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.

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Frank’s Place

59. In addition to being a master of his craft in the kitchen, New Orleans’ Austin Leslie was also a larger-than-life figure in the front of the house. He had a big, friendly personality, and was instantly recognizable in his captain’s cap, mutton-chop sideburns, and crab-medallion necklace. They were featured on the covers of the cookbooks he published in 1984 and 2000.

In the 1980s, that big personality caught the attention of Tim Reid and Hugh Wilson. Wilson had been the creator and executive producer of CBS’ acclaimed comedy, WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982). On that show, Tim Reid played a DJ named Venus Flytrap. Reid’s character was well-developed for a sitcom. We learned that Flytrap’s real name was Gordon Sims, a Vietnam vet (and a deserter), and a former high school teacher. The character’s on-air persona, a mysterious, smooth-talking “love doctor,” was quite different from the character’s gentle off-air self.

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Tim Reid, in his WKRP “Venus Flytrap” character, is on the far right

After WKRP ended, Reid and Wilson started working on an idea for a restaurant-based show, and decided that it should be set in New Orleans. So it was inevitable that when they went to New Orleans for research, they crossed paths with Austin Leslie. They took his Chez Helene restaurant as their model, and reproduced it almost to the letter back on set in Hollywood as Chez Louisiane, a Tremé restaurant inherited by Tim Reid’s new character, Frank Parrish, an Ivy League professor.

In that sense, Frank’s Place was designed as a classic “fish out of water” tale. They also turned Austin Leslie into a character, “Big Arthur,” the cook, of course. The real Austin was also brought to Hollywood as both a consultant and a rather unique prop artist: He prepared the food that was seen on camera.

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The cast also included Reid’s real-life wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played a mortician, and Reid’s love interest.

The show debuted in the fall season of 1987, and seemed to hold its own in the ratings. But CBS started messing with their schedule, and moved the show around to various time-slots. It bounced around six times over the course of 22 episodes. That undermined its ratings. Viewers were having a hard time finding it.

The show was also not a typical ‘80s sitcom. The comedy was mixed in with dramatic moments, some quite dark. The characters didn’t follow the usual stereotypes. It also didn’t use a laugh track, which was unusual for network comedies at the time (and still is).

The ratings slipped. It ended up ranking Number 55 for the season. It had still outperformed other shows that went on to become hits, such as Seinfeld. Ratings or not, Frank’s Place was a critical success. It received ten Emmy nominations, and won three, along with a number of other nominations and awards.

Nonetheless, a few days before filming was to begin on the second season, CBS suddenly cancelled the show. CBS News’ Walter Cronkite later told Reid that Laurence Tisch, who had just purchased CBS with junk bonds, was enraged by the show’s last episode, which included a storyline about junk bonds. Reid believes that Tisch was personally responsible for burying the show. The episodes were rerun in the 1990s on BET, but haven’t been seen since. When one pops up on YouTube, it usually disappears quickly. Reid is still trying to get Frank’s Place released on DVD.

The show’s opening theme was Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Hopefully, this clip from the opening of the show will work for a while.

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Tim Reid, with “Big Arthur,” played by Tony Burton.

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…and the real-life “Big Arthur”– Austin Leslie.

By the way, if you google images of “Austin Leslie,” be prepared: You will be inundated by images of the late Leslie Cochran, a well-known homeless figure in Austin, Texas. Cochran has absolutely nothing to do with Austin Leslie.

Henry Perry & Kansas City BBQ

57. Henry Perry (1874-1940) is considered the Father of the Kansas City style of barbecue.

“Barbecue” is one of those fluid words that can have different meanings. It can describe both foods and cooking methods. For purists, “barbecue” applies only to meats that are slow-cooked by wood smoke, typically from burning hardwoods such as hickory, pecan, and oak, or fruit woods such as apple or cherry. Smoking meats in this way produces a chemical reaction that often creates a telltale pinkish ring around the outer part of the meat that identifies it as smoked rather than roasted.

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These baby-back ribs I barbecued came out with a decent smoke ring.

Barbecuing in this way will tenderize certain cuts of meats that might be too tough or lean to be appetizing, such as a brisket, ribs, or a butt. (On hogs, the “butt” is actually the upper part of the front shoulder.)

But for many, especially in the north, “barbecue” may also apply to meats such as chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs grilled outdoors over an open flame. For others, “barbecue” can also apply to oven-cooked meats flavored in a certain way. For instance, Sylvia’s Restaurant, in Harlem, is famous for its barbecued spare ribs, which are braised in vinegar at a fairly high oven temperature, and then covered in a spicy bbq-style sauce. That’s no aberration. In his new (2017) book, Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, Frederick Douglass Opie includes a 1940 Atlanta Constitution recipe for “barbecued spare ribs” cooked in a 350º oven.

