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“Apparently you haven’t heard, Doctor, but there’s a shortage of caviar in the ghetto.”
These are the words of Florida Evans, a character in the ‘70s sitcom Good Times, upon being confronted with an African American doctor whom she believed was too far removed from the very people she was supposed to care for, to actually care. Black people. What Evans was attempting to tell the doctor and her audience is that we often assign characteristics and value systems of people with means to people who lack resources and have a different set of problems, different types of issues. This is a flawed precept certainly, because differences have existed and continue to exist.
When I told a friend about a work project I was undertaking, where the premise was to transform low-income neighborhoods, he cautioned me: “Arrie, po folks have po ways.”
As a firm believer in the transformative nature of the human spirit, I took from his caveat that poor people’s capacity for addressing life’s day to day quandaries is often constrained. And although it shouldn’t be – legally or morally – our ethnic identity, wrought with pain, inequity and discrimination based on nothing more than skin color, sometimes leaves us with fewer options. We are, however, still a very proud people, worthy of the same value afforded any other human being. This is what Evans was saying to the good doctor and what you hear from Black Lives Matter activists today.
Slaves who found themselves in a country they knew nothing about, a distant and foreign land where they were treated like animals and where their traditions, culture, food – and oftentimes their lives – were taken from them, possessed a dogged determination to survive, one meager morsel at a time. They were given scraps from the slave master’s table. Food that was considered garbage by the upper crust was doled out for them to eat. They took that garbage and created meals that sustained their strength and their families through those foreboding times. The food was so delicious that slave masters suddenly wanted a little for themselves.
Over time, the food of that period was cultivated. Still, African American people who couldn’t afford to shop in the best grocery stores often had relationships with small neighborhood grocers and purchased food on credit in order to feed their families. They made beans, rice, and cornbread – staple dishes they even wrote songs about to heighten their appeal. These families endured difficult times, and summoning their faith, they placed all hope and trust in God.
They sought to better their stead in life by any means necessary, which included taking jobs in other women’s kitchens and taking care of other women’s children to provide for their own. They made something out of nothing and created dishes that fed and continue to feed our souls today. We were uplifted by meals that honored our past and were made with love. Our souls were fed and we were made whole.
In her book Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes, author Amy Guptill describes soul food as a “rich example of a dynamic, hybrid cuisine, distinctively African American but influenced by Europeans who introduced corn to African foodways and then provided cornmeal, meat, fish, and other ingredients as rations to the first enslaved Africans in Southern North America.”
She goes on to say that “a culinary repertoire, reliant on less valuable cuts of meat, such as pig ears, feet, and chitterlings spiced up with strong flavorings fed large families and served poor African Americans well during times of scarcity.” And I dare say for many people today, there are still scarce times. And that may have been its humble beginnings, but my, oh my, how far soul food has come. Strong flavorings and spicing up ingredients is another way of saying we can really cook, burn, do the dang thang; we’ve got skills to pay the bills. These are some of the words you might hear in kitchens, heralding the cooks who had given it their culinary all, called upon the ancestors, and created a meal that took their guests back to the motherland.
I’m certain author Amiri Baraka would agree. In Food as a Lens, he insisted that hog maws, chitterling sweet potato pie, gravy and pork sausage, fried chicken, or chicken in the basket, barbecued ribs, hoppin’ John, hush puppies, fried fish, hoe cakes, biscuits, salt pork, dumplings, and gumbo all came directly out of the black belt region of the South and represented the best of African American cookery. He and other African American nationalists called for a new, independent, proud African American identity. These dishes and recipes were passed down through generations and are food traditions that have kept our souls ??. Some traditions I’ve kept close to my heart, while creating new time-honored customs with my family as well. Some are centered around Sunday, the first day of the week.
Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy; six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work. As we read in Exodus 20: 8-11, “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day, wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.”
We took this scripture seriously back in the day, so all preparations for Sunday were made on Saturday.
Getting ready for Sunday morning included bathing, getting hair washed, straightened, and curled, washing, ironing, laying church clothes out, and then hanging them up the night before. And, of course, the most certain Saturday chore was preparing Sunday dinner. There would be no time to tarry the next morning. We couldn’t be late for services; some other family might sit in our favorite pew.
A Sunday soul food dinner is all things fried and might go something like this: chicken-fried, baked, or smothered. Smothered just means adding gravy; you cover the pot so the chicken simmers and is tender; you cook rice for the chicken and gravy. Or maybe it was ribs and black eyed peas, greens, most likely a collard and mustard or turnip mix, ham hocks, baked macaroni and cheese, and more cheese, with cornbread to round things out.
