flour mixture. Shake excess flour off and set over on a plate for just a minute. Then put the largest pieces into your hot oil (if you want to use a thermometer to check it cook the chicken at about 370 degrees). Don’t turn until the underside is golden brown. Then turn over and cook the other side. You should only turn chicken once. And it will take about 30 to 35 minutes to cook the pieces.

Now you can make your gravy. My kids love brown gravy, I however love cream gravy and not many people make it anymore.

Cream Gravy

3 tablespoons drippings from frying chicken

3 tablespoons flour

2 1 / 2 cups milk

Salt and pepper

Pour all drippings from skillet into a small bowl; measure and return 3 tablespoons to the skillet and place over medium heat. Stir in flour until well blended, scraping up brown bits from bottom of skillet.

Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until bubbly. Gradually add milk and cook until thickened and creamy, stirring constantly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sometimes I use half and half or add a little cream to my milk. You can also swirl in a pat of butter at the end to enrich your gravy. Delicious served with hot biscuits.