Food Snob Chronicles – Soul Food: An Interview with a culinary griot
Many of us in the U.S. know ‘soul’ food as greens, smothered pork chops or chicken and waffles. But there is more to it than that. Much more.
Soul food is to American Southern cuisine what 17th century Scottish folk songs are to Nashville-produced country music. They are the roots.
Washington D.C.-based Chef Dadisi Olutosin is a self-described griot (more on that later) who is also an expert on the topic. What better way to learn the skinny on ‘soul’ food in less than five minutes than a Q&A with one of the modern masters?
Can you tell us a little about the history of this food genre and how it came to be what it is today?
‘Soul food’ can be defined in many different ways, depending on who you’re talking to. I define ‘soul food’ as the foundational culinary style developed by West African slaves brought to the U.S. via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. I would also add that Soul Food is the base-line style of cooking for all Southern American cuisine … especially the cuisine emanating from the ‘Low Country’ or Gullah/Geechee culture — stretching from Wilmington, NC down through Charleston, SC to Savannah, GA to Jacksonville, FL and the Seminoles. You can include, in one form or another, influences that found their way as far west as Texas and Louisiana and as far North as Chicago and New York City.
But, for the most part, when someone is talking about ‘soul food,’ they are referring to cooking styles that began in the Southeastern region of the U.S. — cooking styles that are heavy on vegetables, whole grains and the whole animal, where meat is concerned. Today, it is not uncommon to see ‘soul food’ and Southern food used interchangeably. I would say that they’re not exactly the same, just like Creole and Cajun cuisines are not the same. I could go on but hopefully you get the gist of my point of view.
You started the Google+ Community West African Influenced Cuisine . Being a member of the community, I know that much of our Southern or ‘soul’ cuisines in the U.S. are direct descendants of the West African originals. What are some of those foods?
This is a GREAT question and opens a very wide door on showing how culture survives and expands outside of its native lands. There is a very popular soup or stew in Nigeria and throughout Western Africa called ‘egusi.’ Egusi is made with dried melon seeds, bitter leaf or available green leafy vegetable, peppers and typically many different things (in terms of meats) are thrown in. You might find poultry, bush meat (aka wild game), goat, or fish in the dish with a good helping of palm oil to round out the dish. Typically you’d eat this dish with another dish called pounded yam, fufu or fried plantain.
A number of versions of this dish have found their way to the Americas. In the Caribbean they call it Callaloo but in the ‘soul food’ genre of cooking, it’s not as straight forward a dish. You will find that collards, mustards and turnip greens are cooked in various ways and fresh slices of onion; and tomato is eaten with it and cornbread. Sometimes in a similar fashion to how you would see Egusi and pounded yam eaten with one’s hands. I would add that okra plays a big part to the ‘soul food’ interpretations of that dish and you’ll find it in various forms of okra soups and stews as well.
There’s not always a one-to-one correlation but this example certainly illustrates the connections.
What is your all-time favorite ‘soul food?’
Hmmm. That’s a tough question because there’s not just one. When I think about my favorite Soul Food I think about food that brings back warm memories of my childhood. I grew up in a family where the women did all of the cooking. Men were rarely in the kitchen cooking. They just did all the eating. I have to think about dishes my mother, grandmother and aunts cooked.
Not to sound stereotypical but I’d have to say, Fried Chicken, Collards, Black Eyed Peas and Buttermilk Corn Bread when it comes to dinner foods. If we’re talking about breakfast, hands down Fried Fish and Grits.
You are a food historian and a Nigerian-American. As we wrap up Black History Month, I want to know your thoughts on the importance of ‘soul food’ history during this annual observation.
I have somewhat a unique perspective on this question because I’m both West African and Black American. My mother’s a Southern Belle, whose family is from both the Low Country and the Central Savannah River Area — also known as the CRSA for those from that part of the border region of Georgia and South Carolina. I’ve been eating both Soul Food and West African food all my life. When I think about it in conjunction to thinking about Black History Month, they go hand in hand.
I find that one of the easiest and least threatening ways to share the stories of a people is to talk about their culture opposed to what was done to them by others. What better way to share stories and culture than through connecting food, history and culture all in one conversation? That said, there are a number of Black Americans doing just that. They do a wonderful job of telling the story from a Black American perspective and I’ve posted some of their work on my the Google+ community I developed to make people aware of them.
