Sunday, February 14, 2010

Uncovering my "soul"

Wednesday, on the commute home from work, my husband and I started talking about the comfort food of our childhood. We talked about soul food--the dishes common to African American families like ours. We talked not just about the Southern dishes that the majority culture can consume at sanitized soul food restaurants: the fried chicken and sweet potatoes and peach cobbler; we spoke fondly about the other stuff: the neck bones, pig's feet and hog's head cheese. At one time, some of these foods--refuse from white folk's tables--were a symbol of black enslavement and oppression, but they became part of black American culture and enduring symbols of love and family and togetherness.

Food marks many of my fondest memories. I remember summer picnics under the cherry tree in my grandparents' backyard with pineapple ice cream that my grandmother made from scratch and my grandfather froze by turning the crank on a big, blue, old-fashioned ice cream maker. Summer trips "down South" to visit my father's family in Mississippi meant hearty "suppers" (a mealtime I'd not heard of in the Midwest) and returning home with jars of "cha cha," a relish that paired wonderfully greens and beans. I recall sitting in the family kitchen with my mom, on a snowy, winter afternoon, eating a plate of chicken giblets--boiled, seasoned and sprinkled with hot sauce. Today, I look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas as much for the amazing dinners my mother sets on the table (The best dressing you'll ever taste!) as the fellowship that happens around it.

When I eat soul food, it inevitably jogs some memory like the ones above. It also makes me feel connected to "my people."
Food and food traditions help define cultures. Sweet potato pie and fried green tomatoes bind me to my heritage. I think this is true of most every group. For instance, when I was growing up, our neighbor, an elderly Lithuanian woman named Mrs. Kaminsky, would bring us stuffed cabbage and these delicious, little rolls bursting with meat, and would become teary as she sat and talked with my mother about "the old country." There is something, also, about this food that makes me feel embraced and comforted. Maybe because, like generations of black women, my mother (and her mother before her) demonstrates her love and cares for her family through cooking. Mind you, I am not saying that women have to express themselves this way; I just mention that women have done this and many, like my mother, have enjoyed it.

As my husband and I talked about black comfort food, I realized that my stepchildren, nieces and nephews won't know this part of our culture like I do. They are now two generations removed from the roots of that good, down home cooking. Our lives are so different now. My grandmother, a housewife, put a lot of care into cooking three, hearty squares for her family each day. And her holiday meals--oh, they were amazing! The cobblers...the homemade ice cream...the rolls--folks would drool over my grandmother's rolls. My mother would come home from her job as a teacher and cook a complete and very tasty meal--meat, vegetable and starch--from scratch nearly every night. Me? My daily schedule, which includes more than two hours of commute, means I generally go for quick and uncomplicated. I am very fond of the "go for what you know" night a.k.a. "you find it; you fix it." What is found and fixed is often eaten in front of the TV...on paper plates. Note that I cannot claim to have more responsibilities or less time than my mother or grandmother. It's just that, for one reason or another, I have not prioritized homemade cooking or creating a comforting mealtime.

Then, there is the demonization of traditional, black cooking that keeps us away from many of the dishes our parents and grandparents grew up on. I don't minimize the health problems that plague the black community, many of which are influenced by poor diet. No one would advocate a diet based on a foundation of ham hocks and macaroni and cheese. But in the scheme of an overall healthy diet paired with exercise, an occasional soul food meal is surely no more deadly than occasional Italian food or German food or Chinese food.

I'm not even sure where, in our still not very diverse town, where one might find, say, neck bones. I have to make a special trip to a grocery store 30 minutes away just to get some decent salted, smoked turkey for greens. Perhaps, as a result, I simply don't think of these foods often.

So, because of shifting priorities, real concerns about African American health and negativity surrounding black foodways, increasing integration and maybe just the march of time, an important part of African American culture is in danger of being lost. That is a shame. I find myself wanting to do something about this fact, something to preserve my family's culture in the same way that I seek to preserve our stories by researching and recording our family history.

I was struck, while my husband and I were talking, with this idea to learn to make more of the dishes that were so much a part of my family as I was growing up--the ones that gave me so much joy. I don't want them to pass from my life. I want to perfect and preserve these recipes for future generations. Just a couple times a month, I want to devote time to cooking these things and serving them at the table on the pretty dishes. I want to chronicle this effort here--my mistakes and successes--maybe share a few recipes. Through the end of this year, I want to take you on this journey with me to uncover my "soul" through cooking.

Do you honor the food traditions of your family and ancestors? If so, how?


Renee said...

