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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Potato Chips: Emeline Jones

64. Emeline Jones. Today, George Crum is usually given credit for inventing potato chips. He probably didn’t, but it’s good to remember him for other reasons. But a hundred years ago, another prominent chef, Emeline Jones (c.1832-1912) was credited with their invention. She probably didn’t invent them either, but hers is also a story worth remembering.

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In a 1912 obituary that appeared in the New York Age and other African American newspapers, Jones was described as “the originator of the Saratoga chips, which became a staple article of food at the various business resorts.”

Indeed, Jones had been there. She spent at least one season as a chef at Moon’s Lake House, on Saratoga Lake, the place where the so-called Saratoga chips were born, c.1850. She had been hired by Hiram Thomas, whom we will discuss in the next part of this little series. So it seems likely that Jones did actually cook the chips, which were served at the restaurant. However, as we saw in our feature on George Crum, the chips were around by 1849, and at that time, Jones was living in Baltimore.

But that’s where the real story gets more interesting.

Jones was born enslaved, either in Maryland or Virginia, but appears to have been freed before the general emancipation. In the 1860 Census for Baltimore, an Emeline Johns appears as a free mulatto. We’re assuming that’s our Emeline Jones. She worked in Baltimore and Washington, then made her way north to the New York area, including a stint in Long Branch, New Jersey.

By the 1880s, she had settled in Manhattan, where she built up a formidable catering business. Her obituary lists a number of prominent New York chefs who had trained under her. It is said that Presidents Arthur and Cleveland, both of New York, were so fond of her cooking that both had offered her a big salary to come to Washington and be the White House chef, but she turned down their offers.

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Terrapin Stew

Jones was famous for her terrapin stews. In the days before emancipation, turtles were so abundant all along the Atlantic coast that they were considered a food for the enslaved. Terrapins favor the brackish water of coastal marshes, so they were easier to capture than sea turtles, and thus became a valuable protein source for the enslaved in coastal areas.

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So how did a dish associated with the enslaved become the food of the rich and famous? In the first place, terrapins (as well as snappers and other turtles) were over-harvested, and went from being abundant to scarce. Among the various turtles, terrapins were the most highly-prized. The great French chef, Escoffier, declared the terrapin to be the king of the turtles.

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Escoffier, checking out something. Let’s pretend it’s terrapin.

By the 1890s, the scarcity of these terrapins pushed the price of a bowl of terrapin soup to the equivalent of $135 in current dollars.

In the second place, preparing a terrapin was both difficult and time-consuming. The turtles had to be kept alive until the moment of preparation. Thus, the cook’s first job was to kill the turtles. Terrapins are comparatively small: the females are heavier, usually weighing a pound or so; the males, about two-thirds of that, so for any sort of feast, several would need to be prepared. Some cooks would throw the live turtles into boiling water first, and then proceed to butcher them, starting with the head. Others would behead and bleed them out first, then boil them before butchering. The butchering itself was demanding. Guts such the gall bladder had to be identified and removed carefully, without puncturing it.

As a result, preparing terrapin dishes was left to the professionals, which meant that only the rich could afford to eat them. And that was where Emeline Jones made her mark in the world of New York City haute cuisine.

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A 1904 banquet at the Hotel Astor, featuring terrapin and canvasback duck, another expensive delicacy.

Here’s the moral of the story. There’s a curious passage in Emeline Jones’ 1912 obituary, reflecting on her prime years in New York City in the 1880s:

“Mrs. Jones’ assistants were kept busy filling orders. Colored cooks and caterers did most of the work in those times…. There was a tradition at that time before the advent of French and Italian cooks that colored cooks were the best.”

Today, many seem to think that African American chefs have to stick to the skilled preparation of traditional southern/soul dishes, or perhaps Caribbean or African dishes. In 2016, out of some 340 people named for James Beard awards, only two or perhaps three appeared to be African American. Young chefs find it difficult to break in to the broader world of cuisines.

One of those 2016 nominees, Eduardo Jones, talked about his experience “On Being Black in the Kitchen.” Others have sensed various degrees of racism in hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. Nicole Taylor identifies institutional racism as a factor. As African Americans in other lines of business have found too often, black chefs don’t have the same access to capital as their white counterparts when it comes to opening their own restaurants.

