Mama Dip

73. Mildred Cotton Council, the legendary “Mama Dip,” passed away on May 20, 2018, just a few weeks after celebrating her 89th birthday. Council was famous in food circles for her legendary restaurant, Mama Dip’s Kitchen, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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(Charlotte Observer file photo, 2005)

I was taken by Spring Council’s description of her mother’s contribution: “My mama cooked really traditional Southern food that really connected with people. It took them back to their mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens. She wanted to open a restaurant because she loved to cook. The emotion and memory that food sends out to people is a big deal. Her food stirred up memories.”

Indeed, “Mama Dip” had an impact on my own interest in cooking and foodways. I was fascinated by her biography, especially the description of her childhood, growing up on a farm in rural Chatham Co., NC. during the Great Depression and war years.

So much of her story had a familiar ring to it. My parents grew up in rural South Dakota, and had told me similar stories. Council’s mother had died young, and so Mildred and her six siblings were raised by their father, Ed Cotton. My Mom had also grown up in a single-parent home. Her father, a World War I vet, died of peritonitis when Mom was just four years old. Grandma Davis was left to raise four kids on her own, while trying to hang on to the family farm through the Dust Bowl years.

My Dad is ten years older than Council, and he’s still around. He’ll turn 99 this July. He’s a World War II vet, who lost his left hand in the Battle of the Bulge. Council’s story, got me interested in my own story. One day, I sat down with pen and notebook, and did a semi-formal interview of Dad, focused on what he and his family ate on the farm in the 1920s and 30s.

Dad’s so old that, as a child, he helped my Grandpa Anderson farm with horses. Grandpa didn’t get a tractor until Dad was a teenager.

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Daisy, one of the workhorses, with her colt.

He remembers Grandpa and his neighbors gathering in the late fall to slaughter hogs. Sunday dinner might include a chicken, freshly dispatched from the front yard. Grandpa also kept a few cattle. Some of their milk would be consumed at home, including home-churned butter. The skim milk leftover from churning would be fed to the hogs.

The Big Sioux River ran through the middle of their farm, and so in season, the family could add fresh bullheads or perch to their diet. Dad and his younger brother also dabbled in hunting, so sometimes, a jackrabbit or pheasant might be added to the mix. Grandma Anderson and Dad’s sisters would also can fruit and vegetables in season.

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Dad and his siblings in their Sunday best, c.1936-37. Dad (center) was the third of five kids. His older sisters were working as domestics for neighboring farmers, while his brother and younger sister remained in school. Note the wagon in the background.

But for the most part, Dad said that they depended on the eggs laid by Grandma’s chickens, and on homegrown potatoes. Especially at certain times of the year, they would eat eggs and potatoes for every meal, usually both fried in lard rendered from the hogs. (Dad also said that lard or bacon grease was his standard hair dressing for school!)

Fast-forward to 2018. Last Sunday, I had to come up with a quick lunch for Dad. I had just made him a ham and cheese omelet for Friday’s lunch, but thanks to his childhood, he likes eggs. So I made him a three-egg omelet, with bacon and apple slices:

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Soul food? Well, not exactly. Maybe “homestyle” would be better. Nonetheless, this simple little lunch reminded me of the story of Mildred Council’s first day in business in November 1976. She had bought a pound of bacon, a dozen eggs, a box of grits, and some bread, and started cooking breakfast. She made enough money on the breakfasts to buy some chicken to make for lunch. By the end of the day, she had turned a profit, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Soul food” is not just what goes on the plate, but how it goes on the plate. By that measure, my little omelet plate conjured up some private soul: simple country food with some history behind it. It gave this little cooking exercise a meaning and purpose beyond being able to shovel some calories into the old dude’s mouth. And that’s a thought that would never occurred to me without knowing Mildred Council’s story.

Rest in Power, Mama Dip.

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Chewing the Cabbage

72. So, once again, it’s National Soul Food Month. Seems like it’s only been a year since the last one.

Not the greatest timing for Food Tells a Story. Or maybe it’s the perfect timing. Lately, yours truly has been on a pasta kick. I don’t know why. It’s as much a physical craving for pasta as it’s a mental exercise in expanding my cooking repertoire.

Problem is that this craving hit me about the same time that I started an Instagram page christened “soul.food.heaven.” So there’s not much soul food on there, for now, and that’s embarrassing.

But with Juneteenth closing in, I figured I’d better start getting my head back into my adopted cuisine of choice. I tried a little fusion thing first, with something I dubbed “Cajun Cavatappi.”

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The result was something I described as a three-way between spaghetti, red beans & rice, and an old-fashioned Chili Mac. I picked cavatappi pasta, not out of a rational assessment of the sauce I’d be creating, but because that’s the kind I use for my holiday Mac & Cheeses, supposedly one step fancier than the classic elbow macaroni.

I approached the sauce like I was making red beans & rice. I started with a Trinity mirepoix (onions, celery, bell pepper), sweated down mostly in the drippings from browning Italian sausage, along with some rich New Zealand butter. Then I added diced tomatoes, and seasoned the mix with Slap Ya Mama. I wanted that Louisiana taste in there, even though I’d be adding back the Italian sausage later. As the sauce developed, I added a few splashes of Red Rooster hot sauce. Then I added the red beans.

