“Ours is a region whose food carries with it the burdens of our past — a history of slavery and racism, long-lasting, outdated stereotypes of our people, and a tenuous political landscape.” -www.thrilist.com The New Southern Cuisine: Don’t Call It Fusion
Our past IS fraught with burdens when it comes to race…even our present. Somehow our food rises above it all. Don’t believe me? Go to a Baptist Church covered dish dinner or a hole in the wall diner named “Momma Ester’s Café”. European, West African and Native American foodways merge into a superhighway that became known in the Seventies as soul food…one of the few positives of the Columbian Exchange. It was Southern fusion before the word was cool.
Over a year ago, before our lives changed with the “corona”, my bride and I sat down at a restaurant for a Sunday brunch to celebrate our wedding anniversary and contemplated our dish selections. This was before the need for masks, social distancing or arguments over rights and vaccines.
At the urging of my bride, we decided to sit outside in the shade and enjoy the warm breezes along with a Bloody Mary or two. It was late June. Even mountain breezes in late June sometimes feel like the blast from a Bessemer furnace.
This was one of those “sometimes”. Winter had gone straight to full on summer. The “bacon infused” Bloody Mary with the okra pod garnish had just enough bite to increase the perspiration forming across my nose and to a greater extent, settling into my underwear. For some reason the hot wind reminded me of the past before air conditioning was cool, when a window fan was an ineffective defense against the hot and humid air.
The restaurant was one of those neo-Southern cookin’ places boasting traditional Southern dishes with a “twist.” Judging from the prices I worried it might be a nouveau-riche Southern cookin’ place although no one would accuse me of being a member of the nouveau-riche…not near Beverly Hillbillies nouveau-riche but it was my anniversary, and my bride was worth any price.
I was hopeful as I perused their menu. There were plenty of selections featuring biscuits and deeply fried anything. There were collards cooked to death with ham and bacon grease, cornbread battered fried green tomatoes, and dishes featuring cracklins’…bacon bits…not the real ones, pig skin fried crisp.
Fried chicken with an acceptable twist, waffles. Sounded tasty with maple syrup drizzled over it. What worried me were dishes including fried cauliflower bites or smashed avocado on toast points. I don’t remember many dishes from the past including cauliflower in any form but right there in the menu was a picture of a vegan taco with both fried cauliflower and avocado wedges. I figured it looked better than it might taste. I like cauliflower and avocado but I had decided today was not a day to eat healthy.
I saw one immediate positive. No dishes involving kale.
One appetizer piqued my interest. Deep fried BBQ stuffed egg rolls. Recipe must be from Southern China. Didn’t matter where it came from, it was good, but didn’t speak to the ghosts of my past. Not sure I ate an egg roll until I was out of college. Now BBQ? That is something else entirely.
Some of this neo-Southern cuisine is described as fusion cookin’ but it seems to me, the food I consumed as a child was fusion. We ate what became known as soul food. Food heavily seasoned with salt pork and bacon grease, the heavy use of starches and cornmeal. We ate soul food before it was cool and before we could be accused of racial appropriation. We ate soul food until our arteries seized up.
I grew up in an area where no one of any race really ate “high on the hog.” We didn’t know we were poor, and in most ways that counted, we weren’t. Money was not one of the ways that counted. Even the “landed rich” didn’t have an extra two nickels to rub together until after harvest season, so most of us ate like we were poor. Sometimes the poor knew better how to eat than the rich.
Chicken, pork, and fresh caught fish seemed to be staples. Not much expensive beef unless it was from the “butt end of the cow”, cubed round steak dusted with flour and fried crisp or chicken fried and smothered in milk gravy. I didn’t know you could order steak anyway but done to death until I graduated from college. That doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well; we just didn’t eat a lot of steak. Catfish fried with a cornbread batter heavy with black pepper, chicken battered and fried in lard. The skin crisp and the inside moist and tender. Pork chops fried and smothered with milk gravy, the renderings spooned over biscuits.
Green beans, butter beans, peas, and collard greens cooked forever plus one day, cooked with fat back or bacon Maybe some unrecognizable pork bits in and amongst it. Seasoned with a bit of salt and sugar, a finely chopped hot pepper to add a bit of heat and cider vinegar for a little tartness. Pinto beans simmered all day with hog jowls, ham hocks or neck bones until the meat fell off the bone. Chopped onion and a pone of cornbread to go with it. Sweet potatoes made sweeter with butter and sugar or syrup. All seasoning guided by the hands of the ghosts of women long dead.
Simple food seasoned well and prepared in cast iron pots and pans dating from before the First World War and cut up with a knife that had to be seventy years old. Soul food can’t help but taste of the past.
My grandmother and mother were not known for their culinary abilities. They did okay, I didn’t starve. My grandmother was more concerned about the great outdoors and growing the food although there were memorable dishes. Her creamed corn, chicken pot pie, “cooter” soup and peanut butter cookies.
My mother was a textile shift worker and I remember dining on Birdseye TV Dinners and fried bologna sandwiches often. Mom did cook on weekends, spaghetti on Saturday nights and her own trinity, BBQ chicken, pot roast, or fried chicken on Sunday.
My grandmother’s sisters and my mother’s sister can put on a spread. So could their in-laws.
I am reminded of a late summer feast put on by my Uncle James’ wife, Aunt Mary Hannah and their two daughters. She was a slight woman crippled by polio. Braces and crutches did not affect her abilities in her kitchen. It always amazed me how happy she could be. Her freckled face always had a smile.
The summer season was drawing to an end, the hayin’ was done and in the barn, corn pulled and stored in the cribs, the tomatoes, squash, and beans almost played out. Those huge John Deere tractors safely tucked and serviced in their garage. I was headed back to school and football practice as were my cousins who, with me, provided the summer labor. We sat under a shade tree in slat backed chairs we moved from her dining room and ate off rough boards set on sawhorses covered with linen tablecloths.
Part of my daily pay was a midday meal which usually consisted of Vienna sausages or deviled ham, maybe sardines and saltine crackers, a “dope”, and a Moon Pie. But one late summer day, the midday meal was worth the hell of those hay and corn fields.
Pan fried chicken, butter beans cooked with chopped up ham, creamed corn running with home churned butter, corn bread battered okra fried crisp, squash casserole, deviled eggs to die for, potato salad, and biscuits. All seasoned well, with a smidge of this, a pinch of that, a tad of something else, until it tasted right and the voices from our past whispered, “That will do.”
Every vegetable or starch grown in their garden. The chicken, ham, and eggs from their coop or sty. The only dishes or ingredients foreign were the sweet tea we washed it down with and the bananas and vanilla wafers in the banana pudding we finished it with. We could have stayed local and washed it down with buttermilk from their cow and eaten watermelon from their field. It was food fit for fieldworkers or a king. That one meal encompassing all of the different foodways.
Soul food…food with a soul. Food with a past going back centuries brought from lands far away and land close by, somehow merged in a way the people who brought them should fuse.
Food should unite us all. Food prepared by hands who were taught by ghostly hands from the past in implements passed down by generations. Food should taste like the past.
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