Back in my hotel room that afternoon, I leafed through a book called Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America, by Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history at Marist College. I learned that for thousands of years, the traditional West African diet was predominantly vegetarian, centered on things like millet, rice, field peas, okra, hot peppers, and yams. Meat was used sparingly, as a seasoning.
This was news to me, but not to Alluette Jones-Smalls, owner of Alluette's Holistic Soul Café in Charleston, South Carolina, the next stop on my tour. She's spent the past 12 years working to shift her people's diet back toward its plant-based roots. "The sad thing about African-Americans is we don't know our bodies," she told me. "We need small portions of meat and huge amounts of vegetables."
Tall and fit, Alluette, 58, stood and touched her toes to show me the benefits of conscious eating. She said, "Young people think, 'My mom had diabetes, and it's genetic, so I'm going to have it.' That's not true. If they're going to have it, it's because they eat like their mama did. Look how food transforms your body, how it disfigures you if you're not conscious. 'You are what you eat' means that if you eat garbage, you're going to look and feel like garbage."
On the off chance that Alluette's message doesn't win people over, her food surely will. That evening I dined on a huge organic salad and quite possibly the tastiest shrimp I've ever eaten, dusted with spicy flour and fried so lightly that each sweet crustacean bore a crisp, fragile shell. Looking up, I caught the blissed-out smiles of customers sitting at a nearby table and knew they were having an equally satisfying experience.
"We didn't know we were going to walk into heaven when we came here," said Bertha Coffin-Shaw, out for a last-night-of-vacation dinner with her husband, Willie. It's heaven with an unwittingly trendy vibe. Local, seasonal, and organic may be buzzwords of contemporary foodie culture, but to Alluette, they just mean home cooking. "I grew up eating that way from my grandmother's garden," she said. "And I think we African-Americans invented slow food. As kids, we were always waiting on the meal."
Sure enough, patience turns out to be a key element in soul cooking. Certainly, it and creativity were required to transform whatever ingredients the first African-Americans could scrape together into some semblance of dinner. Arriving in this land with little but the traditions they carried in their hearts and minds—fishing, gardening, foraging, and open-fire cooking among them—they invented a vibrant cuisine. "Their food was a way of surviving with dignity in a very oppressive situation," said Professor Opie.
We Hear You!