When the beans were done, I added the meat and cooked pasta, and smoothed out the texture with some of the pasta water. Did the finished product qualify as “soul food” or was it just a botched Italian dish? Who knows? I thought it certainly had a soul-food vibe. It also tasted good. My Dad, who will be 99 in July, ate it for three meals, and over those three days, the taste got even better. Wish I’d kept closer track of what I was doing!

So what next? I got an urge to use the small head of cabbage I’d been keeping in the refrigerator for……a while. I also had a beef smoked sausage in there. Voila! Fried cabbage and sausage:

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Now I felt like I was headed back to my wheelhouse. Fried cabbage certainly qualifies as country cooking. I cook and season cabbage the same way I’d cook its sister, collards, or any other green, which reflects the African style of using meat as a seasoning for the greens. It was also richly seasoned, perhaps overly so. The red pepper flakes and hot sauce had already made their point; the extra twists of the pepper grinder for the sake of my photos at the end may have been overdoing it.

I had also salted the cabbage as it cooked, and I didn’t account for the salt that would be melting out of the sausage. So it was perhaps a little too salty too. I warned Dad that it was pretty salty and spicy, and that if it was too much for him, I’d be happy to whip up something else.

(In my Ron Howard “Arrested Development” voice:) That was a lie. I didn’t actually have an alternative. But it didn’t matter. Once again, Dad ate the whole thing, right down to licking his bowl clean at the end.

This wasn’t “soul food” in the sense of festival cooking. It was, and was meant to be, a humble supper dish. It did, however, get my head back in the game. Now I can start thinking about what to make for my Juneteenth solidarity meal.

Update

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while! Life temporarily got in the way. I’ve been working on several items, however, and I hope to resume posting some new material within the next 2-3 weeks.

Meanwhile, you might want to check out the tumblr version of this blog. I reblog a lot of current food and restaurant news and views, and historical items that may be of interest.

By the way, we celebrated my Dad’s 98th birthday last Sunday. His actual birthday is July 23, but I think he’ll make it.

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Dad broke his hip one year ago this week, and he’s been living with us since his recovery. The cooking challenge for me has been to come up balanced meals for a guy who hasn’t lost his appetite and always cleans his plate.

For his birthday dinner, in honor of our family’s Swedish heritage, I made Swedish meatballs, with mashed potatoes, peas in a honey butter sauce, and zucchini & carrots. The zucchini came fresh from our youngest son’s front-yard garden. For the last couple of weeks, he’s been keeping us supplied with lots of zucchini and collard greens.

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We have four July birthdays in the family, and we celebrated all of them this last weekend. We let Pizza Hut cook on Friday evening for Ollie’s 7th. Then on Saturday morning, son Nick whipped up a tacos and fajitas feast for Reggie’s 2nd. Then on Saturday evening, for our daughter’s birthday, I smoked some ribs, along with collards, mac & cheese, bbq baked beans, and watermelon slices:

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Earth Day 2017: What’s for Dinner?

71. So, last month (April 22), we celebrated another Earth Day. What did we learn?

In our last post, we looked at some possibilities for the future of soul food. One of the perennial objections is that soul food is unhealthy, especially for African Americans, who are more likely to be overweight, diabetic, hypertensive, and so on. We’ve noted these health concerns before in the entry “Killer Soul.”

About a year ago, our “soul food scholar,” Adrian Miller, raised the question for a panel of experts in the field. Imar Hutchins, a vegan, and owner of Washington, D.C.’s famous Florida Avenue Grill, said, “If you ask the average black kid when is the last time he or she had soul food, the answer will probably be a year ago at a family reunion, cookout, or funeral.” He said, “I think the truth is that junk food is killing black people.”

The items that most folks would put on a soul food menu would qualify as “celebration food.” Dishes like candied yams were never meant to be eaten every day. If you eat the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner every day, then yes, you will get fat and perhaps be more likely to develop some sort of disease or debilitating condition. But to paraphrase Hutchins, nobody eats Thanksgiving dinner every day. It’s the junk food that’s killing us, no matter what our complexion or ancestry may be.

That’s especially true when we add in the rest of the response: Nobody said that it’s only “soul food” if you pour in a box of salt, triple the bacon fat and sugar, and eat every hog in Iowa. There are a lot of ways to cook chicken besides frying it. There are a lot of ways to cook pork chops that don’t involve smothering them  (and yourself) in gravy. After all, traditional African food was vegetable-centered rather than meat-centered, and there are lots of reasonably healthy ways to make collard greens, for instance.

We think of ourselves as people of science, people who depend on advanced technology. My youngest grandson, Reggie, isn’t even two yet, but knows how to work the DVR on our cable box.

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(Reggie also loves Grandpa’s ribs)

Yet when it comes to food, we are remarkably superstitious. We have an ever-changing list of food do’s and dont’s. Is coffee good for you? Depends what week it is.