But the stories of chefs like Emeline Jones and George Crum, catering to the most sophisticated palates in New York City, remind us that skilled chefs can cook whatever they feel like cooking, whether a chef’s ancestry can be traced back to Africa, Mexico, France, Italy, or anywhere else. No chef should be stereotyped or limited by their ethnic heritage.

Even if they never invent the next potato chip.

Cream of Wheat (2)

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62. In our last post, we focused on the Cream of Wheat chef as “Rastus,” and all that name embodies in American social history. But there’s another dimension we left untouched.

In the advertising artwork of the 1910s and 1920s, sometimes the Chef was presented as a hotel chef, working in the “Cream of Wheat Inn.” But more often, the Chef was presented not as a “chef” per se, but as a combination of household cook and waiter, sometimes preposterously so, as in this 1911 ad:

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Why are these people dressed like that? Those costumes look more 1811 than 1911.

On at least one occasion, as seen in the 1909 ad below, the Chef was not only the cook but also the railroad dining car porter, so that two classic stereotypes are fused into one. Of course, stereotypes are usually rooted in some grain of truth, and in 1909, cooking and railroad work were two of the comparatively few non-farming occupations that were generally open to African American men. We’re still struck, of course, by the clumsiness of trying to jam both stereotypes into the same scene:

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Frequently, the Chef was shown serving children. And do we even need to say it: serving the white children, such as in this 1918 ad:

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In general, such ads convey the idea that Cream of Wheat, via its Chef, should be part of your family’s daily routine. In a number of ads, the Chef is feeding the children, or interacting with the children playing in his kitchen.

At times, the Chef seems to be not just the family cook but something of a male nanny as well.

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In this 1908 ad, the Chef stands side by side with a white child’s “mammy.”

Sometimes, Cream of Wheat’s artists crossed a line from benign to the malicious, and dipped into blatantly offensive “Rastus” stereotypes, as we saw in part 1. But for the most part, the stereotypes were milder: the Chef is part of your family, and, gosh darnit, the kids just love him. One of the good ones.

Yet in terms of representation, the milder stereotypes are just as devastating. For many years, the product’s social message was clear: black America exists to serve white America. Slavery may have officially ended with the Civil War, but in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were still seen as the servant class: the cooks, the waiters, the porters, the nannies. In the south by law and in the north by custom, that was the status quo that white America fought to maintain through segregation, restriction, and marketplace manipulation: This is where you may live, work, eat, drink water, go to the bathroom, and sleep when you travel. This is where you may send your kids to school, and here are the low-paying jobs they may inherit when they grow up….

At least Cream of Wheat gave their Chef a genuinely human face, and so I suppose we should view this as a baby-step forward in representation. They didn’t dip into the Zip-Coon, half-man half-ape grotesquery that permeated so much advertising, and persisted in some areas into the 1950s. The Chef may be your personal servant, but at least he’s a man and not a cartoon.

The Cream of Wheat guy was modeled on a real chef. The company has always said that in about 1900, it paid $5 for a photo of a real chef in Chicago.

It is believed that the real-life chef was Frank L. White, who lived the latter part of his life in Leslie, Michigan. A few years ago, a researcher, Jesse Lasorda, put the story together. White was born in 1867 in Barbados, and came to the U.S. as a child, in 1875. He was later naturalized as a citizen. This is reflected in the 1930 Census and the Michigan record of his second marriage, late in life.

It appears that White, like many chefs, moved around a lot. But after World War I, he settled in central Michigan, working as a chef at the Holly House in nearby Mason, south of Lansing. It is said that he was famous in the area for his “Maryland” chicken. By the time of the 1930 Census, he had retired from cooking. Nonetheless, when he died in 1938, the local newspaper identified him as the Cream of Wheat guy. A few years ago, a public campaign raised enough money to put a marker on his grave, which bears his famous image.

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So what’s the moral of the story? Whether White was the real Cream of Wheat guy or not, when we see that face in the cereal aisle, his story is the one we ought to remember and celebrate: A Bajan comes to America, works hard, is respected by the community for that work, and is remembered in the local paper when he dies. Aristotle would call that a good life.

Barney Ford: Fast Food Pioneer

55. In 1867, the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming popped up virtually overnight. Barney Ford got there immediately, and opened a restaurant. (In 1867, the area was still part of the Dakota Territory.) It’s not hard to imagine that, as a popular business leader in Denver, he had some advance notice of what was going on. Across the Old West, getting there first was usually a crucial step to success.

