Last Friday night at the historic Bethlehem Center, soul food scholar and culinary historian Adrian Miller spoke about the history of soul food in the United States to celebrate the opening of The Beth Bistro on West 38th. The event included a sampling of traditional soul foods that connected the discussion directly to the palate and gave the flavors a more cerebral depth.
From their origins in African and Caribbean foods to the vegan soul food of Oakland, CA, Adrian lead the audience through the progression of soul food from slave food to fine dining. As I listened to how slave rations and opossum gave birth to greens and neckbones I had the soft unctuousness of a carefully cooked neckbone and the deep, earthy flavor of slow cooked greens still lingering on my palate. While the speaker showed how white and black foodways merged during the reconstruction era over a common poverty, I had the sweet smell of chitlins and fried fish with hot sauce assaulting my senses.
I thought the origin of red drinks in soul food was particularly fascinating. Miller traces their origins to two popular West African drinks. One used red kola nuts to make bitter water more palatable. The kola nuts were either chewed just before drinking, or ground into a powder before being put into water. The other is “jus de bissap,” a tea made from the red flowers of the hibiscus sabdariffa plant. Referred to as the “national drink of Senegal,” jus de bissap is made by combining the dried hibiscus flowers, sugar-cane as a sweetener and ginger for flavor. The red hibiscus flowers came to the Americas via the slave trade, were introduced to Jamaica and then spread throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and then to Florida. In some Caribbean Islands, it is a seasonal drink, primarily consumed during Christmas.
An unexpected trend in contemporary soul food is the diminishing role of pork. Because of a combination of health concerns and increased religious pressures on diets, pork is seeing an increasingly diminished role in soul food. This has spawned a demonic mutation of soul food and shame in the form of vegan soul food in Oakland, CA and other horrors around the country. That hurts my soul. In my family of potato farmers from Sand Mountain, pork is the lifeblood of soul food. Fatback in greens and beans, hog jowl and biscuits as a snack, bacon grease to make that crispy crust that forms on cast-iron skillet cornbread. Where would we be without the noble suid? How could we turn our backs on the animal that has brought so many of us so much pleasure? I suppose everyone has to answer that for themselves, but I’ll take my soul food with an extra helping of porky goodness please.
Slaves, typically, did not have the “big house” processed flours, sugars, or whole milk to work with. They were given rations of cornmeal and seasonal vegetables that they supplemented with foraged foods and occasionally small game such as opossum or fish. They used simple ingredients cooked with care and precision to get every bit of flavor from what they had. Today’s chefs and home cooks are discovering the beauty of those unprocessed, natural flavors. Local markets, local farms, and local food producers are the favored sources of ingredients more and more in today’s home and restaurant kitchens to the point local farmers are selling their goods at local markets to the tune of over 5 billion dollars a year.
I recently had an enlightening conversation with Eric Taslimi, Executive Chef at Table 2, about the future of food in Chattanooga. Eric is a great example of how food trends such as food science (sometimes referred to as molecular gastronomy) are not distracting him from the more important factor of taste. He sees the future of food as being more product (food) driven than modernist technique driven – in other words proper technique is of utmost importance, but it should be there in service to the ingredients and to heighten the flavor of the dish – to make sure a quality, umami packed mushroom tastes like a quality umami packed mushroom and has not become deconstructed or processed to the point of unrecognizability. Table 2’s Wild Mushroom Risotto or their Smoked Pork Belly are great examples of how simply produced, locally sourced foods can taste when the main ingredient is allowed to shine.