In other words, for many, “barbecue” signifies above all a flavor. Obviously, barbecue potato chips haven’t been smoked over low heat for hours on end! But what is that flavor? For most Americans, it seems to be the tangy, spicy, but also sweet flavor of the tomato-based  barbecue sauces associated with Kansas City style barbecue.

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A sample of Kansas City barbecue sauces

Why Kansas City? That brings back to Henry Perry. In his 2001 book, The Grand Barbecue, Doug Worgul said that “Kansas City might not even be Kansas City if not for Henry Perry….If somebody other than Henry Perry had been the first to open a barbecue joint in Kansas City, God might just have gotten exasperated and decided, ‘Look, if you can’t get it right, I’ll let some other city be The Barbecue Capital of The World.'”

Henry Perry was born in 1874 near Memphis, in Shelby County, Tennessee. It is said that as a young man, he worked as a cook on the Mississippi riverboats before settling in Kansas City about 1907. BBQ historians say that he started selling barbecued meats from an alley stand in the Garment District around 1908. In 1910, he was listed as a porter in a saloon, but on his WWI draft registration, he listed himself as self-employed, running an “Eat Shop” at the corner of The Paseo and E.19th Street, in what we know as the Jazz District.

According to the 1930 Census, Henry was married twice, but apparently not during the census years, when he consistently shows up as single. Tom Nelson, whose original sources research is invaluable, suggests that, based on Social Security records, one of Henry’s wives was named Lula Ford, and they may have had four daughters.

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In the 1920s, Henry moved from his E.19th location to this place at 1900 Highland Ave., just a block kitty-corner from the center of the jazz district at 18th & Vine.  The odd photo, with its ID number, is a WPA Tax Assessment photo from 1940.

Henry wasn’t in town very long before he was being celebrated as “The Barbecue King,” selling a variety of barbecued meats. For his 42nd birthday, in December 1916, when his shop was at 17th & Vine, he had a party for his “friends,” a group that included three doctors, a lawyer, an undertaker, and three figures from the publishing world. That was an appropriate group for a guy that the Kansas City Sun reported to be “doing the biggest business of any Negro in Greater Kansas City.” The party menu included “roast duck, opossum with sweet potatoes, barbecued pork, mutton and ribs, Southern gumbo soup and other refreshments.”

Henry Perry was also known for his generosity. In 1920, he threw a July 4th barbecue for over 500 of the elderly and children. The Kansas City Sun reported that he served them “all the beef, pork, mutton sandwiches they could eat, watermelon, lemonade, and soda pop.” The paper noted that the meal cost Perry more than $300. That would be worth around $3600 today.

His restaurant menus included both beef and pork, as well as mutton, and game that we might write off as roadkill, including opossums, raccoons, and groundhogs, all available with his sauce, later described as “harsh and peppery” and not sweet. Henry Perry may have invented Kansas City barbecue, but he didn’t invent the prototypical KC sauce. That would come in the next generation.

Today, Kansas City may be most famous for its burnt ends, but one of the characteristics of the KC style is that it’s not tied to any particular kind of meat. The Carolinas are best known for its pulled pork. Memphis is best known for its ribs, an influence that reaches north into St. Louis and Chicago. Texas is best known for its beef brisket. But Kansas City has always barbecued everything, and that was only natural. After all, Kansas City is where cattle country and hog country meet; the place where the south, north, and west collide.

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This ad appeared in the Dec. 22, 1917 Kansas City Sun

We might say that the history of barbecue goes back to whenever it was that our ancestors figured out that meat was better cooked than raw. The Spanish settlers and enslaved Africans learned a particular technique for slow smoking from the native groups in the Caribbean, as well as borrowing their word for it that became our “barbecue,” and relatively soon in the colonial period, it all wound up in America.

Our American barbecue was heavily shaped by African Americans. In part, it’s because open-pit, whole hog barbecuing is labor-intensive, and the slaveowners were quite happy to make someone else do the work. The enslaved people would have to dig the trenches, gather the firewood, and tend the meats in the hot smoke for hours on end.

Barbecue was popular in the southeast because it was well-suited to the kinds of meat that were available. Southerners tended to let their hogs forage freely in the forests, and that produced leaner, tougher pork.  In any case, low and slow smoking was good for tenderizing the cheap cuts that were most accessible to African Americans, both before and after enslavement, such as briskets, ribs, and pork shoulders. The African American influence is also reflected in our modern barbecue sauces, especially in the spicier and hotter varieties.

