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Snatching Soul Food?

Did you get a chance to check out the Chicago Art Institute’s food exhibit “Art & Appetite”?  If you didn’t, you truly missed out.  There were wonderful displays of paintings with fruits and vegetables stroked in hues of orange, red, purple and green that looked so vibrant you’d swear you were staring at the real thing–I became hungry shortly thereafter.

Mixed in with this were works depicting women in the kitchen chopping onions, rolling dough and snapping green beans, along with portrayals of well-dressed happy White people frolicking in the park at a “Pick nic,” playing fiddles and flirting with the ladies. Throughout all of the vivacious colors, I did notice that other than myself, the “please put your camera away, sir” staff and their uniform shoes, there wasn’t a representation of Black in sight.  I found that quite interesting and convinced myself that all of the paintings on display MUST have been painted on Mammy’s day off.

Delighted by the art itself, but disgusted by the untrue statements it evoked, my mind was stuck on the question “How could we have been painted out of history?”  Pondering this, it hit me that similar things are happening as we speak, and have been for quite some time.  What is the place of the African-American cook/chef?  Did we not bring with us okra, black-eye peas, yams and watermelons (and more), some of the most nutritionally-dense food readily available?

Professionally or home trained, have we not made a contribution to the culinary world as we know it today?  In the words of Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, community scholar, and living-history interpreter focusing on African-American food and folk culture, “I wouldn’t advocate for culinary justice if African-American heritage foods were not being constantly remixed by White hipster chefs and others and re-spun as pan-“Southern” cuisine brought into the 21st century;” Mr. Twitty, I couldn’t have said it better sir.

Nothing against my Caucasian brethren, but let’s keep it real: although certain food dishes are being heralded as the new “it” foods, some of these humble dishes have roots in African culture.  Let’s take a look at a few:

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Fried chicken & waffles: The original combination of chicken and waffles dates back to the 1600s and  the Pennsylvania Dutch, who topped waffles with pulled chicken and gravy (sounds gross to me).  Unlike Jennifer Pendergrass, a spokeswoman for IHOP, who said a few years ago that they want to offer a dining experience that is “new and creative and unique” by adding chicken and waffles to their menu, we know better.  Many sources agree that the combo became popular in 1938 with the opening of Harlem’s famed Wells Supper Club, (a speakeasy frequented by jazz artists and other celebrities of the time) by Dickie Wells.  There was a need to feed the musicians something to stave off their “after-show” hunger, but they were too late for dinner and too early for breakfast,hence “fried chicken & waffles.”

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Pig ears & other offal: Whether served in sandwiches or  wraps in restaurants such as “Tongue & Cheek,” the consumption of offal in the U.S. started with African-Americans.  Given the scraps for food we had as slaves, we jazzed up the ears, ham hocks and intestines to make it edible.   Associated with slavery, I find it hilarious that several restaurants now feature offal and sometimes charge upwards of $20 for pig feet! According to Frederick Douglass Opie, author of Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America,  “In the late 1960s, Whites in the food industry began making money off soul food after years of laughing at the Black women who collected the hogs’ ears and pigs’ feet that slaughterhouses and butcher shops discarded.”

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

“Southern-style” Collard greens: Collards have been around since pre-historic times, linked back to the Asian Minor.  The way that lots of us (especially Southerners) enjoy one of the most nutrient-dense food products available is with ham hocks, turkey parts and seasonings; this way of preparation, too, comes from slavery.  Enjoy a side dish of this at several restaurants nationwide, and prepare to spend at least $4-$5 per serving (absolutely ridiculous).

In his 1969 Soul Food Cookbook, Bob Jeffries says that “what makes soul food unique—and more indigenous to this country than any other so-called American cooking style—is that it was created and evolved almost without European influence.”  You tell us: What cuisine do you feel was most co-opted from African American culture?  I’d love to hear back in comments below.

About Chef Cordell

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Chef Cordell passionately pursues educating others how to build healthy cooking and eating habits for life via cooking classes, grocery store tours, kitchen makeovers, public speaking, corporate wellness training, restaurant consulting, etc. Through his nonprofit work, he looks to offer community based solutions for education of,  and access to, healthier food solutions.

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