Soul food, or whatever you call it
What do you call the great cooking that Mama Dip Council serves at her wonderful restaurant on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill?
I am thinking about things like her fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collard greens, yams, corn bread, fruit cobbler, sweet tea and banana pudding.
You know what I am talking about. It is the cuisine special to our region. What do you call it?
What is the difference, if any?
If you are stumbling around for an answer, you might want to take a look at a new book from UNC Press, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” by Adrian Miller.
Miller follows the development of soul food from its origins among the diverse lands and peoples of West Africa who mingled beans and other plants with a variety of starches; to the ships on which the captains had learned that the survival rate for the voyage was much higher if the captives were fed African foods rather than the European fare given the crew; to the plantation kitchens where enslaved cooks and masters blended cooking traditions; to the explosion of good cooking in African-American homes, churches, and communities after emancipation; to the restaurants that sprung up in the North and West to serve the tastes of the African-American Diaspora during the last century; to the unsuccessful hijacking of the soul food by the Black Power movement during the last century; all the way to today’s adaptation of the soul food cuisine to the vegetarian preferences of modern youth, who do not realize they are returning to the roots of soul food. Their West African ancestors were vegetarians, because food from plants was their staple.
Don’t worry. Miller does not forget about the importance of the pig and the chicken. He devotes an entire chapter to fried chicken, sometimes called the “Gospel Bird” because, according to Clarence Major, a collector of African-American slang, “in the South fried chicken was a favorite on Sunday, the Christian holy day, especially if the preacher was coming to dinner.” Another reason, says Miller, is that for the peoples of West Africa, the chicken was a holy bird, a memory still ingrained in some of their American descendants.
If there is a difference between soul food and Southern cooking generally, it is that soul food’s roots are in the least expensive, least favored ingredients. In plantation days, when a hog was slaughtered for the master, the leftover parts, feet and intestines for instance, were left for the slaves. According to Miller in his chapter on the subject, those intestines or chitterlings or chitlins are “by far the most controversial item in our soul food meal.”
Chitlins, and the appreciation of them, are one of the solid lines that differentiate soul food from other southern cooking. Otherwise, says Miller, “soul food dishes tend to have more intensity than their counterparts in Southern cuisine. They're sweeter, more highly spiced and tend to have a higher fat content -- all the things that one would expect from a cuisine using a lot of bland starches and lesser cuts of meat.”
So then, what is the real difference? I still don’t know for sure. And when I eat at Mama Dips, I love it so much I don’t care what you call it.
D.G. Martin’s interview with Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” on WCHL’s Who’s Talking will be available soon at http://chapelboro.com/category/wchl/lifestyle-weekly/whos-talking/.