That was the legacy that Henry Perry tapped into: cheap cuts of beef and pork, along with the backwoods critters that had sustained black families through toughest times. Perry ‘s combination of oak and hickory smoked them all.

We can’t move forward without noting that the 1920s and 30s were also the peak of the Jazz Age in Kansas City. In the same neighborhood where Perry developing Kansas City barbecue, jazz clubs were seeing the development of a Kansas City sound, with musicians like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Count Basie, whose “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is a classic example. As a cultural expression, the music and the food seemed to go together.

Perry suffered a stroke in 1931 that had left him with paralysis on his left side. In 1940, after a month in the hospital, he died of pneumonia. His death certificate (freely available online) indicates that he was to be buried in Osceola, Arkansas, across the river from Memphis.

The business was passed along to one of his employees, Charlie Bryant (1892-1952). Charlie had come up from Milam County, Texas in the 1930s. According to the 1940 Census, Charlie had completed 3rd grade. Not long after that, Charlie’s younger brother, Arthur (c.1904-1982), came up for a visit, and stayed. Arthur had gone to Prairie View A&M, and could have taken a teaching position, but decided to stay in Kansas City.

Charlie kept doing things as Henry had taught him. But when Arthur took over in 1946, he made some changes. Arthur tinkered with Perry’s harsh, peppery sauce, making it sweeter.

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Arthur Bryant’s became one of the nation’s iconic barbecue destinations. Harry S Truman, a native of nearby Independence, was a special fan, but Arthur also welcomed Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and other politicians and celebrities. Calvin Trillin, a Kansas City native, brought national attention to Arthur Bryant’s when he declared in a 1972 piece in Playboy magazine that Arthur Bryant’s was “the single best restaurant in the world.”

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In the 1950s, Arthur moved his restaurant to 1717 Brooklyn, where it remains today.

Another one of Henry Perry’s proteges was Arthur Pinkard. The Pinkards had come north from Alabama.

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Arthur Pinkard

After Perry’s death, Pinkard took his pitmaster skills to the Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q. In 1946, George Gates (1908-1960) bought the Ol’ Kentuck, and kept Pinkard as pitmaster. Gates was born in Memphis; his mother was born in Georgia. She had brought baby George to Kansas City by 1910, and died shortly thereafter, when she was just 22. George was then raised by his maternal grandfather, George Garner.

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George and Arzelia Gates

I mention these details, because in each case–Perry, the Bryant brothers, Pinkard, and Gates–we have examples of people who were part of the Great Migration, people leaving the south for more freedom and greater opportunities in the north and west.

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The Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q

When George and Arzelia’s son, Ollie Gates (b.1931), came back from college and a long stint in the army, he had lots of ideas for transforming the restaurant. George was resistant, but after his death, Ollie had a free hand, and built Gates & Son into a modern, inviting, and successful group of restaurants. Now in his 80s, he keeps right on going.

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Ollie Gates

Kansas City barbecue diversified from these roots. Bryant’s and Gates’ original recipe sauces are quite different from each other. (Full disclosure: I love Gates’ sauce, and have been known to take a shot straight from the bottle). Today, the most iconic KC brand may be KC Masterpiece, which is very thick and sweet. Many KC-style sauces today come in multiple variations that are either spicier or sweeter. But generally speaking, most of the leading commercial brands found in grocery stores across the nation reflect the Kansas City approach. If “barbecue” is a flavor, and that flavor reflects Kansas City roots, then Henry Perry deserves a lot of the credit.

Chili Today

So, here’s what happened: By the Christian calendar, January 6 is the feast of Epiphany. In western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, the holiday is built around the gospel of Matthew’s story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. As such, it’s considered the end of the Christmas season. Epiphany Eve is sometimes known as Twelfth Night, a party day often marked by the sort of gender and social order reversals found in the plot of Shakespeare’s play by that name. There are likewise a number of customs connected with the feast itself, such as an Epiphany cake. (The Three Kings cakes eaten in New Orleans from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday are a well-known example.)

This year, January 6 fell on a Friday. So, my wife and I decided that on the following Sunday, we’d have a little open-house Epiphany party for our church family after morning worship. The party would be low-key: Come have a piece of cake and other goodies. But it was also really cold that weekend. Between the actual air temperature and a 20-mph wind, it felt like 4ºF outside. We live next door to the church, but I thought that anyone who was hardy enough to walk over to our house deserved something warm in return.

That meant chili, the perfect food for an open-house on a cold day. If we got more people than we expected, we could stretch it with smaller portions, and if we got fewer people, we’d have usable leftovers to eat or freeze.

