Earth Day 2017: What’s for Dinner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

reggie 4 8 17

(Reggie also loves Grandpa’s ribs)

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

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

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

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

elite-daily-flint-michigan-water-crisis-twitter

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

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

51CtbA9WmaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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

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

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

trump-clean-water-rule-1488320820-compressed

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

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

hqdefault

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

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

Ben Carson and the Fate of Soul Food

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

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

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

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

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

sla-mar01s

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.

enslave-02

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:

C6XKfKIVMAAJNkp

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.

armbencarson

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.

0-ZPyXxIlyghgOic4v

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.

The-Great-Migration-Map

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.

sweethome_072.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale

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.

big-mac-ad2

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).

c24020edebc1527d63d4a488d078fa0e

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.

tumblr_nina1dVQIw1sx9zdwo3_1280

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?

hotdogs

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.

chuck-berry-Park-Lane-in-London-in-1965-billboard-1548

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.”

miller

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:

91i97msotel-_sy550_

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:

thomas-jefferson-waffle-1024x731

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.

maxresdefault

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.

wells

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.

ny-age-1-10-59-wells

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.

imgres

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.

14680531_10211104800121590_7911824889494809112_n

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.

*

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:

2-22-17a

Paschal’s & The Busy Bee

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

paschals-nov-2016

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

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

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

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

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

Robert and James Paschal in their original luncheonette, 1947.

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

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

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

The Paschal brothers in their later years

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

hm_slide_one

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

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

15781630_1377256008951689_3397093130285674153_n

“Mama Lucy” Jackson, 1943

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

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

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

emeril-tracy-gates

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

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

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

bernie-sanders-killer-mike

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

pickrick

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

cwyenjqwqaey7wo

The Cooking Virus

46. Recently, Marian Bull wrote a thought-provoking piece, “Are Viral Recipes Ruining Cooking?” In it, she wanders back to the emergence of the Food Network at the end of the last century, but her focus is on the sort of quick tutorial, flash recipe video clips we find on sites like Tasty. Her question? “Are they really teaching us how to cook?”

Her instincts say no. The intent of these clips is to go viral; that is, to prompt immediate shares and reposts, on the basis that a dish looks tasty or fun or easy to whip up.

Bull sees this in historical perspective. Things have changed over the twenty years since the emergence of the Food Network. Bull refers back to a 1998 story by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times about the impact of Emeril Lagasse’s TV style on cooking, which relied on what Hesser considered the dumbing-down of recipes: “Hesser once complained of Lagasse’s removal of intellectual effort; Tasty videos make his work look like a doctoral thesis.” Bam! 

79660_02_emeril_s4x3-jpg-rend-sni18col

First things first. I have my own love-hate relationship with the Food Network. Sometimes the shows can be entertaining, like the fleeting annual episodes of “The Great Food Truck Race,” with its combination of lovable and creepy people working under pressure, both real and contrived.

Some shows can be educational. If I’m ever dumb enough to open a restaurant, people like Robert Irvine have taught me a few things about what not to do. (Ironically, both Irvine and Gordon Ramsay teach the same lesson: I may be a jerk, but don’t be a jerk yourself, whether toward your customers or your employees.)

But have I been learning anything about cooking? Not much. Occasionally, some dish featured on Guy Fieri’s ubiquitous “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” will catch my attention, and I’ll try to figure out how to do it my own way. Here and there I’ll see a flash of a technique that I’ll try to learn. For instance, I love Kevin Belton’s show on PBS.

My kids like “Chopped.” I’ve never been too excited about it, even though the host and most of the judges are pleasant folks. First, my sense of schadenfreude doesn’t extend to the kitchen. I take no pleasure in seeing competent, professional chefs being humiliated. Even the first chef “chopped” in each episode is a better cook than I’ll ever be, so if they’re unfit to make it to the second round, what does that say about me and my skills as an amateur cook?

636025151703753953-1431987605_chopped

It’s not like “Chopped” is a place to learn kitchen skills anyway. The chefs are professionals, and they can do things quickly. In part, it’s because they’ve done them hundreds or thousands of times. It’s also because the show helps them cut corners, with preheated ovens, water already boiling, etc. But I had to watch an instructional video in order to learn how to hold my chef’s knife correctly (what I actually learned was that I was instinctively doing it right already). Same with learning how to take apart a whole chicken (still working on that!). Of course, they don’t cut up whole chickens on “Chopped.” It would take too long when an entree must be finished in 20-30 minutes.

In the second place, “Chopped” creations are inherently beyond reproduction. No one’s working from a recipe (or recipes, see below), and no recipes are produced. Besides, the premise itself is artificial. In the real world, no one goes into the supermarket blindfolded, grabs a handful of random ingredients, and then figures out what to do with them.