Girl, reading that post made me hungry. I am of Caribbean descent and I have to say that every once and awhile I get a craving for the food that I grew up on. Salt fish, fried dumplings, fried plantin, etc..all these foods mean comfort to me. I don't really make a habit of cooking them for the boys but I think it is a bit easier for me to go out to an Island restaurant and get exactly what I am looking for.

I hear you on the whole loss between generations. I sometimes think about what my kids of lost. There is such a huge difference between me, a first generation child and them a second generation child. I do think that you make a point about Black people needing to hold onto our history and culture through food. Not only is it a time that is good for the stomach it is good for the soul because it connects us.

Da Bee's Knees said...

I share the sentiment in this entry. It is one of the main reason that Sunday Dinner is sacrosanct in our family.

Each Sunday both households (we live next to each other by choice) meet next door around the huge table for a few hours of feeding our tummies and our hearts.

We don't always have soul food. But many times we do.


Kelly Hogaboom said...

[M]y mother (and her mother before her) demonstrates her love and cares for her family through cooking. Mind you, I am not saying that women have to express themselves this way; I just mention that women have done this and many, like my mother, have enjoyed it.

Count me as one of the women that loves this form of expression and care. I cook for people out of love - my family, friends, neighbors, even strangers! I am cooking a Valentines' meal for my partner tonight (as he favors my food to restaurants) and a feast for his bandmates tomorrow. I would cook more than you could imagine had I not a single-income family of four and also - hey, I don't like the cleaning up all that much. :-)

I am not saying other people are required to enjoy my cooking, or that households should prioritize cooking, but I love to cook so very much and I do know that is happening in my home. How many times have I been kneading my bread while my son or daughter watches and suddenly warmly says, "Mom, I love you!"? Too many to count.

I very much relate to the phrase "comfort food". I cook from scratch and there are some meals that just seem to make everyone feel better. Thank you for your words about it being about time, and prioritizing. Because a lot of my day is spent in cooking and preparing and cleanup for my foursome (my two kids are homeschooled so they're around a lot!) and sometimes I feel this kind of work is denigrated in my peer group.

As far as soul foods to a unique culture: where I live we have an increasing Latino population, and that is starting to be reflected at the grocery store and a new carneceria: you can find birra and lengua and chicharrĂ³n and pulpo and any number of things you couldn't find easily ten years before. I am glad for this, not only because these families are able to cook according to their heritage, but because it is exposure for myself to try or learn something new.

As for the supposed terrible nature of ham hocks and mac and cheese... I dunno. My family - the Polish side - ate a hell of a lot of fried meat and potatoes. I notice it didn't kill anyone off early. I am all for healthy food but I also believe food has to nourish your emotions, and yes, your soul.

At your mention of neck bones hogs head cheese I inexplicably thought of the bar food eating contest scene from the comedy The Ladies Man, a film that had its funny moments and the graphic portrayal of eating a pig's foot (and a few other things) really stayed with me. You are blessed to have such a wonderful family experience at meals, and thank you for sharing a bit.

Sorry for writing a small essay... but your words really stirred a lot of thoughts simultaneously.

Good luck on your endeavor in cooking and learning (or re-learning recipes). I am always happy to hear when people are devoting more time and energy to cooking. I look forward to reading your blog entries!

Gregory A. Butler said...

I always feel uncomfortable in discussions of "traditional" African American food because I didn't grow up eating like that

I was born and raised in New York City (to an African American mom from North Carolina and a White father from Maine).

I don't know what my mother grew up eating but we never had any of the "traditional" African American food - usually, she made us her variations on Italian, Chinese or Indian dishes.

And when my father cooked on weekends, it was various types of English or Irish type dishes (or cornbread, the one stereotypically "African American" food we eat regularly - which my White father cooked for us!)

I don't think it made me any less "authentically" African American to have never eaten collard greens, or chitterlings or neck bones.

I have lots of Muslim friends who are as "authentically" African American as anybody, but they grew up eating halal food (no pork allowed) - thus, no chitterlings, no pigs feet ect.

And I have friends from the Islands who grew up eating curry goat, roti, ect (a lot of those folks don't eat pork either) - and they are as "authentically" African American as anybody.

We are considered African American in this country because of color, hair texture and common roots in Africa - not all of us participated in one particular type of African American culture (that is, the culture of the deep south), but we are still African American.

Chai said...

I think about the comforts of food and how it brings me back to my childhood almost every day.I come from a traditional Haitian family, and the thought of having to let go of the foods that once made me so happy and helped form my identity makes me especially sad.