Earth Day is a good time to remember that health is complex, and that it’s determined by far more than food scruples.

Environmental pollution has a greater proportional impact on African Americans and other minority groups than on the majority white community. Robert D. Bullard, the “father of environmental justice,” has devoted his career* to demonstrating how racism creates environmental injustices that have a significant impact on the poor in general and African Americans in particular.  (*Local interest note: Bullard received his Ph.D. from Iowa State.).

Many were shocked when the Flint Water Crisis came to national attention in 2016, but those familiar with how environmental racism and injustice work wouldn’t have been surprised. We are also not surprised that three years after state officials made the initial decisions about water treatment that triggered the lead poisoning, the situation remains unresolved.

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If you’ve got lead in your drinking water, you may not worry about the extra pat of butter on your sweet potatoes

In his classic work, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Bullard mentions how air and water pollution are associated with “diseases of adaptation,” diseases and chronic conditions triggered by toxic pollutants and the overall stress caused by the environment. These include conditions such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.

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From a food justice perspective, it’s easy to see how environmental racism impacts food choices and availability. People who have the means to escape heavily polluted neighborhoods will do so, leaving behind an even poorer community, and shrinking the tax base. Business costs increase, driving away new businesses and shutting down existing ones.

Soon, entire neighborhoods are left with fast food places and with convenience stores that offer few options, and at higher prices. Many use the problematic term “food deserts” to describe the situation.

The most recent edition of Dumping in Dixie came out in 2000, but there’s little indication that things have gotten any better. The current Administration seems to be working to make things worse. Air and water quality regulations are being vacated almost daily, and it appears that even the EPA’s days are numbered. The President’s misplaced zest for coal and tolerance for pollution seems to point us back to the 1950s, and these will have a disproportionate impact on the poor in general and minority groups in particular.

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On Feb. 28, 2017, the President ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to “review and reconsider” clean water regulations enacted by the Obama Administration. Earlier that month, the “Stream Protection Rule” that created a 100-foot buffer between coal mines and streams was revoked as well.

Nutrition issues are also part of the current debate on possible health insurance reforms. Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, for instance, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “People who lead good lives” don’t acquire pre-existing health conditions, and should be able to pay less for health insurance.

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From the conservative side, Brooks’ words reflect the GOP’s dominant Social Darwinist theology. But if we went ahead and specified that “People who lead good lives” practice good eating habits, quite a few liberal elitists would agree. Even in 2017, we have not quite escaped the superstitions of our pagan ancestors. We may cloak it in different language, but many still tend to believe that if you’re sick or unhealthy, it’s because you have done something to offend the gods.

An event like Earth Day helps remind us that healthy nutrition is more involved than reducing our intake of soul food from twice a year to never. It involves food policy, housing policy, employment opportunities, and a concern for the environment: the soil in which we grow our crops, the water we use to prepare our food, and the air we’re breathing as we eat.

Ben Carson and the Fate of Soul Food

70. Dr. Ben Carson, a brilliant pediatric neurosurgeon, is now the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), because he’s….Well, I suspect the internal discussion went something like this: The U in HUD stands for “urban,” and, as Paul Ryan showed us, “urban” is a code word for “black.” So, let’s make Ben the head of HUD. A match made in Heaven or wherever, quod erat demonstrandum.

(By the way, this post will be about food. I promise.)

Anyway, back on March 6, 2017, his first day in office, Dr. Carson spoke to his HUD employees, declaring: “That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

Let’s just say that the world of social media noticed. The Food Network’s Sunny Anderson had one of the more restrained reactions:

sunny on ben 1Carson’s statement did seem odd. When we think of “immigrants” coming to America, we probably don’t picture it like this:

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Later in the day, on his first attempt to talk his way out of it, Dr. Carson appealed to a linguistic technicality: An immigrant might be defined as an individual member of a migration. Some migrations are voluntary, and some are not. (Ask the Cherokee people about the “not” version.) And so, it was as he first said: The enslaved were “involuntary” immigrants.

Well, ok. Some still objected. Jelani Cobb noted that calling an enslaved person an “immigrant” is like calling a kidnapping victim a “house guest.” At the time, slaveholders insisted that they were merely importing farm equipment, like a farmer today might import a Volvo tractor. The enslaved were considered property, not tourists. (Except when it came to seats in Congress. Then the slaveholders wanted their “property” to count the same as them. That’s where the infamous 3/5ths rule came in as a compromise.)

But even if we’re charitable and grant Dr. Ben that technical definition, it still wouldn’t explain his characterization that the enslaved had “worked even longer, even harder for less” in order to win the American Dream for their descendants.

On the face of it, it sounds like a backhanded argument against raising the minimum wage. Can’t make it on $7.25/hr? Stop whining, and work 16 hours instead of 8.

If that’s your politics, fine. But don’t compare it to life under enslavement. If we say they were working “for less” instead of “for free,” then we’re assuming that the enslaved at least got “paid” in free room and board, so it was ok. I mean, a hovel and a cup of cornmeal is worth something, right? There’s no free lunch.

