Pork chops smothered with thick gravy, greens seasoned with ham hocks or smoked turkey, sizzling fried chicken, cornbread, and 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.”
Soul food is different from other African-American-inspired regional cuisines such as Creole, low-country and Chesapeake Bay-area.
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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.
“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.
Miller says that in the South, the line between Southern and soul foods is blurred, but the distinctions become clearer when one steps out North. However, he adds, “in the South, soul food features a variety of meats — chitlins (innards of the pig), oxtails and pigs’ feet — which Southern doesn’t. And soul food has more seasonings.”
Country people in the South cooked with what little they had, and had to make it work. So they used neck bones, tails, ears and feet.
Black Southern food bursts with flavor because of the emphasis on seasoning, says Dora Charles, who worked with celebrity chef Paula Deen for 22 years. 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, 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.
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 make 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, 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.
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.
High-end restaurants are adding $24 fried chicken, chicken and waffles, Nashville hot chicken, pigs’ feet, and oxtail soup to their menus these days.
In The Up South Cookbook, she shares recipes for classic grits, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread, 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.”
High-end restaurants are adding $24 fried chicken, chicken and waffles, Nashville hot chicken, pigs’ feet, and oxtail soup to their menus these days, 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?”
A public cooking demonstration will take place at the African American Health Expo. Participants will learn how to incorporate nutritious ingredients and learn the benefits of eating a more plant-based diet.
- 11:30 a.m.- Saturday
- TCC South Campus, 5301 Campus Drive, Fort Worth
- 817-321-5382; http://aahexpo.org
Sweet potato pie
This pie recipe from Niara Sudarkasa, the first woman to serve as president of Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., is delicious, aromatic and perfect in every which way. Why should one go for a sweet potato pie loaded with fat and sugar when 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter and 3/4 cup of brown and white sugars can do such wonders?
Makes 8 servings
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes
- 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 (9-inch) unbaked pastry shell
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Mix eggs, sweet potatoes, sugars, butter and spices and seasonings in large bowl. Gradually beat in milk; mix thoroughly. Stir in flour until well blended. Pour into pastry shell and bake 20 minutes.
3. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until set and knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 294 calories, 13 grams fat, 39 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 71 milligrams cholesterol, 372 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 39 percent of calories from fat.
Niara Sudarkasa in “Celebrating Our Mothers’ Kitchens,” by The National Council of Negro Women (Wimmer Companies)
Mark Twain said: “No bread in the world is quite as good as Southern cornbread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.” It would be a sin to buy cornbread mix when you can make a memorable one like this one from scratch. For a well-browned and crisp exterior, it is best to bake it in a cast-iron skillet.
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 3/4 cups fine cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/3 cup pork crackling pieces (optional)
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Add butter to an 8-inch cast-iron skillet and place in oven for about 10 minutes.
3. Combine cornmeal, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk together well. Stir in buttermilk and eggs.
4. Remove pan from oven. Carefully pour hot butter into cornmeal mixture. Whisk together well. If using cracklings, stir them in. Pour batter into the hot skillet. This ensures a deep-brown crust. Place in middle rack and bake for 45 minutes. Serve warm.
Nutritional analysis per serving, without pork crackling pieces: 299 calories, 14 grams fat, 35 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 104 milligrams cholesterol, 485 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 43 percent of calories from fat.
Nutritional analysis per serving, with pork crackling pieces: 374 calories, 21 grams fat, 35 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 115 milligrams cholesterol, 695 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 50 percent of calories from fat.
“The Up South Cookbook” by Nicole Taylor (Countryman Press)
Lost-and-found lemon poundcake
When I saw the ingredients for the recipe — 8 eggs, no baking powder, 1 pound of powdered sugar and no granulated sugar — all I could say was, “What the what?” But the cake turned out to be ethereal and fabulous. Cookbook author Dora Charles says, “Follow step by step, and it will be like no other poundcake you’ve ever eaten.”
Serves 16 to 20
- 1 pound good creamy butter, softened
- 1 (1-pound) box powdered sugar
- 1 cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon pure lemon extract, or 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice plus grated zest of lemon
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 8 large eggs, separated while cold, then brought to room temperature
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Spray a heavy 10-inch Bundt pan well with baking spray.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter until light and fluffy. Slowly add powdered sugar and beat for several minutes, until the mixture is satiny. Add sour cream, vanilla and lemon extract or juice and zest and mix well.