On the regular, I long for my mum's fried plantains, her poulet en sauce..., the griot, the slow cooked lambi...!!

Since my parents moved, and I stayed put here in NY, taking the time to carry on the traditions of Haitian cooking is more of a time consuming mission - but I do relish my plate during get togethers over the holidays. I take plate after plate home to devour for days at a time, and no one else dares come near my

My brother & and often trek to the outskirts of different boroughs in NY looking for Haitian restaurants that offer up what our mum used to make. We usually leave more than satisfied & the prices are always right, but seriously...nothing beats stirring your own pot, getting to the bottom and knowing you've shared something more than just food with those you love.

msladydeborah said...

Between me and my mother we have managed to hand down many of the traditional dishes that we grew up eating.

My maternal grandmother taught us both how to cook. I still cook from scratch for myself. I always cooked from scratched when my sons were growing up.

I still eat many of the dishes that I grew up on. Fish, chicken, beef and some pork. We eat a lot of salad, greens, green beans and all types of veggies. I love Collards and Kale. I don't use pork in my greens. We like to use Turkey instead. I saute my Kale and season it with garlic and lemon pepper.

My mother still fixes the corn and rice puddings. She also does bread pudding every once and awhile. We still eat beans, rice and cornbread.

I think that moderation and learning how to use alternative seasonings is one key to keeping our food traditions. I spend a lot of time watching the Food Channel and at my stove afterwards.

My sons are passing on the tradition of wholesome eating. We do a lot more steamed and baked foods now. But there are times when only the real deal will do.

roslynholcomb said...

Maybe it's because I'm in the south, but I have little trouble finding the staples that you mention. I pretty much cook from scratch everyday because it's the only way I know how to cook, and it's considerably cheaper. I like to cook soul food and do so fairly regularly. Of course, most of the time I cook a 'lighter' version, for instance, no fatback in my greens. But for holidays and special occasions I still go "whole hog." If you like, I can share a peach cobbler recipe that will absolutely blow your mind and my mama's lemon buttermilk pound cake recipe as well.

I'm one of those women who show my love for my family through what I cook. Most of the time I cook healthy and nutritious--whole grain, grilled or broiled meats or fish. But I wouldn't think of making macaroni and cheese with whole wheat pasta, it's a sacrilege. (Got that recipe as well if you want it.)

It does keep me in touch with my heritage and it does my heart good to know that my son loves collard greens, sweet potatoes and corn bread as much as I always have.

Tami said...


Please DO share those recipes. Little by little I'm prying my mom's recipes out of her. It's hard. She knows them so well that she's all " take a little bit of salt..." "How much is a little?" "Oh, a little..." "A teaspoon...a tablespoon?" "A little..." LOL!


I tried not to imply that all African Americans have this food experience. Of course, they do not. We are far from a monolith and whether or not you eat soul food is no litmus test for authenticity. But, the fact remains that this is an experience that many, many (perhaps most?) African Americans share, due to our country's history. I think it is fair to celebrate soul food as part of African American culture, while recognizing that, like other parts of the culture, your mileage may vary.

funnie said...

Tammy - as you go recipe-hunting, try the spelling "chow chow" for the relish - it's the way I've heard/seen it & a little more google-friendly.

Speaking of black v. Italian food, it reminds me of giardiniera. :)

Cindy said...

I still do the traditional Thanksgiving, giblet gravy and the works. Mash potatoes they way they are intended with butter and cream. Green beans with a ham bone, etc. My mother talked of eating pig's feet and cow's tongue growing up but she never served them to us.

I've also gathered new traditions along the way because of relationships in my life. The enduring favorites are Puerto Rican pasteles and coquito at Christmas.

I think each generation creates their own tradition, the things that connect us to what we define as family. In that sense it is all soul food.

Reggie said...

My father is from Mississippi too, Yazoo City to be precise. But he has family all over the state of Mississippi including, Mound Bayou and Fayette. My mother's family is from Alabama and I can tell you one thing about both sides of my family; where the pig is concerned they eat everything but the oink.

I love most soul food, but I tend to stick to the parts of the pig that you can find on menus. I won't be eating anyone's ground up pig parts or 'shitlings, that's not my style.

But I will tell you that I do agree with the old addage that soul food cooking is cooking from the heart....that I do believe.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

I grew up in Mississippi. My parents are still there.