And the rest of your “compensation”? Whippings were thrown in for free. Character-builders, I guess. Maybe Frederick Douglass wouldn’t have gotten up the gumption to escape and become an abolitionist hero if he hadn’t been beaten up so much.

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Fact fact (not an “alternative fact”): Many of the enslaved who escaped made their way to Canada. What do we make of that? Carson said the African immigrants dreamed that their descendants “might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.” But for many, “this land” was Canada, not America. So were they just un-American ingrates who didn’t realize how good they had it here? (See painting above….)

And while we’re at it, the enslaved weren’t quite allowed to have dreams for their descendants, because those descendants automatically inherited their enslaved status, simply by being born. They were, legally, the property of another person from birth. The tragic reality was something more like this newspaper clipping found by Michelle Munyikwa:

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Before the day was over, the good Doctor was in full retreat. Carson insisted that he knows the difference between slavery and immigration. But that’s not so obvious. As Tera Hunter pointed out, this wasn’t the first time that Carson has waded into this swamp. He has compared Obamacare to slavery. He has compared reproductive freedom to slavery.

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2014: One of the good ones had the guts to speak up

That rhetoric plays well on the right. Some insist on minimizing the horribleness of American enslavement, like Bill O’Reilly’s ridiculous comments last summer about “well-fed slaves.” We just don’t expect to hear it from a guy with ancestors who were, we assume, enslaved.

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Bill O’Reilly, between lawsuits, pronounced slavery not so bad

But let’s turn the clock ahead to the early 20th century. Now, talk of “immigrants” (or more accurately, “migrants”) dreaming of a better life might be more plausible. We’re referring to the period known as “The Great Migration,” lasting from World War I into the 1960s, when millions of African Americans managed to leave the southern states for the north and west.

In this case, we certainly have the element of free choice. Indeed, as Carol Anderson summarizes in the second chapter of her book, White Rage, the southern white power structure used every tool at its disposal, short of starting another Civil War, to prevent African Americans from leaving. By that measure, it was the opposite of a forced migration.

We also have the motives that traditionally lured Europeans to America. Some went northward in search of better economic opportunities than were available in the segregated economy of the south. Others were running for their lives, seeking to dodge the renewed outbreak of lynchings and violence encouraged during the Woodrow Wilson administration.

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In this sense, one might compare the experience of African American migrants in the north to the experience of foreign immigrant groups across our history, from the Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, Chinese, Italians, Mexicans, Koreans, and Vietnamese, to the Somalians, Ethiopians, and other more recent arrivals.

Food. Talk about Food…

For many reasons, migrants often seek out the food they ate back home. Opening small operations, such as cafes, food stands, pushcarts, and catering businesses has been a first step available for many minority groups in the face of racism, bigotry, and restriction.

Then, two things happen. First, the original “ethnic” dishes begin to take on the flavor of their surroundings. That was certainly the case for African American migrants. Some of the ingredients that were common and cheap down south were either unavailable in the north or their seasonality was more restricted. Much of today’s debate over yellow cornbread vs. white cornbread, for example, stems from the simple reality that up north, yellow cornmeal is what’s more likely to be on the grocery shelves. Northern wheat flour is different too.

We see this in the various menus of the Sweet Home Cafe at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. What we probably think of as “soul food” is well-represented by the “Agricultural South” menu, with items like fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, Hoppin’ John, and so on. The “Creole Coast” menu, representing the Low Country and Louisiana traditions, still sounds like soul food, with items like fried catfish (as a Po’Boy sandwich), and candied yams.

But as we move into the “North States” and “Western Range” menus, we run into items that don’t sound like “soul food” at all, like smoked Haddock, Yankee Baked Beans, “Son of a gun” Stew (with beef short ribs), and BBQ Buffalo brisket.

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Sweet Home Cafe: soul food surrounded by history (NMAAHC photo)

These menus remind us that “soul food” is more than a particular list of dishes or ingredients. As a general rule, “soul food” dishes are characterized by close attention to seasoning, no matter what the dish is. There’s also that more esoteric quality of putting “love” or “soul” into the cooking. That’s impossible to pin down scientifically, but we know whether it’s there or not.

Both distinctions are important. Sometimes, we make “soul food” shorthand for “what black people eat.” By that measure, a Big Mac is soul food. In some areas, food redlining, like housing redlining, has helped create or reinforce segregated neighborhoods where people without sufficient money, transportation, or free time often end up going to the ubiquitous fast food places to grab cheap items made from government-subsidized ingredients. A Big Mac may not be a nutritionist’s dream food, but it is an economical way to get a lot of calories in a hurry.

No offense to the good folks at McDonald’s, but Big Macs are the antithesis of “soul food.” They’re not particularly well-seasoned, and it’s hard to put that indefinable element of “love” into food designed to be mass-produced quickly with minimal human intervention. There’s also no sense of down-home regionality in a Big Mac. Franchising’s raison d’être is that sandwich you buy in Bangor, Maine should taste like the one you buy in Pensacola, Chicago, Topeka, Sioux Falls, Salt Lake City,  Oakland, or whatever McDonald’s in DC is closest to the NMAAHC.

