Pork chops smothered with thick gravy, greens seasoned with ham hocks or smoked turkey, sizzling fried chicken, cornbread, sweet potato pie scented with nutmeg and cinnamon are as much a part of the African American foodscape as low and slow cooking, tradition and warmth of family.
When the enslaved West Africans arrived in the United States, so did foods such as okra and black-eyed peas; cooking techniques such as smoking, salting and roasting; and combinations such as stews with starch and grilled meats with vegetable sauce.
Slaves ate catfish “because the gentry won’t eat them. They were considered trash fish as they lived in ditches and had a muddy taste,” says author and food historian Jessica B. Harris, “and chicken was part of their diet because it was ubiquitous and easy to raise.”
African American cuisine has gone through several names — slave food, Negro food, Southern country cooking and down-home cooking among others — over the centuries. But of all the names, soul food and Southern food are the ones most commonly used.
“Southern cuisine is the mother cuisine of the Southern states,” says Adrian Miller, a culinary historian and soul food scholar. “And soul food is derived from Southern cuisine but has its own culinary signature.”
To understand soul food, he says, one has to understand its layers: It’s different from other African American-inspired regional cuisines such as creole (red beans and rice, gumbo, grits, grillards), low-country (shrimp and grits, rice-based perloo, okra dishes) and Chesapeake Bay-area (steamed blue crabs, hominy, Maryland fried chicken); it’s the food of the Deep South Black Belt that stretches from the western Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama to Mississippi and the eastern part of Louisiana; and it’s the food of the migrants who went to other parts of the country and appropriated it to what was available in those re-
Miller says in the South, the line between Southern and soul foods are blurred but the distinctions become clearer when one steps out North. However, he adds, “in the South, soul food features a variety of meats like chitlins (innards of the pig), oxtails and pigs’ feet, which Southern doesn’t. And soul food has more seasonings.”
Black Southern food bursts with flavor because of the emphasis on seasoning, says Dora Charles, who had worked with celebrity chef Paula Deen for more than 20 years and then quit after she felt that she was treated unfairly. Charles’ grandmother taught her to season chicken the night before it was fried and to enliven the flavor in cornbread, rice, beans and greens by adding fry-meat grease from bacon, chicken or pork chops.
In her cookbook, “A Real Southern Cook,” Charles uses her Savannah seasoning, made with Lawry’s seasoned salt, salt, powdered or granulated garlic and black pepper, for egg, meat and vegetable recipes.
Charles says she also was taught to eyeball measurements, adjust heat by listening to popping sounds and waste nothing.
“Country people in the South cooked with what little they had, and had to made it work. So they used neck bones, tails, ears and feet,” she says.
Contrary to the current belief and practice that soul food is fatty and meat heavy, it was down-home healthy way back when, Miller says. Greens were central to the cuisine and so were other seasonal vegetables as meat was a luxury.
“Slaves also did not have access to white flour and white sugar and instead used molasses and whole wheat,” he says.
And that’s something the late Mildred Council, better known as Mama Dip, could attest to having grown up on a farm in North Carolina. “We ate what we grew and raised on the farm,” she said. “We cooked our fresh vegetables with the skin on, and collards with the bones from the ham to keep the flavor.”
Council died in 2018 at the age of 89.
The cookbook author and founder of the famed Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill, N.C., was raised by her “amazing and patient” father after her mother died when she was 2, and she started cooking for the family when she was 9. Fried chicken was made only on Sundays and her family didn’t do a lot of other meats because they could not afford it.
“I would first soak the chicken in salted water so that the salt gets to the bones. Then I would use self-rising flour to give the meat a good crust, use salt and good black pepper, and fry it in lard,” Council recounted.
Council called her style of cooking collard greens, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cornbread as “Southern country” and featured them in her restaurant. The restaurant
With each passing generation, African-American foods have taken on new accents. Nicole Taylor, who was raised in Athens, Ga., and moved to New York City in her early 20s, has written a cookbook that embraces Dixie in a Brooklyn kitchen. “I wanted to tell a story about my family and its past. I also wanted to show how other cuisines have slowly weaved into the lives of Southerners,” she says.
In “The Up South Cookbook,” she shares recipes for the classic grits, buttermilk biscuits and cornbread and also for zaatar crowder peas, collard greens with soy sauce and sesame seeds and smoked trout deviled eggs, showcasing that her book “is a bridge to the past and a door to the future.”
Pittsburghers Annette Betts, Lillian Cannon and Carleen King say soul food also is about the emotion that goes into prepping the food, time spent with family and tradition.
“It is food that is cooked with heart, soul, love, laughter and involves conversation,” says Betts, a retired chef who had a catering business in Pittsburgh’s Sheraden. She says while her ancestors ate pigs’ feet and ears, she doesn’t. “Back then you starved or you ate them. It was survival not a disgrace. Now, I’m eating high on the hog.” On New Year’s Day, in keeping with tradition to eat pork, she makes a roast for her family.