Now that cornbread could be muffins baked in a tin, fried in a skillet, dolloped into hot grease, or baked in a pan. It just had to be cornbread. Having rolls instead, somehow lessened the down home effect – for me anyway – making it just a meal, not a soul food dinner. And if you hadn’t had dessert, you hadn’t had dinner. My favorite was peach cobbler, but you might also have banana pudding or Seven-Up pound cake, dewberry cobbler, coconut cake, German chocolate cake, lemon meringue pie, and of course sweet potato pie, not to be confused with pumpkin pie. There is certainly a difference.
Sunday school was at 9 a.m., then an 11 a.m. service that was over at 1 or 1:30 p.m. depending on how the spirit moved, then Sunday dinner. We all looked forward to that time after the 11 a.m. service when we could get home, put on our comfortable clothes, sit down at the dinner table, and eat. It was always a foot tappin’, back slappin’ good meal. Sometimes the pastor stopped by and we all acted holy. We gathered, gave thanks, and ate until the glory came down.
Soul food was and is comfort food for African American people across this country. Although its origin is tied to a horrible time in our history, we have made it our own. And rather than conjuring up negative images of plantation life, we have strengthened ourselves spiritually and physically by consuming this sustenance rather than the history consuming us.
There are variations of soul food and depending on which part of God’s green Southern earth a family hails from, its particular soul food will reflect characteristics of home. Many left the South and brought their food with them. The migration of African American families from the South to places north, east and west – a diaspora of sorts – influenced the music, culture, times, and foods they found.
For example, during my undergraduate years at the University of Denver, I went looking for my people and found them in East Denver. Right away I noticed differences. And while some of those differences may have had more to do with the cook than the region, there were tendencies toward less pig fat and more turkey for seasoning of greens, cabbage, and the like. Beans were often baked with brown sugar and were sweet compared to the savory pinto beans in Texas or red beans in Louisiana.
A Denver soul food dinner might consist of some of the soul food staples, but may not be as deeply infused with seasoning. I’m certain Denverites would beg to differ. Then there was the classmate from Chicago (or was it Detroit?) who loved neck bones that she boiled and simmered, making broth that then became the seasoning for the potatoes she added. Interesting. The final meal was neck bones, potato salad made from the neck bone simmered potatoes, greens, and hot water cornbread.
San Antonio’s local examples of soul food restaurants are Mr. and Mrs. G’s Home Cooking, Mrs. Kitchen Soul Food Restaurant and Bakery, both on the city’s Eastside, and recently opened Tony G’s Soul Food in Sunset Station. I wonder if the G’s are related?
If there was a level of down home goodness or a standard that could be assigned to the best soul food cook in college, as standards went, it was Deborah Hall’s food from Birmingham, Ala. We would gather at her place for Sunday dinner or on holidays when we couldn’t make it to our respective back homes. Deborah’s food was just good and reminded you of wonderful yesterdays, no matter where you were from. For she managed to cook and have available so much that she was sure to touch on whatever your regional favorite was. Deborah and her then-husband Bill, who later married a white woman, were the first people to introduce me to the term “jook joint,” a down South hole in the wall where real partying took place.
1920s jazz and blues vocalist Bessie Smith sang, “Give me a pig foot and a bottle of beer.” Translation: Let the good times roll. Because for every Sunday morning soul’s salvation, there was Friday and Saturday night sinning that had taken place and needed redeeming. And while Sunday soul food dinners typically meant an entrée with three, four, or five sides, and cornbread, Friday night jook joint soul consisted of fried fish, hot and right out of the grease, white bread, and hot sauce. No sir, couldn’t forget the hot sauce.
There was always a bit of partying that took place after a good meal. It was a way of working off all the calories that if not addressed, would later turn into pounds we’d piled on during a soul food feast. Now, let’s see: there was the blues, even though at that time our college blues revolved around a failing grades or a love affair that had gone terribly wrong. There was jazz, for those of us who were coming into our individual eras of improvisational awareness, and of course funk for the Funketeers who followed groups like George Clinton and the Funkadelics, Grand Funk Railroad, and others. There was gospel too, for those of us who missed church on Sunday and were making up by hearing a musical word and praising to the gospel according to vinyl.
There are health issues. While soul food is great for our spirits, it is quite the contrary for our hearts and other parts. Illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension are prevalent in the African American community and often attributable to what we eat. Many modern day African Americans are choosing to find healthy alternatives, realizing the unhealthy consequences of certain food choices. In addition, the lack of food options in low-income neighborhoods is a contributing factor, but not the only factor. Although it may not be good for us, it still tastes amazing.
The TV doctor was voicing her frustration with the choices people seemed to make in spite of the available information. However, she finally came to understand that there is more that goes into choice and behavior than personal preference. Poverty may be a more accurate predictor of behavior than partiality.
Keep your eyes open for snooty folks like the doctor who may turn their noses up at soul food for health and other reasons. And you just may find they visit their local soul food establishments under cover of night, because you can’t deny the draw of soul food when it’s done right.
Top Image: Vintage picture of the “Sunday Tea.” Photo courtesy of Arrie Porter.