And, truth be told, in the real world of this cook’s home, there’s no such thing as an “appetizer.” Here, an “appetizer” is a plate I set out on Thanksgiving and Christmas to make people shut up and stop bothering me while I’m finishing the dinner, which I am doing as fast as I can, thank you very much. My “appetizers” consist entirely of plopping some cheese and crackers on one plate, and veggies and dip on another. My only “skill” is to make them look a bit less random:

In any case, I’m not attracted to the kind of dishes that one can knock off in 20 or 30 minutes. I like slow cooking. Even Bobby Flay can’t smoke a slab of baby back ribs in 20 minutes. You can’t brine chicken in sweet tea and then pan-fry it in 30 minutes. You can’t stew up a pot of collard greens in smoked ham-hock broth that fast and have it taste like anything more bolted leaf lettuce.

Fine. 8,732 people before me have made these same observations. But now, Marian Bull extends them to viral videos (I’m hesitant to call them “recipes”). Do we learn anything about cooking from them?

She says, for the most part, no. It’s made me think, in turn, about how I actually go about using any sort of recipe or video. Last winter, the “Mississippi Roast” was the big viral recipe. It caught my attention because beef pot roast is one of my wife’s favorite meals. In her family, it was what they ate after church nearly every Sunday. In turn, I like to make one every once in a while, just because I’m just so darned nice. And they turn out ok.

1425409_10202510040337967_1532217616_o

I like the challenge of cooking pot roasts. It’s a simple dish, of course, but precisely because it’s simple, it gives my limited cooking brain an opportunity to break down the steps and figure out how to improve it next time. What did I use for a marinade? Did I sear it properly? What oven temp did I choose? Did I cook it long enough? What veggies got too mushy or didn’t cook long enough? Did I carve it correctly?  Ree Drummond says to do the potatoes separately: Should I start doing that too? This is how I learn.

Then came the Mississippi Roast. Delish concluded that it had taken the internet “by storm” because of its combination of “comfort-food ingredients and its virtual effortless preparation.” Effortless indeed! Throw the meat in your crockpot, sprinkle on a couple of packages of seasoning (au jus mix and a ranch dressing mix), a stick of butter, and some pepperoncini, and come back in about eight hours and see what you’ve got.

Meanwhile, Sam Sifton at the New York Times had gotten curious about “the roast that owns the internet,” and came up with his own version, relying on traditional seasonings, rather than commercial mixes. Instead of an au jus mix, his recipe called for the traditional approach of sautéeing a flour-covered roast, and using a homemade ranch dressing made from mayonnaise, vinegar, dill, paprika, and buttermilk.

I made Sifton’s version first, mostly out of ego: “Hey, I know how to sauté a roast. Watch me!” I was also a little skeptical about the sodium levels that would be in the packaged mixes. I like salt, but I like to have some control over how much goes into a dish.

The roast turned out just fine. Everyone seemed to like it. I also felt good about myself. I felt like I’d actually done some cooking, even down to tweaking the ranch dressing ingredients just a bit to give it the taste I wanted.

A few weeks later, I made it again.But this time, in the name of culinary science, I followed the easier recipe, using the packaged mixes. Once again, the result was pretty good. It wasn’t quite as good as the first, more homemade batch, but it was satisfactory.

What wasn’t as satisfactory was my sense of accomplishment. I wasn’t sure that I’d actually cooked anything. It felt like I’d merely assembled somebody else’s food in my crockpot.

12672127_10209356517495617_8356491154147031869_o

Mississippi Roast. With both recipes, the meat fell apart easily, and tasted better on rolls.

Bull then asks, “The real question here, however, is whether these recipes actually work.” She interviewed food writer Ben Mims. Some places, Mims says, “still have rigorous testing standards, but others are more interested in getting a recipe out there and seeing what happens.”

I’m a coleslaw fan. Once upon a time, “cooking” coleslaw was as simple as deciding on what bottle of commercial dressing I’d pour on a bag of chopped cabbage. But I was less and less satisfied with the commercial brands. So I decided I’d figure out how to make my own.

I’m still working on that. My first attempt, however, taught me the most important lesson: Online recipes are not Gospel. The recipe called for three tablespoons of lemon juice. Every instinct in my cooking brain was shouting that three tablespoons was far too much. But the naive, trusting part of my brain assumed that someone, somewhere must have proofread the recipe before posting it, and if it said three tablespoons, it must be three tablespoons.

The result was awful. One forkful told me that I’d made a serious mistake. All I could taste was the lemon juice. Coleslaw is one of those dishes that usually tastes better the next day, but the next day, the lemon was still overpowering. After about four days, the flavors had finally blended enough that the lemon didn’t overpower the dish. But of course by then, the cabbage itself had headed south, and I was left with a soggy mess.