So, on the Friday before, we went grocery shopping for our little event. (Chili tastes better a day or two later.) My wife asked me what kind of crackers to buy for the chili. I said something like, “Oh golly-gosh, we shan’t be serving any gosh-darn crackers with my chili.” Something that should have sounded like that, anyway.

I didn’t want people to willy-nilly start jamming soda crackers into my chili. In the first place, I season my chili carefully. Since this batch was for a diverse group, I held back a bit on the heat, but also set out a couple of bottles of hot sauces for those who needed more heat, and also set out Mexican sour cream and shredded cheese for those who needed even less heat. I wasn’t going to be a complete soup Nazi. Adjusting the spiciness to personal tastes was ok with me. However, introducing a bunch of salt from the soda crackers would change the taste before the eater had a chance to appreciate my work.

In the second place, my chili is thick, not soupy. Adding soda crackers would just make it dry and mealy.

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My Epiphany chili, fit for a King or three.

Of course, the first person I served asked for crackers. It was a church thing, so I couldn’t be as blunt as I’d been in the grocery store, but I stuck to my guns. I’d made cornbread, and suggested that as a substitute, but no, no crackers. I pointed out that the chili was already thick and didn’t need crackers, but that if he wanted, he could add some of the Ritz crackers we’d put out on the cheese plate.

I ended up getting a lot of unprompted compliments on the chili, which was gratifying. But I was thinking about it again the next day when someone in a social media cooking group asked, Do you put crackers in your chili? I didn’t do a count, but it was pretty obvious that most people do add crackers.

So maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always thought of crackers as something that goes with soups, not stews. A thin, soupy chili might well warrant some crackers. But my chili is already more of a stew than a soup. For the same reason, I avoid the large kidney beans most restaurant chilis use. They’re too dry and mealy for me. I usually use two or three different kinds of smaller beans instead. My Epiphany batch used black beans, pinto beans, and red beans.

Still, I wondered if I was missing something, so I did some research. In the process, I didn’t find out anything particularly convincing about soda crackers in chili, but I was reminded of just how controversial every other aspect of chili-making can be.

Pride of place, of course, goes to the Texans, who would take one look at my chili and declare, “Son, that’s not chili.” There’s no disputing that the original stews known as chili con carne were made of chile peppers and meat, and did not include beans, tomatoes, or any other vegetables or grains.

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It’s not my usual chili, but here’s my simple Texas-style chili, sans tomatoes or beans.

Some Texans have gotten pretty possessive about this. Kriston Capps, in a 2015 Slate magazine article, came within an eyelash of invoking the unwritten laws of political-correctness in protecting the integrity of Texas chili: “Chili is a local specialty with a specific history. Please find another name for your spiced vegetable stew.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t France, and our English language is notoriously unregulated. Outside of Texas, that “spiced vegetable stew” with tomatoes and beans has been called “chili” for too long to undo it. That would be like the Peruvians complaining to the French that it’s insulting to call a potato a pomme de terre, because it’s a potato and not an apple in the dirt. The Texas folks are right, but they’re a hundred years too late.

So how did beans (and tomatoes) wind up in chili? Once chili left Texas, it was inevitable that it would be influenced by existing “spiced vegetable stews.” Long before chili came along, there were the Brunswick stews of Virginia and Georgia, Kentucky’s Burgoo, and the various gumbos of the Low Country, Gulf Coast, and Creole and Cajun Louisiana, along with the various Pepper Pot stews from Jamaica to Philadelphia. Historically, these dishes featured considerable local diversity and took advantage of whatever was at hand, often including tomatoes.

brunswick-stew-6-26-15Most modern Brunswick stews no longer include rodents or other critters. I used chicken and pork in this batch. It’s not chili, but you can see the family resemblance 

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Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, with okra. Gumbos are the prototypical stew of the Low Country, Gulf, and Cajun/Creole regions, and more coastal versions would include seafood.

For gumbo lovers, the argument is over okra, not beans. People who like okra maintain that “gumbo” comes from the word for okra in several West African languages. People who hate okra claim that it comes from a Choctaw word for the sassafras leaves ground into the filé powder used as a thickener instead of okra. (For the record, I like both kinds; in part because fresh okra isn’t always available in my part of the country. My next batch used filé instead of okra for precisely that reason.) But at least both sides will admit that the other’s gumbo is still worthy of being called gumbo.

Adding beans was likewise inevitable. Chili was designed to be a cheap source of protein. In the 1850s, dried beef, fat, and seasonings were being pressed into bricks that could be easily transported on cattle drives, and then prepared in the field by putting them in boiling water.