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Just don’t call it soul food

On the positive side, the historic regional flexibility and adaptability of African American cuisine offers a key to its survival. Fair or not (and in this blog, we say Not), many criticize the traditional soul food menu as unhealthy. But there’s no reason why soul food restaurants can’t include lower fat, less sweet items or vegetarian/vegan items and still be made with love and good flavor. The African roots of soul food point to an emphasis on vegetables over meat, and developing flavors beyond what we can get from fats and sugar. “Soul food” was inherently adaptive, and still can be.

The other thing that happens to migrant foods is more challenging: As migrant groups become more fixed in the community, people from outside that group start frequenting the local eateries, and over time, the food itself changes to meet the tastes of the new customer base. Americanized versions of Chinese, Italian, or Mexican dishes are typically unrecognizable to visitors from those nations. The taco you buy at a Taco Bell in Minneapolis is not like the taco you might buy from a food truck in Los Angeles, let alone one from Mexico.

Midwesterners have discovered this with the influx of Latin American immigrants in the last twenty years. Here in Sioux City, when we’re sorting out dinner plans, “Let’s have Mexican!’ is inevitably followed by “You mean real Mexican or Taco Bell?” Many local Mexican restaurants cater to both tastes. For instance, you can usually order a taco “American style” (i.e., with cheese, ground beef, and no cilantro).

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One meme put the issue succinctly. Don’t look up chingadera. Use your imagination.

Even the “real Mexican” menu is an invention. There is plenty of regional diversity in Mexican cuisine, and most restaurants pick and choose. Some “real Mexican” restaurants around here include Dominican or Guatemalan dishes, in an attempt to cater to the needs of as many groups as possible.

How far can “authentic” soul food be stretched before it becomes something else? I’ve heard it said that “southern” cooking is nothing more than soul food dumbed down in taste, fancied up in looks, and boosted up in price. I can order fried catfish and a side of collards at the Cracker Barrel, and it’s ok…but it’s not quite soul food either.

In real estate, “gentrification” describes the phenomenon of young white professionals moving into older, predominantly African American neighborhoods in search of cheaper rents or home prices. They fix up their houses, and open up coffee shops and such. In the process, property values increase, rents go up. Then, those without the incomes to support the new requirements find themselves being driven out.

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In 2015, “Saturday Night Live” doctored up a real-life business in Bushwick to create their “Martha’s Mayonnaise” spoof of what happens under gentrification in Brooklyn.

Recently, this phenomenon of “gentrification” has been applied to soul food.

Two things happen with gentrification: First, we risk losing the historical significance of soul food. Think of it this way: There’s nothing more All-American than hamburgers and hot dogs, but we never think of their German roots. What was the “Hamburg” style of meat? Do we ever stop to think that “wiener” refers to Vienna? Does eating a chicken and roadkill hot dog oozing with white filler move us to seek out the rich sausages of the Central European tradition? Likewise, if soul food survives by the gentrification route, would it get disconnected from its soul?

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Gentrified German soul food

Second, with gentrification, the people who created soul food may well be left out in the cold. On the eater’s side, Eboni Harris noted the phenomenon of how “‘ethnic’ foods are ‘discovered’ by well-meaning foodies – often white – who then raise the price of these meals until the original purveyors and consumers can no longer afford to eat them.”

Once upon a time, for instance, oxtails were considered so useless that some butchers gave them away for the asking. Today, oxtails are expensive, especially considering the small amount of meat on them. Barbecue aficionados have noted the same when it comes to brisket.

This is significant for soul food because one of the historic keys to soul food was in the ability of African American cooks to apply the legacy of West African cuisine to make less desirable foods, like neckbones or collards, taste great. But it’s hard for the average person to practice cooking and perfecting traditional dishes if the ingredients break the budget. (When I wanted to make oxtails, I practiced on cheaper stew meat before I dared invest in actual oxtails.)

On the cook’s side, we run into appropriation, aggravated by the multitude of ways in which institutionalized racism hinders African Americans from being able to capitalize on their food heritage. The difficulties faced by trained African American cooks in becoming chefs are quantifiable. We can work our way through the lists of the annual James Beard award winners. We can count up the black chefs that make it onto Chopped episodes, or check cookbook sales.

Last fall, there was a minor media fluff over Neiman-Marcus selling collard greens. We titled our reaction, “Greens for People Better Than You.” The gist of the piece was to wonder why anyone would pay so much for frozen greens rather than go to a local soul food restaurant and by some fresh greens for a fraction of the cost, and probably with superior flavor to boot.

Robert Irvine no doubt makes fine collard greens. Does it matter if his face becomes the face of collards, and his seasoning sets the standard?

For some, this is when “gentrification” begins to sound more like flat-out appropriation: white folks coming in and taking over, obscuring the history, and making money off of other people’s food traditions and hard work, while using the tools of contemporary segregation, such as equal access to capital, to shut out or shut down competitors.