Cannon, a stand-up comic from Pittsburgh’s Broadhead Manor who goes with the stage name I Ain’t Skinny, says she basically lived in the kitchen and watched her mother cook. “Soul food is atmosphere, something that is comforting,” she says.
Soul food conjures up memories of being with family from cooking a meal to sitting down and enjoying it for King, who co-owns Carmi Soul Food Restaurant with her husband Mike in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny West. She started out in the kitchen when she was 4 by helping her grandmother peel boiled yams with a butter knife.
Much as she believes that soul food reminds her of a tradition of where a recipe came from and who taught it to her, she also is open to innovations and adapting with times.
When she was first introduced to shrimp and grits, she had never heard of it before. “It was very delicious but I thought it would be even better if only it had … ,” she says. So she improvised on it, and used stone-ground grits with peppers, onions, cheddar cheese and blackened seasonings. It is now a hit with Carmi’s customers.
Another favorite is the smothered pork chops, a tweaked version of her grandmother’s recipe. While her grandmother simmered the meat in a pot of brown onion gravy for 40 minutes until the meat fell off the bones, King follows a quicker approach. “We don’t simmer the pork chops in gravy. Instead we still served the chops with onion but cover it with gravy,” she says. “My grandmother’s method won’t work commercially.”
Growing up, King always had greens seasoned with pork. “But these days with people moving away from pork, we use smoked turkey in our collards to stay with our customers’ needs,” she says. The restaurant also serves turkey ribs in addition to pork ribs.
High-end restaurants are adding $24 fried chicken, chicken and waffle, Nashville hot chicken, pigs’ feet and oxtail soup to their menus these days, Miller says, but that does not mean that African-American cooking is in the middle of a belle epoque. He thinks it is more in a post-modern age now. “There’s no longer one type of soul food, and it’s splintered into several sub-cuisines — traditional, healthy, upscale and vegan,” he says.
He hopes more black chefs will embrace soul food rather than distance themselves from it.
“It needs to be part of their repertoire,” he says. “How many French chefs say that they don’t want to associate with rustic French cooking?”
Soaking up the comforts of African-American foods
African-American foods bring comfort by being down-to-earth and heavenly at the same time.
While cookbook authors and home chefs hang on to recipes that were handed down from their grandmothers and mothers, they also improvise on the classics. Fried chicken that was once seasoned with only salt and pepper gets flavored with garlic and onion powders and a host of other spices. Grits are served plain or with shrimp and even tomatillo and squash. Vegetable shortening is replacing lard in some recipes, and smoked turkey is being used instead of ham in greens to meet changing tastes and dietary needs.
Before the days of refrigeration, stews were a way of stretching foods in the house and not wasting anything. Over time they are still a way of using leftover vegetables and meats and have gotten richer in flavor with the addition of heavy cream to an oyster stew or half-and-half to a corn soup.
Sweet potato pie, also known as potato pie, remains the queen of desserts and is a must-make for any holiday. The tubers are either baked or boiled and redolent with nutmeg, cinnamon and all-spice. Vanilla, lemon and imitation rum extracts are added in some cases for more flavor. Pound cake is an all-occasion dessert and served plain, dusted with powdered sugar, with fruits and ice cream or sauce.
It’s important to remember African-American cooking is not monolithic. “It is nuanced and is different from region to region depending on the availability of ingredients, cooking techniques and socio-economic bracket,” says author and food historian Jessica B. Harris.
When stand-up comic Lillian Cannon of Broadhead Manor fries chicken, she starts by cooking the bigger pieces before the smaller ones and places the meat skin-side down. If she is in a rush, she coats the chicken with a quick seasoning by combining Lawry’s season salt, black pepper, Creole seasoning and garlic powder.
- Vegetable/canola oil blend for frying
- 8 pieces of chicken (legs, breasts and thighs)
- Premix seasoning (recipe follows)
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 2 large resealable plastic bags
Preheat oil in a deep cast-iron pan. Rinse chicken pieces, pat dry and then lay them flat on a cutting board.
Season chicken with premix seasoning and let sit for about 1 hour.
Place chicken pieces in a resealable plastic bag. Pour in the buttermilk and beaten egg.
Mix flour and cornstarch in a bowl and then pour the flour mixture into a second resealable plastic bag.
When oil is hot (test by dipping a wooden spoon in the oil; if oil starts to boil around the spoon, it is hot enough), add the meat pieces. After the bottom side of pieces turn golden brown, flip them over so that other side turns golden brown. Then flip the pieces two more times.
Carefully remove pieces with a pair of tongs, shaking off the excess oil, and place them in a pan lined with paper towel.
Makes 4 servings.