Chili was also served in Texas jails, since the stew was comparatively nutritious, yet tasty, and could be made with cheap cuts of meat that would be tenderized in the stewing process.

At that point, beans are also a cheap source of good protein, and adding beans would stretch the chili even further. That trailhands might also be served beans isn’t exactly a myth that Mel Brooks created for his infamous campfire scene in Blazing Saddles.

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Once again, different parts of the country have their preferred bean dishes. Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial? “You got chocolate on my peanut butter!” I can almost imagine the same thing happening in Louisiana when a bowl of Texas chili met a bowl of Red Beans and Rice:

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Red beans and rice from our Christmas dinner last month

Pinto beans and cornbread, an Appalachian favorite, may be the preferred “soul food” bean dish in the north, and certainly resembles northern chili:

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I made these pinto beans and cornbread for my Dad’s 96th birthday party

I’ve been told that it’s a “southern thing” to add meat to my bbq baked beans, and some have mistaken it for chili. I use chili powder and cumin, but it’s got too much brown sugar and molasses to be mistaken for any sort of chili. Still, the family relationship is undeniable:

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The point is that, like it or not, it was inevitable that when Texas chili hit the road, tomatoes and beans (and other stuff) would splash into it.

Chili, of any sort, is also versatile. In some restaurants, it’s made as a creative way to use up leftover hamburgers or other meat. It can be prepared as a sauce and turned into chili dogs or half-smokes:

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The chili sauce I make for hot dogs or half-smokes is, in some ways, closer to Texas chili than it is to “my” chili, since it has no beans and only a small amount of tomato sauce. It’s also unapologetically on the greasy side

It’s also a handy way to feed a crowd. A few years ago when my church had a summer evening Vacation Bible School with an “Old West” theme, I made three pots of “chuck wagon stew” that wound up feeding 80:

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A couple of times a year, just for fun, I even add corn to make my “Hawkeye Chili,” with the black beans and sweet corn representing the colors of the University of Iowa:

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So whether we call it chili or…something else…it’s a tasty, cheap, easy, fun, and versatile. Just don’t stuff mine with soda crackers, por favor!

 

December Feasts

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“Homecoming,” December 10, 2016

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Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

Two feasts this month: One was a “homecoming” dinner for our California family. The second was our Christmas Day dinner. Thanksgiving is my Big Deal dinner, but whenever you’re feeding 15-16 people, you necessarily end up whipping up a lot of food. I also didn’t want to do a lot of repetition.

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I’m not a cookies and treats guy, so I kept it simple: Peanut butter on crackers, dipped in dark chocolate. Nutter Butters that are supposed to look like reindeer. Pretzel rings with kisses. Plus, for the Dec. 10 meal, a brownie with coconut-pecan frosting that served as a dessert and a birthday cake for our daughter-in-law, Kelsey.

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I didn’t worry about putting out as many appetizers for these meals as I did for Thanksgiving. For the Homecoming dinner, I put together a meat and cheese platter and a fresh fruit platter. For Christmas Day, I put fresh fruit in pineapple bowls. For both meals, my son-in-law, Dan, whipped up a little dip of cream cheese, dried beef, and Polish dill pickles. I think it’s an Eastern Iowa thing; it seems like it’s served a lot at funerals and weddings. Our 17-month old grandson, Reggie, found his own crackers, and made his own feast before Grandpa could snap a proper pic of the bowl.

By the way, the weather for these two meals could not have been more different, given the inherent limitations of winter here in the Midwest. For our first meal, it snowed, and then we went into the deep-freeze. Up until that point, we’d had a mild Fall, but of course, as soon as our California family got here, the weather went Arctic on us. Christmas Day was another story. By dinner time, the temperature had hit 52. It rained constantly, and at one point, we even had a little thunderstorm, which was a first around here.

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In the soup and salad department, for the Homecoming meal I had two soups: my Mexican Corn Chowder and my Three Bean Chili. I’ve been making both soups for many years. The corn chowder has evolved so much that I’ve forgotten why the original version was called “Mexican,” other than because of the familiar heat it gets from green chiles. And yes, I like my chili thick, not soupy.

For Christmas Day, my son Nick made cranberry fluff again, and I came up with a lettuce salad. I cut up some iceberg and green leaf lettuces chiffonade style, and then topped it with walnuts, and queso fresco, which was supposed to look like snow on the grass, and then topped off each salad with a raspberry and some homemade Cobb-style dressing.