My taste receptors have not aged gracefully, but in this case, I knew what the problem was: Too much lemon juice. Way, way, waaaaaaay too much lemon juice. So, the next time I made coleslaw, I used the same recipe, but changed the lemon juice to three teaspoons, i.e., one tablespoon, instead of three tablespoons. The recipe had a fatal typo not caught by a proofreader or test cook.

1526967_10203460819346848_441460780_n

Behold, my coleslaw

I should have followed my instincts the first time around. But I wasn’t fooled by another viral recipe that popped up recently. This was a Cooking Panda video tutorial for a Sweet Potato Pie recipe. It started out relatively normal, and then suddenly, the cook threw in a full cup of grated parmesan cheese. You read that right: parmesan cheese. In a sweet potato pie. The sight of the cheese threw me so badly that I didn’t even realize at first that the pie was also made without the seasonings we’d expect, like cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, etc.

Were they serious, or was this a parody? The replies have been hilarious. Yesha Callahan at The Root called it “The World’s Most Disgusting Sweet Potato Pie Recipe.” Charing Ball at Madame Noire called it an “All Lives Matter” version, and a “Case for Reparations.”

So far, no one in my cooking circles seems to have tried it for themselves. But here’s the serious argument: If you’re going to make a radical departure in a standard dish, I think you’re obliged to make the case for it, and not just throw it out there and expect people to follow along. Preface it. Say something like, “I know this sounds crazy, but my grandma used to make it this way….” Describe it. “The parmesan cheese makes it taste like….”

In other words, do what cookbooks do. I have several hundred cookbooks in either print or electronic form, and keep a small working library in the kitchen:

13599788_10210199554611018_2920695942040726627_n

When I cook, and especially if I’m trying a new dish or trying fine-tune something, I’ll look up similar recipes in a number of cookbooks. What are the essential ingredients? What did this one add? What did this one omit? Are we talking half-teaspoons or whole tablespoons? When’s it done? When’s it overdone? A viral video isn’t apt to provide that kind of information

Once I’ve got the general drift, that’s usually where I go my own way, and put it together the way that feels right to me. I might be wrong, of course. More likely, I’ll be on the right track, and then it’s just a matter of tinkering. Either way, I’m cooking with a sense of ownership and control. I’m doing it my way, even if I screw it up.

*

Ok, enough. Is there an actual lesson to be learned here?

For me, soul food is like jazz. Improvisation is expected. Its American roots among the enslaved and then the oppressed required an element of “making do.” Do the best you can with what you’ve got. In modern cuisine, that means paying careful attention to the individual dish and its ingredients. Even something as simple as a pound of hamburger will have a different character every time. Good cooking requires paying attention to such things, and adjusting accordingly. Every dish carries certain expectations, but within that framework, the cook is invited to improvise, and come up with some authentic. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions, and there’s no Love in that.

A viral recipe video might open the door to something good, but it seems like an uphill battle. Good luck with that.

 

 

 

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…

Potato_Salad_with_Quick_Preserved_Lemon__Coriander_and_Arugula

…while my potato salad looks like this?

8 26 16aa

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:

potatosalad2

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.

german-ps

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.

french_potato_salad

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.

plm-winner-10

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:

20130717-mayonnaise-taste-test-primary-new

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.

 

 

 

The Potato Salad Issue

44. A while back, this meme caught my attention:

aunt start

I’m not sure why this struck me, but it made me laugh out loud, a literal lol. It also got me thinking about potato salad. Turns out, there’s a cottage industry out there devoted to potato salad memes. Google “aunt potato salad meme” and see it for yourself. Here’s a sampling:

potato salad clap backs a

Then I started seeing potato salad humor popping up in other places. Michael Twitty, for instance, who is an Actual Food Scholar, came up with a list of forty items in his “How to Survive Black Thanksgiving as a Non-Black Guest.” He mentions Shanda’s boyfriend, of course, whom we’re all happy to see. But that’s only #30. He elevated the Potato Salad Issue to #6:

6.  Potato salad year round is a thing. Don’t ask who made it, just know their hands are clean. Potato salad is yellow, has paprika and eggs so don’t be confused. 

In a similar vein, Michael Harriot put together “The Caucasian’s Guide to Black Barbecues,” introducing us to Tasha’s new boyfriend. But, again, that was later on. Harriot couldn’t even get through his first point, “You gotta bring something,” without mentioning the Potato Salad Issue:

You either show up with a dish or they’re gonna look at you funny. And please don’t try no new shit like potato salad with raisins or vegetarian shish kabobs. If you can’t cook, or you don’t have all the required black seasonings, just bring some cups and napkins. Or LOTS of aluminum foil.