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon Sazon all-purpose seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon Adobo Seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning
Blend all ingredients in a small bowl.
Recipes from: Lillian Cannon
This pie recipe from Niara Sudarkasa, the first woman to serve as president of Lincoln University in Oxford, Chester County, is delicious, aromatic and perfect in every which way. Why should one go for a sweet potato pie loaded with fat and sugar when 1-1/2 tablespoons of butter and 3/4 cup of brown and white sugars can do such wonders?
Sweet Potato Pie
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes
- 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1-1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 (9-inch) unbaked pastry shell
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Mix eggs, sweet potatoes, sugars, margarine and spices in large bowl.
Gradually beat in milk; mix thoroughly. Stir in flour until well blended.
Pour into pastry shell and bake 20 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until set and knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Makes 8 servings.
Recipe from: Niara Sudarkasa, ”Celebrating Our Mothers’ Kitchens” by The National Council of Negro Women (Wimmer Companies)
Mark Twain has said: “No bread in the world is quite as good as Southern cornbread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.”
It would be a sin to buy cornbread mix when you can make a memorable one like this one from scratch. For a well-browned and crisp exterior, it is best to bake it in a cast-iron skillet.
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1-3/4 cups fine cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1-1/2 cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/3 cup pork crackling pieces (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Add butter to an 8-inch cast-iron skillet and place in oven for about 10 minutes.
Combine cornmeal, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk together well. Stir in buttermilk and egg.
Remove pan from oven. Carefully, pour hot butter into the cornmeal mixture. Whisk together well. If using cracklings, stir them in.
Pour batter into the hot skillet. This ensures a deep brown crust.
Place in middle rack and bake for 45 minutes. Serve warm.
Makes 6 servings.
Recipe from: Nicole Taylor, “The Up South Cookbook”
When I saw the ingredients for the recipe — eight eggs, no baking powder, 1 pound of powdered sugar and no granulated sugar — all I could say was, “what the what?” But the cake turned out to be ethereal and fabulous. Cookbook author Dora Charles says, “Follow step by step, and it will be like no other pound cake you’ve ever eaten.”
Lost-and-Found Lemon Pound Cake
- 1 pound good creamy butter, softened
- 1 (1-pound) box powdered sugar
- 1 cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon pure lemon extract or 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice plus grated zest of lemon
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 8 large eggs, separated while cold, then brought to room temperature
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a heavy 10-inch Bundt pan well with baking spray.
In a large bowl, cream butter until light and fluffy. Slowly add powdered sugar and beat for several minutes, until the mixture is satiny. Add sour cream, vanilla and lemon extract or juice and zest and mix well.
Sift flour and baking soda. Add 1 cup of flour mixture to the butter and mix in well. Then mix in half the egg yolks. Mix in another cup of flour and the remaining yolks. Add the rest of the flour. Don’t overmix, or the cake will be tough. Do the final mixing by hand.
In a large bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites to stiff peaks. Gently add whites to the batter, folding them in with a spatula — just barely mix everything together.
Scrape batter evenly into Bundt pan. Level batter. Rap pan sharply on countertop, rotating the pan slightly each time, to eliminate any air pockets.
Bake for 30 minutes. If the cake is getting too brown on top, turn down oven to 300 degrees, then test again in 15 minutes. The cake is done when the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes to 1 hour in all.
Cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the rim and center tube and invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely.
Transfer cake to a serving plate or a cake stand. Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Makes 16 to 20 servings.
Recipe from: Dora Charles, “A Real Southern Cook”
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Carleen King of Carmi Soul Food Restaurant got the idea for this recipe after she had shrimp and grits for the first time. She uses stone-ground grits.
Shrimp and Grits
- 4 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup grits
- 3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus 1/4 cup for garnish
- 1/2 cup salted butter
- 1/2 cup onion, diced small
- 1/2 cup green pepper, diced small
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined and tails removed
- 1-1/2 tablespoons blackened seasoning
To prepare grits: Heat water and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until just simmering. Stir grits into the water.
Cook, stirring often, until grits are tender to the bite and have thickened to the consistency of creamy oatmeal, for about 20 minutes.
As grits thicken, stir more often to keep them from sticking and scorching. When done, remove from the heat and stir in 3/4 cup cheddar cheese.
To prepare shrimp: Melt butter in a pan over medium heat. Add onion and green pepper. Saute until onions are transparent.
Add shrimp; cook until firm and pink, for about 2 minutes.
Sprinkle seasoning on shrimp and continue to cook for 1 minute.
To serve: Add 1 cup of prepared grits into 4 large bowls. Ladle shrimp mixture equally on top of grits. Garnish with remaining cheddar cheese.
Makes 4 servings.
Recipe from: Carleen King, co-owner of Carmi Soul Food Restaurant
Arthi Subramaniam is the Food & Flavor editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email her at email@example.com.