Fortunately, my journey to enlightenment was neither arduous nor greasy, though it did require frequent stops to sample—er, research—the subject.
It was set in motion by an offhand remark. "Soul food didn't even exist before the 1960s," said an in-the-know friend over lunch one day. Huh? So I looked it up. Turns out she was half-right: The term was coined in 1964, according to Webster's—though the cuisine has features that go back millennia, to precolonial Africa. The soul food I thought I knew, however, turned out to be little more than a grease-spattered cliché.
Like most culinary traditions, African-American cooking was long a balance of wholesome and unwholesome elements. The good ones kept the bad ones in check, until this equilibrium was upset by the processed and fast food industries. In the past few decades, traditional dishes have been supersized and made with nontraditional ingredients, and meals that were formerly eaten only on special occasions have been marketed as everyday fare. (It was hard to gorge on fried chicken when you had to first catch, slaughter, gut, and pluck the obstinate bird; quite another matter when it came in a bucket for $6.99.) Processed foods also recalibrated taste buds: "normal" came to mean excessive amounts of fat, salt, and sugar. It was a toxic mix.
But as I nosed around, I detected signs here and there that soul food had not only survived the onslaught but might actually be reemerging as a healthy cuisine. I wanted to meet its champions.
Which is how I found myself walking through the front door of Wilson's Soul Food in Athens, Georgia, one hot spring day. At the back sat a white-haired gentleman enjoying his lunch. "What brings you here?" I asked, after introducing myself.
"They serve vegetables," he replied. "Many places don't anymore." His name was Jerome Mitchell, and I learned that he's a retired professor of English at the University of Georgia. He often eats here with other retired professors. "We don't like the food the kids go for," he said.
Next I spoke to Angie Dudley and her daughter, Harper, 12. (It's easy to meet people at Wilson's, which is as homey as your favorite aunt's kitchen.) Angie had been bringing her daughter here since she was less than a year old. "We came every day so she'd learn to eat her vegetables," said Angie. "I knew they'd be soft and flavorful."
Turns out they were low in salt and saturated fat, too, thanks to Angelish Wilson, second-generation owner of the restaurant. Thirteen years ago, Angelish took a nutrition class at the local hospital. What she learned motivated her to rid her vegetable dishes of all animal ingredients, such as the smoked ham hocks traditionally used to flavor greens (she still serves meat on its own, however). "I decided to do something different so I could have a longer life," she said. The customers didn't miss the animal fat at all. In fact, said Angelish, "they couldn't tell." Onions, garlic, herbs, and spices provided more than enough flavor.