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The earliest known ad for Barney’s Cheyenne restaurant was published on October 10, 1867. The Union Pacific railroad didn’t reach Cheyenne until a month later, on November 13. By January 1868, Barney had worked out a system, and was advertising that he was getting daily shipments of fresh oysters from Baltimore, a five-day trip by the new trains, which was impossibly fast by 1868 standards.

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Union Pacific Engine No.119 met the Central Pacific’s “Jupiter” at Promontory Point in 1869. This was a standard locomotive in the late 1860s, and would have been the type seen in the early days of Cheyenne.

Oysters in Wyoming? Not exactly the contemporary idea of “eating local.” But there was no “local” in Wyoming in 1868. Nearly everyone in the area, apart from the native population, was there because of the railroad. Cattle ranching hadn’t developed yet, and the buffalo (bison) were quickly being exterminated.

Meanwhile, folks needed to eat, and Ford had plenty of competition. At its peak during the rail construction boom, Cheyenne had as many as 70 places serving food, or at least offering a drink, but even after the transcontinental line was completed in Utah in 1869, Ford still had at least five solid competitors.

Once the transcontinental trains started running from Omaha to San Francisco, Ford was competing not only against the other local businesses, but against the other towns along the route. The trains would make a 30-minute stop in Cheyenne. Ford’s original restaurant was only a block away from the station. People had plenty of time to run in and have a quick bowl of oysters. They probably wouldn’t have had time to go somewhere else and wait for a steak to be grilled.

His typical 1868 newspaper copy read:

Oysters!  Fresh Oysters!  B. L. Ford and Co., 16th Street, is receiving daily, by express, Maltby’s, Select, and H.M. Oysters, the best and freshest in the market.  We serve them up in every style, at all hours, and furnish the trade in quantities to suit.  Our oyster broils can’t be beat. They are large, fat and luscious.  Call and try them.”

In his 1870 ads, he was also offering “free carriage rides” from the train station to his Ford and Durkee Hotel, saving passengers a few more precious moments. Fast food! We associate fast food with the rise of the automobile culture, but it had already started with the railroads. (For a glimpse into an early fast food project back east, read about the “waiter carriers” of Gordonsville, Virginia–African American women who would meet the trains to sell food such as fried chicken directly to the passengers–in Psyche A. Williams-Forson’s Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power.)

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In this 1869 photo of Cheyenne’s business district, the Ford and Durkee Hotel is the two-story building in the middle of the block on the left side of the street.

At the peak of the railroad construction boom, Cheyenne’s population had ballooned from nothing to 4000. Then, as the construction work moved west, the population fell off. By the summer of 1869, Cheyenne had 2300 people.

In 1870, the hotel, which had brick sides, nonetheless burned down in a fire that gobbled up buildings over a two-block area. Ford rebuilt, but by 1871 or so, he sold out, and returned to Denver. He then bought the Sargent House hotel, on Larimer Street:

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Ford advertised his new Ford Hotel and Restaurant in the Cheyenne newspaper, hoping to capitalize on the new rail traffic that was heading south from Cheyenne to Denver. He advertised “Meals at all hours,” with “oysters, fish and game a specialty.”

He followed that project with his Inter-Ocean Hotel, built in 1873, at the corner of 16th & Blake. It was a fine hotel, and included an electric bell system that connected each room to the front desk.

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A stereoscopic photo of the Inter-Ocean Hotel in Denver, from the Denver Public Library.

Ford returned to Cheyenne in 1875 to open an Inter-Ocean Hotel there. Once again, he was advertising his fresh oysters. In September of that year, President Grant stopped in Cheyenne. After the obligatory greetings at the train depot, Grant and his party took the carriage ride to the Inter-Ocean Hotel, and was personally served by Barney Ford.

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The Inter-Ocean Hotel in Cheyenne, 1875. It was destroyed by fire in 1916. It may have been the first hotel in the U.S. to have both electric lights in the rooms and a telephone in the lobby.

The new hotel offered lodging for 150, the dining room could seat 180, and it included a gentlemen’s reading room, a ladies’ dining room, billiard hall, gentlemen’s club, and a barber shop. At the time, it was considered the finest hotel between St. Louis and San Francisco, and over the next forty years, it welcomed a number of famous guests, including Teddy Roosevelt. It was also used for meetings of the Wyoming territorial legislature.