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We’d had turkey and ham for Thanksgiving, so I wanted something a little different in the meat department. For the Homecoming dinner, I went with a roasted capon and a pork loin with a black bean sauce on rice. For Christmas, I went with a ribeye roast and a small (9-lb) turkey. Actually, both birds were prepared the same as the turkey at Thanksgiving: a dry brine, followed by a duck fat and butter baste. Both birds turned out very moist and tasty. I intended to let the roast hit about 142, but I accidentally let it get to 150 before I pulled it out. But it was still pretty tender, and had a lot of good flavor.

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For our Dec. 10 meal, I went with spaghetti with a homemade sauce. I thought the kids and our vegetarians would appreciate it. For Christmas, I made my Red Beans and Rice (not vegetarian!). I was happy with both the flavor (which I usually get right) and the consistency (which I usually mess up). I also dipped into my stock of Carolina Gold rice. I also roasted baby potatoes with rosemary, and made corn pudding.

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I kept the vegetables simple for Dec. 10, and went with a Three Sisters succotash of corn, green beans, and butternut squash. For Christmas, I made Creamed Baby Spinach and Kale, and then roasted carrots with thyme, and roasted a little fennel as well. The roasted vegetables were something of a hit.

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For my Christmas desserts, I made pecan and sweet potato pies. Both followed heirloom recipes. The pecan pie followed Callie’s Georgia Pecan Pie. I had run into this recipe on food historian Frederick Douglass Opie’s old blog, who had found it in a Baltimore Sun article from 1949. The sweet potato pie followed a recipe from Donna Battle Pierce. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the proper links back to either recipe.)

Both recipes are exceptional. The pecan pie calls for dark syrup. I cook by the thermometer instead of a toothpick, which takes out the guesswork about whether the pies have set, and also makes it harder to overbake them.

Bottom line: I made a couple of decent meals. With Thanksgiving, that’s three big meals in the span of a month, serving 45 people in total, with a good mix of traditional dishes and new (for us) dishes.

Thanksgiving 2016

This is a food history blog, not a cooking blog, but Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and a lot of traditional cooking happens. This year, I made dinner for sixteen. We celebrated on Friday instead of Thursday, so I had an extra day to prepare.

It helped that the weather here in the upper Midwest was pretty mild. It’s not unusual to get a serious snowstorm and some nasty cold temps over Thanksgiving, but not this year. It was just cool enough, with temps in the mid-30s, that I could keep dishes outside on the deck, instead of jamming them into the kitchen refrigerator or marching up and down the steps to the refrigerator in the basement.

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The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving feast is the turkey. I’m not sure why that is. Most folks don’t seem that crazy about turkey. Like most industrial meat in this country, turkeys aren’t as flavorful as they were once upon a time. But their symbolic value persists. Recently, I found this medieval French illustration of some royal feast. Note that the center and right platters have some sort of fowl, perhaps geese or capons. (I’m not sure what the creatures on the left platter are, though they look disturbingly similar to the rodent on the floor.) In any event, it seems that a feast just doesn’t look like a true feast unless there’s a big roasted bird on the table.

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This year, I roasted a small turkey (about 13 lbs) using duck fat on the outside and a citrus and herb butter tucked under the skin, following pretty closely a recipe from Angela Davis’ new Kitchenista Diaries cookbook. The recipe also calls for a dry brine overnight, which worked great. Everyone remarked on how moist the turkey was, and it was a lot easier than the wet brine we’ve been doing the last few years.

The only surprise was that the turkey got done a lot faster than I’d anticipated. I had figured that a turkey this size would clock in around three hours. But this one was done in barely two hours. When I pulled it out to baste it, I checked the temp, and after about two hours and ten minutes, the breast was already at 180. That set off a bit of a scramble to get the rest of the meal up to speed.

We’re not a fancy appetizer people, but for Thanksgiving, I like to have some food set out so that people can nibble, and not bug me about how long it’s taking to get the dinner ready. This year, I had four appetizer plates:

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In the upper left corner, we have lefse. It’s a Norwegian specialty (I’m 1/4 Norwegian ancestry). It’s widely available in supermarkets in this part of the country, but some families still make their own. Lefse looks like a flour tortilla, but it’s made from potatoes, and lightly fried on a special grill. These were served with butter and sugar, but others add cinnamon, or perhaps jam or preserves.

In the lower left corner, we have meatballs in a homemade Cheerwine bbq sauce. The Cheerwine soda gives the sauce a distinctive cherry taste. No special recipe here. I looked up a handful of recipes online and followed my instincts. The plates on the right are pretty self-explanatory. The red pepper dip on the veggie plate was store-bought. The cheeses on the cracker plate are a Tillamook extra sharp cheddar, and a Havarti.