3. Sift flour and baking soda. Add 1 cup of flour mixture to the butter and mix in well. Then mix in half the egg yolks. Mix in another cup of flour and the remaining yolks. Add the rest of the flour. Don’t overmix, or the cake will be tough. Do the final mixing by hand.
4. In a large bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites to stiff peaks. Gently add whites to the batter, folding them in with a spatula — just barely mixing everything together.
5. Scrape batter evenly into pan. Level batter. Rap pan sharply on countertop, rotating the pan slightly each time, to eliminate any air pockets.
6. Bake for 30 minutes. If the cake is getting too brown on top, turn down oven to 300 degrees, then test again in 15 minutes. The cake is done when the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes to 1 hour in all.
7. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the rim and center tube and invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely. Transfer cake to a serving plate or a cake stand. Dust with powdered sugar.
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 16: 461 calories, 29 grams fat, 45 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 175 milligrams cholesterol, 317 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 56 percent of calories from fat.
“A Real Southern Cook” by Dora Charles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Smothered pork chops
Restaurateur Carleen King says she improvised her grandmother’s recipe, which called for cooking the pork chops in brown onion gravy for 40 minutes on simmer until the meat fell off the bones, so that the kitchen could meet the needs of the other items on the menu.
- 4 pork chops (with bone)
- 2 tablespoons seasoning mix (2 teaspoons each of seasoned salt, garlic powder and black pepper), divided
- 1 cup all-purpose flour, divided
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil, for frying
- 2 cups water or chicken broth
- 1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon seasoned salt
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
1. Lightly sprinkle pork chops on both sides with 1 tablespoon seasoning mix.
2. Combine a half-cup flour with 1 tablespoon seasoning mix in shallow pan. Dredge pork chops on both sides in flour mixture.
3. Fry pork chops in vegetable oil on medium heat until golden. Don’t worry about cooking through, because they will be cooked again later. Set aside.
4. To make gravy, use oil that the pork chops were fried in, and saute remaining half-cup flour until brown. Stir constantly. The darker you brown the flour, the richer the gravy color will be. When flour reaches desired color, add water or chicken broth and stir constantly while gravy thickens. Bring gravy to a full boil, then reduce heat to low. Don’t worry if gravy mixture is a little lumpy — it will smooth out while simmering.
5. Stir in onion, seasoned salt, garlic powder and black pepper. Add pork chops and simmer on low for 20 minutes.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 589 calories, 41 grams fat, 30 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 59 milligrams cholesterol, 1,756 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 63 percent of calories from fat.
Carleen King, co-owner of
Carmi Soul Food Restaurant in Pittsburgh
Shrimp and grits
Carleen King of Carmi Soul Food Restaurant got the idea for this recipe after she had shrimp and grits for the first time. She uses stone-ground grits.
- 4 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup grits
- 3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus 1/4 cup for garnish
- 1/2 cup salted butter
- 1/2 cup onion, diced small
- 1/2 cup green pepper, diced small
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined and tails removed
- 1 1/2 tablespoons blackened seasoning
1. To prepare grits: Heat water and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until just simmering. Stir grits into the water. Cook, stirring often, until grits are tender to the bite and have thickened to the consistency of creamy oatmeal, about 20 minutes.
2. As grits thicken, stir more often to keep them from sticking and scorching. When done, remove from the heat and stir in 3/4 cup cheddar cheese.
3. To prepare shrimp: Melt butter in a pan over medium heat. Add onion and green pepper. Saute until onions are transparent. Add shrimp; cook until firm and pink, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle seasoning on shrimp and continue to cook for 1 minute.
4. To serve: Add 1 cup prepared grits in 4 large bowls. Ladle shrimp mixture equally on top of grits. Garnish with remaining cheddar cheese.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 597 calories, 35 grams fat, 36 grams carbohydrates, 34 grams protein, 264 milligrams cholesterol, 1,614 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 53 percent of calories from fat.
Carleen King, co-owner of Carmi Soul Food Restaurant in Pittsburgh