Where I differ is that I’m working on a historical cookbook that brings it all back to it’s origins while paying homage to the other influences that have found their way into the many interpretations of this West African style of cooking in the Americas. So when I say West African Influenced Cuisine, I’m talking about Soul Food, Southern American, Caribbean or West Indian and Afro-Latino styles of cooking. I want that to be my contribution to not only Black History Month but to world history for all to learn from should they be interested. Black History in the Americas is world history that is on par with the history of any other peoples or cultures in my view.
By sharing the narrative we pay tribute to our ancestors and the griots of the past who lived to do nothing by tell the histories and stories of their people. So consider me a culinary griot. I like that description.
About Chef Dadisi Olutosin
Olutosin spent the first 25 years of his professional career as an IT professional and corporate executive before becoming a chef. He considers himself a Culinary Sith Lord using the Force to display his expertise in West African, Caribbean and Southern American
culinary styles with a European flair for presentation and plating. He calls it Soul Fusion®. He is currently working as a Private Chef with Árá-ilé Chef Services, writing a cookbook and plans to open his first restaurant in Washington, D.C. in the fall.
Google+: http://goo.gl/8XLlX |
With all due respect to my friends in Gilmer, TX, Opelousas, LA and Tabor City, NC — You’re wrong. All three cities hold annual yam festivals to celebrate the harvest of … sweet potatoes. Bruce Foods — the purveyor of the original (and delicious) Louisiana Hot Sauce — is also guilty of selling Convolvulaceae under the Dioscoreaceae name.
Here’s the real skinny.
Yam tubers are indigenous to West Africa. The flesh is cream-colored and they are used similarly to plantains, or even (white) potatoes. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are native to Central America and have nutritional value much higher than most vegetables grown beneath the ground. Not to mention, they have about 9X the sugar of their yam counterparts.
Smothered Pork Chops, Mustard Greens & Candied Sweet Potatoes
Smothered Pork Chops
3 lbs – Pork chops
1 cup – All-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 TB – Dried sage
2 tsp – Dried Savory
4 TB – Butter
4 TB – All-purpose flour
3 cups – Chicken stock
2 – Shallots, chopped finely
4 cloves – Garlic, minced
¼ cup – Celery, chopped finely
¼ cup – Carrots, chopped finely
Preheat oven to 375ºF.
In a large saucepan or skillet, heat about 1 inch of oil to medium high.
Prepare the pork chops
Rinse chops. Season with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Dredge in flour, shaking off excess.
Fry chops until lightly browned, about 3 minutes per side. Place chops in oven safe baking dish. Layering them 2-chops high is fine.
In the same pan, add carrots and celery. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add shallots and garlic. Cook for another 2 minutes, or so. Remove with a slotted spoon and distribute over chops.
Make the roux
In remaining oil, add 4 TB butter and 4 TB flour, stirring constantly and loosening all remaining pork chop bits — until flour is very lightly browned. Add chicken stock and whisk vigorously until combined. Allow to cook for about 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Pour roux/gravy mix over pork chops. Cover with foil. Cook for about 40 minutes. Serve over rice.
Serves 5, with plenty of leftovers.
Mustard Greens w/ Bacon & Shallots
4 bunches – Mustard greens, rinsed and chopped roughly
4 slices – Bacon, chopped roughly
2 – Shallots, chopped finely
About 4 cups – Water¼ cup – White vinegar
Kosher salt, to taste
In a large stockpot, fry bacon pieces for about 4-5 minutes, until seared. Add shallots and continue cooking for about 3 minutes, until translucent.
Add water, vinegar and greens. Cover pot and cook over medium-high heat for about 20 minutes, until greens are tender.
Season to taste.
Candied Sweet Potatoes
1 – 29 oz can- Sweet potatoes (often labeled as Yams)
¼ cup – Butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup – Brown sugar
1 tsp – Cinnamon
7-8 – Chopped pecans (optional)
Miniature marshmallows (about 1 cup)
Preheat oven to 375ºF.
Drain sweet potatoes of any liquid. Place in small baking dish.
Distribute brown sugar, cinnamon and pecans (if using) evenly among sweet potatoes. Dot with butter pieces. Top with marshmallows.
Cover with foil and bake for about 15 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 10 minutes.
Serve as a side dish and try to pretend that you weren’t served dessert with your dinner.