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In addition to the turkey, I made a small ham with an orange marmalade glaze. Since the turkey got done so much faster than we expected, we rushed the ham, and didn’t get it plated in a pretty way, but it tasted fine. The orange marmalade was homemade. Our oldest son, who lives in southern California, made it from oranges in his backyard. For his family back in Iowa, that counts as pretty cool.

The meal began with a Tomato and Squash soup. Nothing fancy: We served it in disposable bowls. The recipe was very much improvised, but it turned out to be a good blend of flavors, and offered another option for our vegetarians.

Along with the turkey, I served homemade cranberry sauce and turkey gravy. Some folks like the jellied kind of cranberry sauce, plopped straight out of the can. I like to make my own. This was a simple recipe: I blended a cup of orange juice and a cup of sugar, heated it up, and then popped the cranberries in the mix. If you’ve never made your own sauce before, I mean “popped” literally. As cranberries heat up, their skins burst, and then it’s just a matter of cooking it down to the desired consistency.

The gravy was made from turkey stock and pan drippings. I’d made the stock the day before from turkey necks. (The meat, in turn, went into the collard greens described below.) My stock-making abilities are pure trial-and-error, but it allowed me to flavor up my future gravy with some Slap Ya Mama seasoning. The next day, the pan drippings added more flavor, not just from the brined turkey itself, but from the bed of diced vegetables below it, including a Trinity of onion, celery, and pepper, plus carrots and some chicken stock. I left the gravy on the thin side this year. I made a little butter and flour roux, but I didn’t want the butter flavor to overshadow the turkey flavors.

Another dish closely associated with the turkey is the dressing. I don’t think I’ve ever made the same dressing twice, but this one might well show up again on our holiday table. It’s a sausage and brioche dressing, tapping another Kitchenista recipe, with a couple of minor modifications. Instead of golden raisins, I added some dried mixed berries, and a handful of walnuts.

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It seemed to catch some people’s attention. Some liked the sage sausage. Some appreciated that the dressing stayed so moist. That wasn’t intentional. If the turkey hadn’t gotten done so fast, I probably would have let this dish cook and set up another 30 minutes or so.

There’s some controversy over what the dish should be called. Some people think the difference between “stuffing” and “dressing” is a North-South thing, and there is an element of truth to that. In my part of the country, at least, it has more to do with where it’s cooked. If it’s cooked separately from the bird, it’s “dressing.” If it’s cooked in the bird, it’s “stuffing,” i.e., you stuffed it inside the turkey cavity.

Stuffing has the advantage of soaking up extra juices from the bird. But it also adds cooking time to the turkey itself. Sometimes, I’ve done it both ways. I’ve put some in the turkey, and cooked the remainder separately. Southern cooks also seem to have a preference for cornbread dressing, while northern cooks generally prefer white bread. One of the things that attracted me to use the brioche was simple necessity: I’ve had the better part of a brioche loaf sitting in the cupboard for a while, and decided it had reached the point of use-it-or-lose-it.

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As much as the turkey is the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving feast, it’s the sides that signal the difference between a festival meal and a simple meat-potatoes-vegetable Sunday dinner.

The white potatoes were a no-brainer. My Dad loves his potatoes. I served these coronary-style, with an amount of butter and cream cheese that I can’t reveal without blushing in embarrassment.

I made mac and cheese for the sake of the family vegetarians, and also for the four grandsons. This was a six-cheese mac, with three cheddars, colby, Monterey Jack, and a layer of Munster on top. The recipe is my own, but it’s similar to Robbie Montgomery’s Sweetie Pie’s recipe that’s been floating around online for years.

The mashed sweet potatoes were pretty standard: butter, sugar, some select seasonings, and a few pecans on top. Instead of boiling the sweet potatoes, I roasted them, which seemed to bring out more flavor and a deeper orange color. The “festive” part was to serve them in hollowed-out orange halves, letting the orange juice in the pulp add a little more flavor. It worked. If I do it again, I’ll probably use smaller oranges.

The fourth dish there is a corn pudding. It’s a quick, six-ingredient dish but it has a real down-home, comfort food flavor.

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Next come the green vegetable sides. I wanted to make collard greens because just a week or so ago, our youngest son had brought in a batch from his garden. The meat you see is from the turkey necks I’d used to make stock the day before. The greens broth, however, was made with ham hocks. I’d made my “pot likker” the night before, let it cool and blend flavors, and then added the greens in the morning.

It’s hard to know what to do with peas. I wanted to leave them as another meat-free option for the vegetarians, so no bacon. I ended up melting in some citrus and herb butter, the same stuff I’d used in the turkey.