I couldn't possibly cook and eat the way my grandparents did, and my parents growing up. My grandmother kept lard in the kitchen - probably rendered from their own pigs most of the time - and everything she cooked got a handful of it. Huge cat head biscuits (do black people say that, or is it a white country thing?) every morning, with milk gravy, and cornbread at every other meal. And these people lived to a ripe old age, but the thing is, their lives consisted of hard manual labor on the farm, day after day. When my parents and those of their sibs who did, left the farm life, they had to change their way of eating or it would have killed them.

I still like to fry vegetables like squash and okra, but I use olive oil. And most of the time they aren't fried, but steamed or raw.

Tami said...


Yes, certainly I wouldn't do soul food every day. My life is also very different from my grandparents in Mississippi who farmed for a living. Indeed, I didn't grow up having those dishes I love every day--just sometimes, and it was a treat. Like you, I'm more likely to stir fry veggies in olive oil than FRY, fry them in Crisco. But I still think there is room to honor those traditions without sacrificing our health.

Kjen said...

I still have trouble connecting the term 'soul food' to the food my family cooks for me. Soul Food to me always seemed that stuff served at restaurants or mentioned in some 70s blaxoitation flick, the food that was cooked at home was simply just that - food.
But I'm coming to realize that by putting a name to that type of food/way of cooking is a way to distinguish and even honor our heritage in a way.
One thing that tickles me is that I notice the exact same recipes ascribed to blacks are called "soul food", while the ones for whites are typically called "southern". I wonder, what sort of taboo would be breaking if we admitted that we actually did eat the same foods?

lj said...

Mmmmm, I love soul food. There's a definite generational gap in my family, too, when it comes to preparing it. I grew up on soul food, but my parents didn't cook it as much as my grandparents and so on and so forth.

And @Greg, I understand what you're saying and agree that we can't take certain cultural aspects and apply them to all black people, but I think that it's absolutely necessary not to conflate black (race) with African American (ethnicity). Your friends from the Islands are black, and exhibit their respective black Island culture. Just as my second gen. Nigerian friend grew up in Nigerian culture; to call the culture that is alive and well in her home African-American instead of Nigerian or Nigerian-American is missing the complexity of black cultures. Saying that because they didn't grow up with an African-American cultural aspect isn't saying that they aren't black. Likewise, and like you said, you aren't any more or less black or African-American if you didn't grow up eating traditional soul food. Maybe you just didn't come up in Southern African-American culture. African-American culture is diverse, as is the broader Black culture.

I'm sorry for the lack of clarity.

Good post as always, Tami!

Mary said...

My grandparents immigrated to the US at a time and place where assimilation was not only strongly encouraged -- it was the only option. As a result, I don't speak more than a handful of Swedish words, which I deeply regret, and I don't know much about Swedish culture or history or the world that my grandparents come from. I do, however, know how to make several "old country" dishes, which I continue to make faithfully. The sad thing is that I'm the only one of my generation who makes them -- probably because I'm the only one of my generation who does scratch cooking most days. My siblings and cousins like the food, but if I ask why they don't make it for themselves, they all say, "Oh, I can never get that to come out right." Well, no kidding -- there are skills involved, and you don't automatically have them because of your ancestry. Some things I learned to make from people who knew how, and some I had to learn on my own, through trial and error. Yeah, I've had my ethnic food kitchen disasters, but I'm not about to have an ethnic identity crisis over it. I wish more people would be willing to endure the kitchen disasters and reclaim the loving art of making good food from scratch.

avocadoawesome said...

I have enjoyed living here in the South because of what you mentioned-- the food. In my family, big elaborate suppers were strictly for holidays. And here in Georgia, this is an everyday affair. My in-laws are excellent cooks and have taught me several recipes. I have a few I could share if you are interested.

My "soul food" is something of a very different nature, however. Growing up in Alaska, my childhood memories are of subsistence meats and seafood. My family caught salmon, halibut, crab, moose, and dug up clams and mussels in the spring tide. Moose stew, clam chowder, and smoked salmon remind me of home.

My family also makes a dessert (or side dish) that some people call "Eskimo Ice Cream". We call it aqutag (a-goo-duck). Traditionally, it was made with berries, snow, smoked fish, and seal oil or whale blubber. Today, we make it with frozen berries, a little crisco, sugar and milk.

I found it interesting that you mentioned that some of the traditional foods in black culture derived from refuse from the white table. I only recently learned the origin of another family food-- frybread. My cousin told me that when Native Americans were pushed onto Reservations away from their subsistence lifestyles, they were granted cheap commodities from the BIA. Flour and lard became new staples, and frybread was born. The history of food is pretty fascinating to me.


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