It’s a double injustice. Many southern/soul food dishes were created or perfected by enslaved cooks paid nothing, or by underpaid cooks working under Jim Crow. Spin the clock ahead to 2017, and their descendants are feeling cheated again. Many soul food places are closing down just at a time when southern cuisine and barbecue are coming to national attention and popularity.

At that point, the broader quest for social and economic justice will have an impact on the fate of soul food. If the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice, the impact will be positive. The restaurant business is always challenging, but people who want to cook soul food, or include soul food dishes, will benefit from increased opportunities to follow their dreams.

Those of us who like to eat and/or cook soul food have a moral obligation to those who passed it down to us to invest ourselves not just in groceries but in the broader quest for justice. That requires, in the first place, knowledge. We should learn the history behind the cuisine, and also understand the current situation. More on that in a moment.

Soul food may also benefit from a renewed interest in home cooking. Some watch food programming on TV just for its entertainment value, but others get curious enough to try their own hand at things. I can tell from the new options on the grocery shelves at my neighborhood Walmart that people’s kitchen horizons must be broadening.

For some, cooking is a lost art. I’ve had the disconcerting experience of being asked to give advice, tips, or soul food recipes to younger African American women. I’m always flattered, but it just feels weird that they’re asking an old white guy for something that would be better learned from their parents or grandparents. What do I know? I’m just a student myself, and a pretty elementary one at that. I feel like John the Baptist meeting Jesus: “You want me to baptize you? Dude, you should be baptizing me!”

Cooking takes time and practice, a willingness to learn by trial-and-error, screw up a dish, apologize to your family…and then come back and try it again. The current level of interest in cuisines and cooking may give soul food a boost, both in terms of learning to cook them the old-fashioned way, and in adapting the classics to meet our interest in healthier options.

Hopefully, this hands-on practice in the kitchen may also get more people interested in the history behind the soul food. It’s in the nature of that cuisine that some of us are curious about what has gone into the “soul” part.

We know how this works in music. When Chuck Berry died in March, many of us on the downhill half of life’s mountain climb paused to reflect on the music of our childhood.

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Chuck Berry in London, 1965. His music ended up teaching me more than music.

Like a lot of white teenagers in the 70s, I discovered Chuck Berry retroactively. I had learned his songs first from the covers done by the Beatles and the Stones. But then I got interested in going back and finding Berry’s originals, and that, in turn, led me to dig back even further into the roots of rock and roll in the r&b and jazz of the 1930s and ’40s. It wasn’t just the music either. Learning how the Delta blues became the Chicago blues, for instance, led to my introduction to the topic of the moment: the Great Migration.

The same has been true in exploring soul food. It prompted me to go back and learn a lot of history that I was never taught in school, and then to think about how that history continues to impact us. This blog reflects some of that journey. I’m sure some react to putting food and history together the same way that some react to putting pineapples on pizza. But I like it.

So, the question of authenticity may solve itself. Some will surely try to capitalize on dumbing-down soul food dishes for a broader audience, but others will respond by offering something more faithful to the living traditions.

Bottom line? Food is always in transition. Techniques, equipment, ingredients, and tastes change. “Soul food” isn’t a museum piece. It’s a living cuisine, and it would be inauthentic to try and somehow freeze it in time. Even the name may change. “Soul food,” after all, was a 1960s invention. The great Edna Lewis, it will be remembered, called it “country cooking.” But my educated guess is that it, whatever “it” is, will survive.

Chicken and Waffles

69. The last chapter of Adrian Miller’s modern classic, Soul Food, is titled “Whither Soul Food?” Miller’s proposal is both ominous and optimistic: “It’s time to revive soul food, before it’s too late.”

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While you’re at it, also check out Miller’s new (2017) book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet

Too late? By some measures, soul food is a dying cuisine. A number of classic soul food restaurants in inner urban areas have closed in recent years. Potential replacements face the challenges of high start-up costs and the difficulty of finding access to capital in a financial system often infested by institutional racism.

Many have also raised concerns about the healthiness of a soul food diet. Today, we no longer consider restaurant meals a special treat, when we might feel free to indulge in the things that make food taste good, like fat and sugar. Instead, for many, restaurant meals are now part of the daily diet, and a daily diet of traditional soul food goes against current trends

The exception might be Chicken and Waffles. This is one of the dishes on many soul food menus that actually seems to be getting more popular. A couple of recent cookbook covers, from Harlem’s Melba Wilson to Oakland’s Tanya Holland, prominently feature chicken and waffles (my photos):

The flavor was popular enough that Lay’s turned it into one of their special-flavor potato chips. It didn’t win in it’s initial competition, but has since reappeared:

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How did Chicken & Waffles make it onto so many soul food menus? The histories of the component parts are well-known. We’ve covered the history of fried chicken before. The frying part may have Scottish roots, but there is little argument that fried chicken as a tasty item reflects the skills of African American cooks.

The waffle, however, has a purely European origin. In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1559 painting, “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent,” there are two scenes involving waffles, including this one: 02carniva-835x1024

The woman in the lower left is carrying rectangular waffles on her broad-brimmed hat, while the woman in the top center is using a waffle iron over an open fire.

