Soul Lite

Soul Food Reimaged for the '90s

There are signs that culinary circles are finally inching toward regarding African American heritage cooking, and variations on that theme, as cuisine. (American cuisine as distinct from European is itself a very young idea.) Chef Joe Randall, a 30-year vet of the culinary industry and the author of A Taste of Heritage: The New African American Cuisine, published this year, points to Paul Prudhomme's championing of the creole cuisine of Louisiana in the late '80s as paving the way for this acceptance.

The opening up of the culinary gates is no doubt due in large part to the media attention given to chefs like the late Patrick Clark of Odeon and Tavern on the Green, known for his French- and Southern-accented cuisine. Food & Wine's current issue has a piece on the growing reputation of black chefs outside the oeuvre of Southern cooking and describes their creations as "culinary patois" that jumble "conventional notions of ethnicity and food." An equal contribution, I'd wage, is being made by black culinary scholars and cookbook authors who are also challenging segregated notions of what is American and African American cuisine in their work, and investigating West African and Afro-Caribbean retentions as well. One of these is Harris, whose five books catalogue diaspora culinary traditions from Ghana to Mississippi.

Just what is soul food? is a tangled, well-trod debate not worth revisiting in detail here. Though suffice it to say, it is as much the food as it is the ritual of sharing the food. It is "survival food," born in slavery, says Harris. As Melba Woods told Gael Greene, "Masters gave us only the food no one wanted, hog's ears and intestines and the bittersweet greens, and we made it good to eat." And cooking soul food suggests an almost mystical ability to translate one's soul, one's essence to the plate, and presumes more channeling than skill. Soit's not surprising that contemporary black chefs have almost nothing good to say about the moniker.

Norma Jean Darden, caterer, restaurateur, and coauthor of the influential memoir-cookbook Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine (which never once uses the term soul food, though it includes recipes for chitlins and fried chicken) says it implies an ease of preparation and a simplicity of ingredients that just isn't the case. Cafe Beulah's Alexander Smalls regards it as an unfortunate carryover from the Black Powerera that has outlived its usefulness and now only serves to box in chefs and establish a code for black-owned restaurants.

Randall, of an earlier generation, isn't ready to discard it. "Trying to disassociate from soul food is like trying to be a black person and jump out of your skin," he says. "Soul food may have a negative connotation [as unhealthy food laden with fat and salt], but we have to take the term and market it to our advantage. After all, whites are cooking our food and making good money selling it back to us." He mentions chains throughout the South such as Cracker Barrel and our favorite in the Northeast, Boston Market.

If the interest in soul culture and soul food represents anything right now, it's recouping black pleasure in an era increasingly hostile to black people. (Would the Hennessy-Harvard Club fireside chat have drawn the same crowd if it were about affirmative action?) Our visibility in the cultural mirror despite our growing political disenfranchisement is another troubling reminder that comes with the popularity of nouvelle soul. Back in the kitchen, again, but not yet in the boardroom.

Research: Mark Maggiotto

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