Tag Archives: Edna Lewis

Big Mama’s House?


So, I was doing a search for websites on African American food, using that search term specifically, and essentially came up with nothing.  Most of  the entries ended up being redirected to sites about soul food, which while encompassed under the umbrella of African American food is really, it seems, more of a concept than anything else that conjures images of black folks dancing, singing, and eating chicken, at least for me.  I think the reason I have a problem with that term is that  it tends to force the food that African Americans eat into a box that has no room for the sheer diversity of  ingredients, techniques, or regions that exist, ultimately leading people (most notably African Americans themselves) to accept/believe that all African Americans eat is fried chicken or catfish (and we only eat catfish and occasionally fried shrimp), greens, biscuits, chitlins, candied yams, and, of course, peach cobbler for dessert.  In the summer, we can throw in some barbecue, but otherwise, forget it.  Of course all of this ish is delicious but that’s beside the point.*

I’ve already discussed in an earlier post, how this myth is debunked by the late, great Edna Lewis in her seminal The Taste of Country Cooking. The creation of soul food as a concept in and of itself came to be in Amiri Baraka’s 1962 essay “Soul Food.”  I am simplifying (mostly because I’m feeling lazy right now), but like most things culturally African American the concept made it to the mainstream and the script was flipped until we ourselves began believing that the dishes mentioned above were all with which we could fill our tables and our bellies.  Sigh.

But I have digressed far further than I meant to…

So let me get back on track.  Alright.  I took a peek at a few of these websites and found that every one of them had one or more recipes linked to Mama, Big Mama, etc.  There is “Mama’s Fried Catfish” and the enticing “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf” both at http://www.soulfoodcookbook.com and a recipe for “Mama’s Pecan Pie” at http://www.washingtonpost.com, just to name a few, but this is just on the web.  I have an entire book called Soul Food by Sheila Ferguson that has recipes with titles like: Roast Pheasant with Wild Rice Stuffin’ (emphasis on the stuffin’) and lines like:  “It’s that shur-‘nuf everlovin’ downhome, stick-to-your-ribs kinda food that keeps you glued to your seat long after the meal is over…Yes suh!” [sic]  The book even has a whole section on how black people speak.  It was written with a British audience in mind primarily but this annoys me even more.  And I’m sure that somewhere there is an entire book of “Big Mama’s” recipes floating around somewhere.  I have to say that I do not have a Big Mama.  I have a feeling that if I had ever called my Grandmother that, she would have looked at me like I was crazy and let me know the bid’ness, like the time I asked her why she never baked any cookies.  Needless to say, I never questioned her domesticity again.  

Doris Witt wrote a great book exploring all of this called: Black Hunger: Soul Food In America.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

Maybe I am all fired up over nothing, because yes, this is a pattern of speech among some black folks, and yes, as with any culture mothers and grandmothers are usually held in the highest esteem when it comes to cooking but…Why? Why “Slap Yo Momma Meatloaf?” Why?  I will never understand this.  And why do they always have to be big?  We’re not all big…damn.


*I can speak with authority on everything except chitlins.  I haven’t ever tasted them.  When my great Grandmother was still alive she once tried to bribe me, offering me $20 to take just one bite and I still wouldn’t do it.


Food for Thought



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.