Then last spring, blogger Damon Young wrote an entire piece on the subject: “Why Black People Care So Damn Much about Potato Salad, Explained.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. As Young sees it, the first element in the Potato Salad Issue is the question of Who Made It. This also shows up in the memes:

potato salad is it safe a

The first issue here is not the taste but the safety. In another piece, “10 Things Aside from the Police that Will Definitely Kill You if You’re Black,” Young says potato salad is threat number one. Even one bite of bad potato salad “will definitely kill you.”

When it comes to potato salad, food safety is also a concern among those of us in the melanin-challenged community as well. In a 2009 NPR piece, Susan Russo tells of attending summer cookouts in New England. Every time she’d reach for the potato salad, her mother would give “the look.” Russo says, “Potato salad was the forbidden food of the cookout.” Why?

There was simply no way my mom was going to chance bringing home her brood, sick from food poisoning. How could we know, after all, how long that potato salad had been sitting in the sun? How could we be assured that it was kept cold from the time it was made? It was too risky. So we never ate it, and we traveled home safe, every time.

In my family, my Mom was the Official Potato Salad Maker. Mom was famous in the family for her candied yams and her potato salad. My kids loved her potato salad, and I have cousins who still mention it. Looking back, I’m not sure it was because Mom’s was just better, or because she didn’t trust anyone else. She had a divinely-inspired Upper Midwest Norwegian Lutheran fear of germs, and was scrupulous about keeping the bowl chilled almost to freezing, and then keeping it out of the sun once it had to go on the picnic table for just long enough to let everyone spoon a heap onto their paper plates.

The truth is that potato salad really is a frequent culprit in food poisoning, so it does need to be handled scrupulously. It’s not the mayonnaise. Commercial mayonnaise uses pasteurized eggs, free from salmonella. The problem is with the way we prepare the potatoes and eggs. In the process of boiling and then cooling, there is a potential for bacteria to grow. (The mayonnaise, if anything, may have a deterrent effect, because it’s slightly acidic.) Then, if the potato salad sits out, and warms past 40F degrees for too long, the bacteria can start multiplying rapidly.

That’s the science-y dimension. But then we want to know who made the potato salad because we also want it to taste right. Here’s where it gets sticky. Food poisoning is rooted in objective, scientific truth. But taste is, well, a matter of taste. For some, any potato salad coming from the melanin-challenged side of things is going to be suspect. Damon Young warns against a potato salad coming from your…

…white friend who invited you to his family’s 4th of July cookout and asked you to sample this new potato salad recipe he found in the backseat of an Uber last week which probably means he doesn’t want to be friends with you anymore.

potato salad white folks a

We’re aware of it too. Blogger Jan Wilberg tells the story of having a professional lunch with a squad of African American women at a D.C. hotel. She describes the potato salad as “made with red potatoes, olive oil, probably shallots…with a healthy grind of fresh pepper on top.” I’m envisioning something like Bobby Flay‘s German Potato Salad:

GL1B09_german-potato-salad_s4x3.jpg.rend.snigalleryslide

Wilberg noticed that the other women weren’t eating it. Then they started talking about it:

The table chatter zeroed in on the potato salad. How inedible it was, how it was too fancy, how it shouldn’t even have been called potato salad, how it was really offensive that the conference wasn’t serving real potato salad. Black potato salad.

Later, Wilberg went ahead and asked: What’s “black” potato salad? The answer was simple: “It’s potatoes, eggs, a little onion, mayonnaise.”

Wilberg’s reaction? Oh. This is basically my grandmother’s recipe for potato salad and my mother’s and mine…

And mine. I’ll freely admit that my potato salad is a work in progress. But it always comes out looking something like this most recent batch:

8 26 16aa

To me, this is potato salad. And yet, I recognize that there are all kinds of other dishes that also claim to be “potato salad.” The recipes sites are always tempting us with different kinds of potato salad, as though potato salad like mine  is simply too boring to eat. For instance, Country Living lists “25 Potato Salad Recipes That Will Be a Hit at Your Next Barbecue,” only one of which resembles my own.  Taste of Home likewise presented their Top Ten crowd-pleasing potato salads:

taste of home top ten a

Honestly? They all look good. I’d be happy to taste any of them. If someone asked me to cook a fancy potato dish, I might even make one of them. But if someone asked me to bring potato salad to a picnic, it wouldn’t be any of these. I know in my head that all of these are potato salads, but in my gut, I want potato salad to look a certain way.

Like mine.

Does any of this matter? Of course not. It’s just potato salad, after all, and we’re just having fun. But if the Potato Salad Issue involves a question of expectations, then maybe there is something a bit more serious for us to consider. We’ll take that up in the next installment.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep tinkering with mine until I can wear the golden crown.

end cookout