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And finally, the sweets. The dish on the left is a cranberry fluff. My youngest son made it, and it was terrific. It was one of my Mom’s signature dishes. A year or two before she passed, I tried to wheedle a recipe out of her, but all she could give me were the ingredients: cranberries, crushed pineapple, walnuts, marshmallows, and whipped cream. I’ve come up with dishes close to it, but not quite. This year, my son nailed it on the first try. It tasted like Mom’s, and suddenly, it was like Mom was there with us.

The pie was a blend of roasted butternut squash and a roasted sugar pumpkin. Turns out that Libby’s canned “pumpkin” isn’t really pumpkin, but a proprietary variety of squash. So I wanted to try my own hand at it. Rather than follow the seasoning in the classic recipe on the Libby’s can (which is foolproof), I used one more Kitchenista recipe: her pumpkin spice mix.  I made a couple of very good pies. At this point, I can’t swear that my puree is all that much better than the canned stuff that it’s worth the extra work, but I don’t think that will stop me from tinkering and trying it again.

What’s the moral of the story? If I can put together a decent home-cooked meal for Thanksgiving, you can too. I didn’t screw up any dishes this year, and was proud to serve each one. We’ll see how my luck holds out in December. We have two more comparably big family meals coming up.

 

Upcoming Books in 2017

In the Chinese calendar, 2017 will be the Year of the Rooster. To me, that means it’s the Year of Fried Chicken. But for now, 2017 will be important for other reasons….

I started making a list of books that will be coming out in 2017. The list is intended mostly a reminder to myself to order or pre-order them in a timely fashion, but you may find it informative. If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’ll share my interest in one or all of these. I’ll try to keep this post updated, and add to it as other books pop up. The links are to Amazon, but obviously, these books will be available from other dealers as well.

January: Look for Fred Opie’s Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the RevolutionIt includes a chapter, for instance, on Georgia Gilmore‘s “Club from Nowhere” that baked pies to raise money during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956.

Dr. Opie has a gift for finding perspectives and details that others miss, so I’m pretty sure his new work will be invaluable.

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February: Adrian Miller’s new project, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, will come out around Presidents Day. Early figures, like Washington’s chef, Hercules, or Jefferson’s chef, James Hemings, may already be somewhat familiar, as well as LBJ’s family cook, Zephyr Wright, but Miller will be giving us so much more…plus some recipes!

In his instant classic, Soul Food, Miller has an easy, friendly way of writing that makes us forget that we’re actually reading a carefully-researched scholarly work, complete with many pages of endnotes and an extensive bibliography. So I’m guessing that this new book will prove to be just as invaluable.

Oh, and speaking of…Soul Food will be coming out in paperback form in February, so if you still haven’t read it, you’ll have another option…and no more excuses.

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Spring. Looking forward to Jennifer Booker’s new cookbook, Dinner Déjà Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow. The combination makes sense: Raised on the farm down in Mississippi and trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu, Booker is completely comfortable talking about both down-home cooking and French cuisine.

I have expectations for this new book! Booker’s first cookbook, Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent, has become one of my favorites. It works on three levels. First, the recipes are clear and easy to follow, and, of the ones I’ve tried so far, the results taste good. Second, there’s a lot of good “how-to” material that stands on its own, whether you get around to trying the accompanying recipe itself or not. Third, there’s autobiographical and family stuff, like old photos, that are interesting in their own right. I’m assuming that in this new book, Booker’s recipes and explanations will likewise allow me to feel confident in trying some new dishes.

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Summer. Watch for Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. Those who follow Twitty’s Afroculinaria blog have been waiting for this project to come to print for some time, and now it’s going to happen.

Twitty is one of those rare inherently interesting persons who draws us in when he’s writing about any of his many passions, whether it’s his Jewish faith, social justice issues, his genealogical studies, or his research in African American history or cooking. As a food historian, it’s not just that he knows what he’s talking about. It’s also that he backs it up with his hands-on demonstrations, which adds a level of authenticity to his research. If you want to know what was involved in colonial cooking in Virginia, for instance, he can literally take you outside and show you how it was done.

In his new book, he’ll be weaving together a number of these threads, drawing on his own family history to help explain how southern cooking developed, and what that in turn can tell us about justice and race issues today.

When my own blog is titled “Food Tells a Story,” it’s obvious that I’m in tune with Twitty’s approach of using food as a way to open up larger matters. But even if you’re coming to the book from a completely different perspective, I’m pretty sure you’re going to like it, learn from it, and be glad you read it.

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