Waffles came into the Middle Colonies with the Dutch in New York and New Jersey, and the Germans (“Dutch”) in Pennsylvania. In the 1740s, the Dutch were holding parties known as “wafel frolics,” where “kissing constitutes a great part of its entertainment.” By this time, another crucial component was added: Maple syrup, unknown in Europe but readily available and affordable in the Northeast.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Germans came up with their own version of chicken and waffles. William Woys Weaver has written in detail on the subject. The waffles were crisp; indeed, a “soft waffle” was so undesirable that it became a euphemism for male erectile dysfunction. The meat could be anything–perhaps creamed chicken, but it could be catfish or ham–and the creamed gravy was more important. Sometimes the gravy would be poured on the waffle without any accompanying meat or fish.

But as far as we’re concerned, this dish represents an evolutionary dead end. As Chef Joe Randall said, “I grew up and began my career in Pennsylvania, and I’ve eaten my share of the Pennsylvania Dutch chicken and waffles from the recipes inspired by German Pennsylvania Dutch cooks. And trust me, that dish has nothing to do with the fried chicken and waffles.”

It was no less than Thomas Jefferson who seems to have popularized the waffle in the southern states. When he returned from France in 1789, he brought back four waffle irons that he had purchased in Amsterdam. His Monticello records include recipes for waffles:

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This recipe for “Soft Waffles” is credited to Mrs DePeyster, a Dutch New Yorker

With Jefferson’s popularization of the waffle, we now have the requisite components in place in the south: Fried chicken, and waffles. From there, the southern foodways scholar John T. Edge seems to hold that it was inevitable that the two components would come together into one dish, and Virginia appears to be where it happened.

It’s certainly not difficult to see the dish being invented by accident, like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. We can imagine someone unintentionally sliding a piece of fried chicken into some maple syrup and thinking, Hey, that’s not bad…. like peanut butter and chocolate bumping into each other.

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What we know for sure is that in the late 1930s, fried chicken and waffles as a dish was being popularized by a Harlem restaurateur, Joseph T. Wells, who opened Wells Restaurant (later, Wells Supper Club) in 1938.

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2247 7th Ave. (Now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd) Old Phone directories suggest that Joe and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, lived upstairs.

Wells Supper Club started as a small restaurant with just three booths and five stools. (Ultimately, it would grow into a 250-seat operation.) The story is that jazz musicians from the surrounding clubs would stop in after hours, too late for dinner and too early for breakfast. In that case, the combination of fried chicken and a waffle satisfied both cravings. Marcus Samuelsson also points out that it would allow Wells to repurpose fried chicken left over from the dinner service.

The combination’s popularity helped Wells grow into a much larger operation, becoming a music destination in its own right, as the “Famous Home of Chicken and Waffles,” frequented by stars such as Sammy Davis, Jr., and Nat King Cole, who held his wedding reception at Wells.

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Ad in the January 10, 1959 issue of the New York Age for a New Year’s Eve show at Wells.

Joe Wells may not have literally invented the combination, but he certainly deserves the credit for getting it into the public eye. Without the legacy of Wells Supper Club, I think it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t be talking about Chicken and Waffles today except as individual items.

In the 1970s, Harlem native Herb Hudson took the combination to Southern California and opened the first of his Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach. It quickly became a fixture in the L.A. area. In October 2011, President Obama’s motorcade made an unscheduled stop at Roscoe’s so that the President could order take-out: The Country Boy #9 with three wings and a waffle.

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President Obama greets fellow diners while waiting for his order at Roscoe’s. He later joked with Jay Leno about making the Presidential limo smell like fried chicken, and how he dripped hot sauce on his tie.

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Chicken and Waffles at Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, in Omaha, in October 2016. What my photo can’t show you is how good this meal tasted. The waffle was tasty and light, and the coating on the chicken was perfectly engineered to absorb maple syrup and hot sauce without falling apart.

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One last curiosity. In English, “waffle” and “waffle” are actually different words. The noun that we’ve been talking about comes from a Dutch word, wafel, that has its roots in an old German word for “honeycomb.” But “waffle” can also be a verb, indicating vacillation, equivocation or indecision. That word has nothing to do with the waffle we eat. The roots of the verb are in a Scottish word, waff, that could be an imitation of the barking sound of a puppy, or waff as a variant of waft, waving in the wind. So waffle (n.) and waffle  (v.) are different words, even though they’re spelled and pronounced the same. Could we make English more confusing?

Meanwhile, here’s one of my own recent attempts at chicken and waffles, a dry-brined chicken breast on a Belgian waffle:

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Paschal’s & The Busy Bee

68: Coretta Scott King once said that Paschal’s Restaurant, in Atlanta, “is as important a historical site for the American Civil Rights Movement as Boston’s Faneuil Hall is to the American Revolution.“ Many of the most significant events of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, such as the marches on Selma and Birmingham, and the 1963 March on Washington, were planned at Paschal’s.

