Soul Lite

Soul Food Reimaged for the '90s

I have been transported. I'm in Blockbuster Video eyeing a wall-high display of videotapes of the film Soul Food. In Barnes & Noble I'm thumbing through scores of books under the banner "African American Heritage Cooking." I go restaurant-hopping at places like the Soul Cafe and the Sugar Bar, surrounded by black people who wear pearls and navy blazers without irony, or mud cloth shawls and cowrie-shell necklaces without irony. Apparently I have left racist-fascist Giuliani land, and wandered intoan upscale theme park called Soul Food Village.

In Soul Food Village, what folks like to do most with their leisure time is rediscover the home cooking of their forebears. And like their white counterparts, they prefer to do this in an atmosphere that is nothing like home at all, but instead evocative of their class ambitions. At such places the walls are usually lined with portraits of the Talented Tenth or antelope masks from Mali. Jazz, of course, is piped in, at proper volume. And you're never made to feel unwelcome with words or raised eyebrows.

The cuisine? It's just that, cuisine--accepted and heralded, and made like all food these days, nouvelle. Corn mush is now polenta, and macaroni and cheese, terrine. Say goodbye (yet again) to the pig and its lard. This is comfort food defatted, desalted, and reimaged. But don't call it soul food--demeaning, far-too-folksy, gone the way of race movies. Call it "Dunbar" food (named by Ishmael Reed after the "dialect" poet, Paul Lawrence Dunbar), Southern revival, low-country, and Afro-Atlantic. Rubbing bellies with Europe in broad daylight, though this is less a subversive act than one that lends it culinary respectability. Brand new. Universal.

When Cooking Light magazine named soul food as one of the trends to watch last year, it was clear that those with the purse strings were finally discovering this culinary tradition was more than just a greasy take-out bag of chicken. And the cookbooks, memoirs, scholarly works, restaurants, and entertainment complexes keep coming, fed by deep-pocket buppies, a $350 billion black consumer market, and the American comfort-food revolution.

This latest crossover incarnation dates back to the early '90s. Gael Greene's 1994 feature "Soul Food Now" in New York magazine named the trend for the Midtown crowd. The national movement coincided with restaurants opening across the country, from Los Angeles (Georgia) to Hartford, Connecticut (Savannah's). Since then, New York has seen a few come and go, including such totems of Downtown nouvelle soul as Cafe Beulah and Kwanzaa, which folded last year as others joined the fray. By unofficial count, in the last two years nearly a dozen restaurants reinterpreting African American heritage food (to play it safe with the name game) have opened above and below the city's Mason-Dixon line.

We've seen the Motown Cafe, serving soul food standards, become a 57th Street landmark as entrenched as the Hard Rock Cafe; B. Smith evolved into something like the black Martha Stewart, armed with her own entertaining manual and syndicated style show; Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, a black man who cooks Scandinavian food he calls "soul," has become the most sought-after guest-chef on TV morning shows; and Sylvia Woods, of Harlem's legendary soul food palace Sylvia's, has been reborn as a merchandising and franchise queen (with restaurants in Atlanta, and possibly Philly and Brooklyn). By year's end, Minton's Playhouse, Harlem's birthplace of bebop, will reopen as a 225-seat restaurant­jazz club, backed by Drew Nieporent, Robert DeNiro, and Quincy Jones, and piloted by frontwoman Melba Wilson (niece of Sylvia). This $3 million project is being designed by architect David Rockwell (Planet Hollywood, Vong).

And the latest unfolding: this year the Smithsonian began planning a major exhibition called "With These Hands: African American Foodways," which will examine the production, consumption, and serving of food as social history. It will be mounted in 2001 at the Institute's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. One truth the exhibition hopes to relay, says director Steven Cameron Newsome, is that African American food traditions are more diverse than Southern regional cooking because of our many migrations across the country, ties to other ethnic cuisines, and role in the hospitality industry.

Something's going on here. Several developments make the nouvelle soul movement seem to have more longevity than it did four years ago, not to mention 20 years ago. One, the culinary arts have become an attractive and "legitimate" field for younger African Americans. (There are more young blacks in culinary schools than ever before.) A generation earlier would have shunned it as a symbol of slaving in Miss Ann's kitchen.

Dining has become a sexy leisure activity to a new generation of middle-class blacks, much like attending black films or poetry readings. Soul food restaurant-hopping and cook-off fundraisers are de rigueur these days.Last month Cognac-Hennessy hosted a "fireside chat" on "African American" (not soul) food at the Harvard Club. The invitation-only event featured a panel discussion with culinary experts and catering by nouvelle hotspot Soul Cafe. Hennessy is staging these chats across the country in hopes of luring affluent black consumers.

How quickly the pendulum swings. Says food historian­author Jessica B. Harris, a Voice restaurant critic, "Five to 10 years ago, the people who are now up in Justin's [Sean 'Puffy' Combs's outpost in the Flatiron district] would be proudly proclaiming they didn't cook this food, couldn't, and were certainly not gonna eat this food."

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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