Mention “soul food” and you will hear scores of health and medical professionals claim that it is the downfall of the health and well-being of African Americans. It is true that African Americans have some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers of any group in this country. But frankly, I’m getting sick of soul food being held partially responsible for this. The majority of people imagine the traditional soul food diet as unsophisticated and unhealthy fare comprised of high-calorie, low-nutrient dishes replete with, salt, sugar, and bad fats. Rather than vilifying traditional soul food, let’s focus on the real culprit, what I like to call instant soul food.
In reality, soul food is good for you. In order to understand why, you have to understand grits. As seen with instant grits, mass production and distribution has diminished the product’s superb quality and has obscured the distinctive characteristics that make down-home hominy so darn desirable in the first place. The taste of instant grits boxed up in a factory can never compare to the complex nutty flavor of grits stone-ground in a Mississippi mill. So it’s understandable that those who have only had that watered-down stuff (read: many of my friends in the Northeast) scoff at the mention of grits.
Similar to instant grits, instant soul food is a dishonest representation of African American cuisine. And to be clear, when I refer to instant soul food, I’m not just describing the processing, packaging, and mass marketing of African American cuisine in the late 1980s. I’m also alluding to the oversimplified version of the cuisine that was constructed in the popular imagination in the late 1960s.
The term “soul food” first emerged during the black liberation movement as African Americans named and reclaimed their diverse traditional foods. Clearly, the term was meant to celebrate and distinguish African American cooking from general Southern cooking, and not ghettoize it. But in the late 1960s, soul food was “discovered” by the popular media and constructed as the newest exotic cuisine for white consumers to devour. Rather than portray the complexity of this cuisine and its changes throughout the late 19th and 20th century, many writers played up its more exotic aspects (e.g., animal entrails) and simply framed the cuisine as a remnant of poverty-driven antebellum survival food.
To paraphrase food historian Jessica B. Harris, “soul food” was simply what Southern black folks ate for dinner.
Sadly, over the past four decades most of us have forgotten that what many African Americans in the South ate for dinner just two generations ago was diverse, creative, and comprised of a lot of fresh, local, and homegrown nutrient-dense food.
Most self-proclaimed soul food restaurants, a considerable amount of soul food cookbooks, and the canned and frozen soul food industry reinforce this banal portrayal of African American cuisine. Moreover, film and television routinely bombards viewers with crass images of African American eating habits and culinary practices that further distort and demonize soul food.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, collards greens, and peach cobbler being reinterpreted. But romanticizing comfort foods that should be eaten occasionally, and presenting these foods as standard fare not only rewrites history, but it also normalizes unhealthy eating habits for African Americans who are unaware of their historical cuisine.
When I think about the soul food that my grandparents and their parents ate, I do have some fond memories of deep-fried meats, overcooked leafy greens, and sugary desserts occasionally making a cameo on our menu. But, I also recall lightly sautéed okra, corn, and tomatoes recently harvested from their “natural” backyard garden in South Memphis. Divine recollections abound of butchered-that-morning herb-roasted chicken from Paw-Paw’s coop; “grit cakes” fashioned from breakfast leftovers and then grilled alongside pulled pork; Ma’Dear’s chutney made from peaches that came from Miss Cole’s mini-orchard next door; and fresh watermelon purchased from a flatbed truck on the side of the road and served with salt sprinkled on each slice.
There are African Americans like the late chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis; food historian Jessica B. Harris; and the chef-owner of Farmer Brown Restaurant in San Francisco, Jay Foster, who acknowledge a more complex culinary heritage and understand the African American legacy of being “green.” It’s time, however, that we all reclaim real Soul Food by learning from elders; rediscovering heirloom varietals; planting home and community gardens; shopping at the farmer’s market; eating what’s in season; pickling, canning, and preserving for leaner months; getting back into the kitchen and cooking; and sharing meals with family and friends. While these actions may not solve all the health issues in our communities they will get the ball rolling.
Obviously, there are complex social, economic, demographic, and environmental factors that explain why diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure are so rife within African American communities. Yes, we can experience real change consisting of personal, family, community, and structural shifts by making our voices heard and pressuring our elected officials to create national, state, and local policies that ensure that all Americans have access to healthy affordable food. The task won’t be easy, but employing the same grit that carried our ancestors through the worst of times can pull us through anything.
Memphis native Bryant Terry is an eco chef, author and food justice activist based in Oakland, Calif. His second book will be published by Da Capo/Perseus in 2009. The following are two of Terry’s recipes for Pan-Fried Grit Cakes and Citrus Collards. Enjoy!
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Pan-Fried Grit Cakes with Caramelized Spring Onions, Garlic, and Thyme
Yield: Serves 4–6
Soundtrack: Green Onions by Booker T. & the MG’s
Mark my word, after making and eating this dish while listening to Green Onions, they both will be on heavy rotation for a few months, if not longer. I enjoy these tasty cakes as a savory dinner side or as a light meal with a green salad. You can omit the spring onions, cayenne, garlic, and thyme and eat these with pure maple syrup as a breakfast treat.
For a lower fat version, they can be baked on a lightly greased baking sheet at 325ºF until crisp, about 15 minutes each side. They can also be lightly brushed with olive oil and grilled for 10 minutes on each side.
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large bunch of spring onions, trimmed and sliced thinly
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups whole milk
1 cup water
1 cup stone-ground corn grits
Coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
· In a medium sauté pan combine 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil, the spring onions, and the cayenne pepper. Warm the heat to medium-low and sauté gently until well caramelized, 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until golden, 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
· In a medium saucepan combine the milk with the water, cover, and bring to a boil, about 3 minutes. Uncover and whisk the grits into the liquid until no lumps remain.
· Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring ever 2-3 minutes with a wooden spoon to prevent the grits from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
· Add the spring onion-olive oil mixture, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and thyme and stir well. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.
· Pour the grits into a 2-quart rectangular baking dish or a comparable mold and spread them out with a rubber spatula (the grits should be about 1/2-inch thick). Refrigerate and allow it to rest until firm, about 3 hours or overnight.
· Preheat the oven to 250°F.
· Slice the grits into 2-inch by 2-inch squares.
· Line a couple of large plates with paper towels. In a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, panfry the cakes for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until they are golden brown and crispy on the outside (do this in several batches to avoid overcrowding the pan). Transfer the cooked cakes from the skillet to the plates to drain, and then hold them in the oven until all the cakes are cooked.
· Serve immediately.
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Citrus Collards with Raisins
Yield: 4 servings
Soundtrack: “Preaching Blues” by Corey Harris from Fish Ain’t Bitin’
Though I love savory collard greens, I created this sweet, modern variation to be paired with savory entrées.
2 large bunches collard greens, stems removed, rolled into a tight cylinder,
sliced crosswise, rinsed, and drained
Coarse sea salt
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup raisins
· In a large pot over high heat, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the collards and cook, uncovered, for 8 to 10 minutes, until softened.
· Prepare a large bowl of ice water to cool the collards.
· Remove the collards from the heat, drain, and plunge them into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking and set the color of the greens. Drain.
· In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the collards, raisins and a 1/2 teaspoon salt. Sauté for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
· Add orange juice and cook for an additional 15 seconds. Do not overcook (collards should be bright green). Season with additional salt to taste if needed and serve immediately.