It was also at the head of the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage coach line that carried gold rush miners east into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its saloon became a hot spot for miners returning from Deadwood with bags full of gold dust. Tom Horn, the hired gun who was finally hanged in Cheyenne in 1903 for the murder of a 14-year old boy, often stayed there, and was arrested in the hotel bar after his drunken confession to a murder he may not have actually committed.

In the process of constructing these substantial hotels in Denver and Cheyenne, Ford became financially over-extended. By May 1878, Ford and family were preparing to leave Cheyenne for an interlude in San Francisco. The Cheyenne newspaper ran a story bidding farewell to a “gentleman” they described as “a man of unimpeachable integrity, public spirited and enterprising,” and added that “The good wishes of our citizens accompany himself and family to their new home.”

Let that sink in. The rest is history (and covered in the previous post). But here’s the moral of this particular part of story: A newspaper gave that kind of a farewell to an African American family in 1878. The paper called him a ”gentleman,” in a time when many white folks couldn’t even have brought themselves to call an African American man “sir.” As a black man in his 50s,  he’d probably have been called “Uncle Barney” in many parts of the country. The Cheyenne paper’s accolades show the high degree of respect that Barney Ford had earned.

Greens for People Better Than You

Ok, let’s just do this.

By now, you’ve seen the social media stories about Neiman Marcus selling mail-order collard greens. But in case you haven’t, here’s their ad:

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Judging from the reactions we’ve seen on Black Twitter, I’m assuming that when you first heard about this, you threw up a little in your mouth. Not necessarily because of the collards themselves (because in all fairness, we can’t taste a photo, and for all we know, they may be quite tasty), but at the very idea of shelling out $81.50 ($66+$15.50 shipping) to put some greens on your holiday table.

So what do we do with this?

1. Dan, they just don’t look right.

My first reaction was that the greens look like a fast food dinner salad. But, again, in fairness, we might consider a couple of things:

First, greens are idiosyncratic. Everyone has their preferences. They look too dry to me, but maybe that’s only because I have a preference for greens soaked in their broth (pot-likker). Some people may be turned off by the bacon. Traditionally, greens have been flavored by some sort of meat, and in the southern tradition, that means some sort of smoked pork, like a hamhock or neckbone. Of course, many modern cooks have turned to smoked turkey necks or tails, both to cut down on the fat and to avoid dietary taboos related to pork. Similarly, many restaurants offer vegetarian or vegan greens. Personally, I like the combination of a smoked turkey neck and a fresh pig tail, but as I said, greens are idiosyncratic that way.

In the universe of meat-flavored greens, some folks do use bacon. And then–how can I say this?–we might want to allow Neiman Marcus some latitude here. The kind of folks who can afford to plunk down $81.50 on collard greens might well find bacon bits more appetizing than a neckbone.

Second, let’s remember that we’re looking at a food photograph. Has your fast food burger ever looked like this?

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Of course not. Some people were turned off by the bright green color of the greens here. But that may represent a photo editor’s idea of what looks good. It may also represent the way the greens were cooked. Traditionally, Grandma let the greens stew all afternoon till they came out dark green or olive drab. But some cooks today (again, the idiosyncrasies!) will parboil the leaves for a few minutes, and then quick-chill them to stop the cooking process briefly before returning them to the pot. The result is that the brighter color is fixed. I tried that last Christmas, with the idea that it would make the greens look more festive, like the green color we associate with Christmas:

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Moreover, for whatever reason, collard greens are challenging to photograph. Or maybe it’s just me being idiosyncratic again. I have a terrible time making my collards look good in photos. (Of course, if you think the green-greens above look just super-yummy, then I take that back.)

2. Ok, Dan. We’ll cut them some slack. But the NM greens still don’t look very good.

Let’s whip out that “idiosyncratic” word again to raise another issue: Who would spend $81.50 on greens that they might not even like? In the offline world, we learn whose greens we like and whose we don’t care for (sorry, Cracker Barrel). But we make those decisions largely on single servings. NM’s greens may look inoffensive, and we assume that a mass-marketed product would not be too unusual. But if we’re wrong, we’ve just bought ourselves three pounds of very expensive kitchen trash.

3. Dan, stop dodging around the gentrification issue.

I’m just going to say it: Would a person who spends $81.50 on mail-ordered frozen collard greens even know whether they’re any good or not? In the last few years, collards have become trendy among folks who want to be sure to be eating trendy food. In 2014, Whole Foods posted their infamous “Collards Are the New Kale” feature. Some may want to try collards just because Chip and Muffy were simply raving about it at the club.