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In 1959, a new Paschal’s Restaurant opened. In 1965, work began on Paschal’s Motor Hotel, behind it. The restaurant continues today at another location. The original restaurant, across the street, has been razed. This Google Street View is from Nov. 2016.

Paschal’s was the creation of the Paschal brothers, James (1920-2008) and Robert (1908-1997). They were born and raised in the small town of Thomson, Georgia. Though Robert was quite a bit older than James, their talents and passions were well-suited to a partnership.

James was the entrepreneur. Their parents were sharecroppers, and James hated picking cotton. He opened his first business, a shoe-shine stand, when he was 13. He saved his money, and by age 15, he had taken over a failing grocery store. He did so well that, a couple of years later, the owners reclaimed it on a technicality. James then opened “James’ Place,” a combination meat market, grocery, arcade and juke joint. But James had to sell it when he was drafted into the Army in World War II.

Robert, meanwhile, went to Atlanta when he was 15, and started working as a busboy in Vaughn’s Cafeteria, a white establishment. He worked his way up the ladder until he was Executive Chef. But, wanting something more secure, he started working for Jacobs Pharmacies, setting up soda fountains and training the staff. He did this for the next 21 years.

Then in 1947, the brothers teamed up and opened a 30-seat luncheonette, across the street from the site shown here. At first, their menu was limited to sandwiches and sodas, but soon moved up to hot dinners. Robert developed a secret fried chicken recipe that came to be considered one of the best in town. Neither brother had a car, and the restaurant didn’t have a stove anyway, so Robert made the hot food at home and delivered it by taxi. (James told the story in his 2006 memoir by Mae Kendall.)

Robert and James Paschal in their original luncheonette, 1947.

The business grew steadily, and by the late 1950s, they were ready to expand the restaurant (1959) and add a nightclub, the La Carousel Lounge (1960). The restaurant had a coffee shop and dining room, together seating over 200. The lounge hosted many top jazz names, including Aretha Franklin and Dizzy Gillespie. Dave Hoekstra’s 2015 book, The People’s Place, includes a chapter on Paschal’s, and provides much more detail.

From the start, the new Paschal’s was a white-tablecloth restaurant, serving standard southern/soul dishes in one of the only “classy” places where blacks could eat. Paschal’s also gained a white clientele, and the brothers openly violated the segregation laws by allowing blacks and whites to sit together. Then in 1965-67, they added a motel, Paschal’s Motor Hotel.

Dr. King and many other leaders lived on that side of town, and routinely gathered at Paschal’s. The brothers actively supported the movement. Fred Opie’s new book, Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, details the role of Paschal’s in the larger context of the civil rights movement in Atlanta in the 1960s. In addition to providing a meeting place,the Paschals often provided free meals, and extended their hours. They were even known to put up bond money for arrested protesters. James put it simply: “How could we refuse? We had the resources and the place. We believed we had been called to be part of the Movement.”

The Paschal brothers in their later years

In 1996, James sold the property to Clark Atlanta University. The school ran the restaurant for a while, and used the motel as a dormitory, but later closed the operation. Meanwhile, in 2002, a new Paschal’s was opened on Northside Drive. It continues as a thriving business, though as Rep. John Lewis has observed, the new place just can’t have the same “feel” as the old place.

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The new Paschal’s continues to honor its civil rights era legacy 

Another Atlanta restaurant that welcomed the civil rights leaders was the Busy Bee Cafe, just a few steps down the street from Paschal’s. Lucy Jackson, a self-taught cook, opened it in 1947.

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“Mama Lucy” Jackson, 1943

There’s a dismal reason why Paschal’s and the Busy Bee were opened on the same street, apart from their proximity to the local colleges: At the time, Jim Crow Atlanta had severe restrictions on where black-owned businesses could locate. Hunter Street (now MLK Drive) was one of only two streets open to African American entrepreneurs.

The Busy Bee Cafe as it looked in the 1980s.

It is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. was especially fond of Mama Lucy’s ham hocks. But the Busy Bee isn’t just a living history museum. It’s well-known as a place to find good, traditional soul food. Emeril Lagasse featured the cafe in his 2011 “Originals” visit to Atlanta.

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Emeril, with Tracy Gates, owner of the Busy Bee since 1985. Her fried chicken is especially loved.

 Today, the Busy Bee has become a stop on a variety of historic Atlanta tours.

The Busy Bee continues to attract its share of politicians. In November 2015, the rapper Killer Mike took Sen. Bernie Sanders to the Busy Bee for their meeting on Sanders’ visit to Atlanta:

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Is there a moral to our little story? This one is simple. In a time when goodness and justice seem up for grabs, it’s worth considering that in 2017, you can still have a meal at Paschal’s or the Busy Bee. You can’t do that at another famous fried chicken place in Atlanta:

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In 1964, arch-segregationist Lester Maddox vowed that he’d close his Pickrick Restaurant before he’d serve African Americans. He lost. It closed. The following year, it was bought by Georgia Tech, and in 2011, it was bulldozed for a parking lot. End of story. As a fan of Paschal’s and the Busy Bee once said,

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