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.
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.
"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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