Well, so what? Who owns collard greens? Technically, everyone. The Greeks were growing collards at least 2,000 years ago. The dictionary folks think “collard” is a corruption of the English “colewort,” which links it to its cooler-weather siblings, cabbage and kale. Collards in turn handle the heat better, and so it does well in the uplands of the south.

As such, early on it became a staple for many poor folks, whether black or white. The broth or “pot likker,” mopped up with cornbread, was a good source of vitamins, recapturing the nutrients leached out of the collards during the long cooking process.

So down south, lots of folks might lay claim to collards. But up north, collards are more commonly considered part of the “soul food” menu. So when wealthier white folks suddenly get interested in collard greens, it feels like gentrification. White folks are coming in, taking over, and pricing black folks out of the market. Again.

Are we making too much of a bowl of greens that many younger African Americans can’t stand? Sure. But it points us to a simple solution: If you’re really so desperate for collards that you’re prepared to pay $81.50 for frozen ones, why not go to your local soul food restaurant or African American caterer, and buy fresh? Even fancier places, like Pearl’s Place, in Chicago, or Dulan’s on Crenshaw, in Los Angeles, sell sides of collards for just $4.00, and in most places, it’s more like $3.00. Then, ten servings would cost just $30-$40, tops. Moreover, you’d be serving a fresh side, not something frozen and reheated, and you could taste it in advance.

This is nothing against the good folks at Neiman Marcus. Maybe their greens are great, and if money’s no object, they’ll even deliver them to your door. But if you buy local, you’ll at least know what you’re getting. You don’t have to worry about participating in appropriation or gentrification. And you’re supporting local businesses, just at the time when young African American chefs and caterers need help to build their careers in the face of institutional barriers.

Buying greens local, or making your own, also makes it more likely that you’ll be getting the most important intangible: love. Cooking collards requires some love. The leaves have to be washed and chopped up (many of us add a step in between, tearing the leaves away from the woody stalks). Then the cooking process takes a while, especially if you’re creating a meat-flavored broth. Along the way, there’s plenty of opportunity to personalize the dish, and make it your own.

Bottom line is that even if I could afford to buy luxury collards online, I’d still rather make my own, like this batch I made for last Juneteenth:

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Soul on Ice Cubes

45. In our last installment, we went through the potato salad jokes. But why is potato salad funny?  And why does the humor often fall along racial lines? Why do we assume that “white” potato salad is bound to be something “creative” that looks more like this…

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…while my potato salad looks like this?

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As we saw in the first part, the top photo looks like a good potato dish. Still, I can’t get past the feeling that my potato salad is the real potato salad, and if someone promised me potato salad, and brought the first dish, I’d feel shortchanged, no matter how good it was.

It’s like the difference between a hamburger and a hot dog. Both are conceptually the same thing: meat between a bun, with similar condiments. But if I ordered a hamburger, and was handed a hot dog instead, I’d be disappointed. I’d eat it. And I’d like it. But it just wouldn’t be the same. I was expecting a hamburger.

Expectations. Expectations based on experience and, perhaps, sentimentality. Potato salad just needs to be a certain way, and some other way feels wrong. There’s a sense of ownership here. A certain kind of potato salad is ours, at least enough for us to make jokes about it, and other kinds of potato dishes are yours. And keep yours away from us, please.

So is Potato Salad part of “soul food” cuisine? Is it soul on ice cubes?

If “soul food” is taken in the specific historical sense, as it developed in the 1960s as an expression of black identity and power independent of white society, then potato salad won’t fit the bill. There’s nothing especially “black” about it. It doesn’t have African roots, nor was it invented or developed in the African American community.

Potato salad is a European import. The potatoes themselves are, of course, a New World food. The Spanish hauled them back home, and promptly went about inventing dishes that amounted to potato salad. By 1597, the English botanist, John Gerard, noted that potatoes were exceptionally good mixed with a little wine, oil, vinegar. This modern Italian potato salad, made with chianti, may suggest the evolutionary development:

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The Germans, meanwhile, developed warm potato salads that tended to have more bite. They generally used more vinegar, as well as the grainy (and sharper) mustards of the day. Some assume that potato salad was introduced in the United States by German immigrants, so that the hot variety came first. There’s no doubt that many people enjoy German potato salad.

