Adversity breeds resourcefulness. Again and again, the African-Americans I spoke to reminisced about the gardens their grandparents had cultivated on any plot of land at their disposal.
"My grandfather's Memphis yard was like an urban farm," said Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen. "He had pecan trees in the front and grew three kinds of collards out back. Most people in his neighborhood were growing some kind of food, so they bartered." They also canned, pickled, smoked, and otherwise preserved nearly everything they harvested. Saving money wasn't their only goal. Said Bryant, "When you're in charge of your own food, you're empowered."
Yet in the past few decades, this empowerment has given way to its exact opposite, a diet created by corporations and marketed for cheap to unwitting consumers. "People have this illusion: If I eat this crappy food, it's my choice," said Bryant. "But every day we're being told to eat this, drink this. It's not autonomy at all."
His words echoed in my head as I drove through a gauntlet of restaurant franchises—Chili's, Subway, Outback Steakhouse—and turned into the unassuming parking lot by Gullah Cuisine, a restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Over dirty rice, succotash, and cornbread, I chatted with Kesha Antonetti, daughter of Charlotte Jenkins, chef and co-owner. Gullah, she told me, is the name for the African-American culture of the Carolina Low Country—the region in and around Charleston and the coastal islands. (One-pot rice dishes with sausage and seafood are among its culinary earmarks.)
So where does Gullah fit into soul? I asked. "Soul food is just Southern food of any origin," said Kesha. Gullah is a regional variation, the way that Tuscan is an offshoot of Italian cuisine.
Later, as she packed up cornbread for my plane ride home, Kesha added, "Soul cooking just means you put your patience and love into the food." And that can result in anything from her mother's Frogmore stew to Bryant Terry's double watermelon-strawberry slushee. No wonder Bryant laughs when people tell him that his cookbook's title (Vegan Soul Kitchen) is an oxymoron. To him, soul food stands for all the diverse eating traditions that developed wherever African-Americans put down roots. It includes black-eyed peas and self-empowerment in equal measures. And to him—as to Alluette and Angelish—this realization offers nothing short of a path to a brighter, healthier future.
Is that a lot to ask from a plate of vegetables? Nah. "What African-Americans were eating one generation ago is what the nutritionists say we should be eating now," said Bryant. "You don't have to go that far back, you don't have to make this huge change to get on the right track. That gives me hope."
Me, too. Hope—and a hankering for another plate of okra.
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