I have been reading Edna Lewis’ classic The Taste of Country Cooking and realizing how perceptions of African American food are painfully limited. The scope of what this food can be is so limited, this bothers me, because it has also limited the scope of what African Americans seem to think of as African American food. I am guilty of the same circumscribed thinking…
The argument that the concept of Soul Food (and it really is a concept) is not new. Chefs, writers, scholars who are passionate about African-American food and culture have debated it quite a bit in the years,since the term first appeared in the 1960s to describe the food. Then it was a rallying point, it provided a sense of pride, ownership, and belonging in the community. It was ours and it was (is) delicious. The term/concept, however, didn’t seem to take into account the diversity of the African American culinary experience or repertoire and it certainly didn’t explore origins, from what I can see. Soul Food, as most people think of it includes dishes like fried chicken, barbecue, greens, of course, chitlins (something that pretty ubiquitous across cultures actually), cornbread, peach cobbler, etc. Sadly, this list doesn’t really go on much further in popular consciousness.
While I am not vehemently opposed to the term, I count myself as part of the camp that rejects the it, but to explain why would require a much longer post. I’ll just say that it seems to render the food I grew up with and way that I cook, something of a novelty.
But back to Edna Lewis and Country Cooking. One of the things I love about this book is that it broadens the scope of what has always seemed possible with African American food. In the book recipes call for fresh thyme, sage, chervil, and parsley. Dark leafy greens (not just collards) abound. Fresh fruit, fresh, wholesome dairy products, pork, beef, lamb, mutton, poultry, and game, shellfish. Fried, braised, baked, grilled. Soups, stews, salads. Everything is fresh and prepared from scratch, of course the book is also an account of her years growing up in a small Virginia farming community, but the point is that it shows a diversity of ingredients and cooking techniques. But really all of this is what African American food has always been.
For a long time, in my own kitchen, I saw the use of some of these ingredients or cooking techniques as something new and different from what I assumed the African American culinary canon to be. But, along with my reading of other African American heritage cookbooks I have come to see that African American cooking is really the epitome of the slow food philosophy of cooking: the use of fresh, seasonal, local ingredients cooked in simple ways that maintain and enhance flavor and the most healthful aspects of what the land has to offer. Getting back to this would undoubtedly mean a reduction in the incredibly high rates of high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes in the African American community.
It’s a shame that this philosophy of cooking has been all but lost in the African American kitchen but I am hoping that the spirit of change can touch our kitchens, grocery lists, and dining tables too.