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However, early American cookbooks leave the impression that many people preferred the French style. The French developed a cooler, i.e., room temperature, potato salad, made with oil and vinaigrette, and other seasonings.

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An 1825 English cookbook, French Domestic Cooking, offers a potato salad recipe calling for “fine herbs, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar, adding some beet-root and gherkins cut in slices.” It wouldn’t occur to me to dice up a beet to throw in my potato salad, but the rest of it doesn’t sound too bad. The “Bite from the Past” blog gives a potato salad recipe from c.1885 that uses oil and vinegar, but no eggs. In any case, whether French, German, British, or an American blending, potato salad’s roots are in Europe, not Africa.

Well, so what? We could say the same of macaroni and cheese. So maybe we should expand or adjust our working definition of “soul food.”

However, if “soul food” is taken in a broader sociological sense as a comfort food for African Americans who came north or west during the Great Migration, then potato salad won’t fit that bill either. The kind of American, homestyle potato salad I make is both too northern and too new to qualify as a traditional southern comfort food.

In the first place, potatoes are more of a northern and western food. The leading potato states are Idaho, Washington, and North Dakota. Potatoes thrive in cooler temperatures, which is why they became a replacement crop in Europe during the cereal crop failures brought on by the Little Ice Age. The south, meanwhile, was more tied to an unrelated tuber, the sweet potato.

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Idaho potatoes at Sweetbay Supermarket, Wesley Chapel, Florida

Secondly, the ingredients of our homestyle potato salad are too new to be considered “down home.” The exact history of mayonnaise is disputed, but the sauce, as we know it, was formalized by the French in the early 1800s. By the end of the century, mayonnaise had made it to America, and was beginning to be used in elite restaurants as a dressing for potatoes. But that was homemade mayonnaise, i.e., with fresh eggs, so that it had to be used quickly, especially in the days before reliable refrigeration.

Commercial mayonnaise, a safer product with a longer shelf-life, began to appear in the early 1900s. Yellow mustard likewise started becoming popular in the early 1900s, especially with the introduction of French’s served on hot dogs at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

So when did potatoes, mayo and mustard land in the same bowl? In a small cookbook published by industry-leader Hellmann’s in 1922, the seventeen recipes did not include one for potato salad.

I glanced through some of my older cookbooks. In the late 1930s, Eudora Welty gave a recipe for a “wickedly hot potato salad” served with fried catfish at the Hotel Vicksburg. It includes all of the ingredients we’d expect: potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise, prepared mustard, plus pickles, pimentos, and more, though the implication is that the mayonnaise was homemade.

But there’s no potato salad recipe in my mom’s 1946 Better Homes & Gardens cookbook that she was given as a newlywed, nor in the 1950 Charleston Receipts. There’s big-batch recipe for serving 46-50 in the 1950 The Sexton Cook Book. There’s also one in Meta Given’s The Modern Family Cook Book that first appeared in  1942, but mine is the 1961 edition.

In other words, it appears that potato salad as we know it is largely a postwar creation. It depends on commercial mayonnaise and yellow mustard, and on the availability of refrigeration. It’s not exactly a “down home” dish. Indeed, in the last few years, “mayonnaise” has become a gentle insult for white people and white culture. Yours truly, for instance, may or may not have used this photo to mock last spring’s Oscar nominees:

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Another dimension of “soul food” is that many of the standard dishes are part of festival cuisine, not daily cooking. When the food police start shooting down soul food dishes as unhealthy, it’s always worth reminding them that it was never intended to be eaten every day. If you eat candied yams, every day, drenched in brown sugar and butter, it might well kill you.

In that context, potato salad qualifies as a festival food. It’s certainly a key side dish in backyard cookouts and picnics. In more than a few southern homes, it’s part of the Thanksgiving or Christmas menu. Potato salad gets eaten by crowds, not just the immediate nuclear family, and so all of the things we joked about in the first piece come into play, such as wondering who made it, or debating a bad batch.

It’s in this sense that we might feel justified in saying that even though potato salad came from Europe, and was developed in this country using northern potatoes, and flavored with mayonnaise and mustard created by white northerners, it can still be considered a soul food item, much as macaroni and cheese.

The moral of the story? No matter who you are, the next time there’s a family event that calls for potato salad, don’t be content to run down to Walmart and buy a tub to plop on the table. Learn how to make it right. That’s what I’m doing.

Sugar. That last batch I made needed a spoonful of sugar. Then it was pretty good.