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"Soul Food:" Identity And Cultural History

The words "soul food" may conjure up images of chitlins or catfish. But the concept of soul food is built on the complicated history of food and African American culture, traditions that can often be traced to the 19th century. Some scholars say that soul food, which is frequently associated with "greasy spoon" fare, is also misunderstood. We explore the cultural history of soul food and how it's evolving in communities today.

Johnetta's Mixed Greens Recipe

This is my favorite thing to make in the soul food genre. I didn’t grow up eating collards. My mother usually made a combination of mustard and turnip greens. Turnip greens seemed to be the popular option for greens as I traveled through Tennessee. I love the peppery aroma that mustard greens give off while they’re cooking. I’ve lately been using smoked turkey parts to season my greens because they give good flavor with less fat. Yet, every once in a while, I go retro and put on a pot of greens with some ham hocks.

Makes 8 servings

Ingredients:

2 smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey wings, or 1 leg (1 pound)
1 1/2 pounds turnip greens
1 1/2 pounds mustard greens
1 tablespoon granulated garlic or 2 minced garlic cloves
1 medium onion, chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Pinch of baking soda
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt

Directions:

Rinse the hocks, wings, or leg, place them in a large pot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavorful, 20 to 30 minutes. Discard the hocks, wings, or leg.

Meanwhile, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the hot stock, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged.

Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda, sugar, and salt.

Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot.

Catfish Curry Recipe

Fish curries were a popular Big House dish in the antebellum South. Both Martha Washington and Mrs. Randolph had recipes for this dish in their signature cookbooks. At some point, black cooks brought the dish into their kitchens. In 1939, Crosby Gaige’s New York World’s Fair Cookbook (from which this recipe is adapted) described catfish curry as “a favorite among the Negroes.”

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

2 pounds catfish fillets
1 quart water
2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 4 cups)
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Boiled rice, for serving

Directions:

Rinse the fillets under cold running water and cut them into 2- inch pieces. Place them in a medium saucepan and add the water, onions, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the fish is tender, but not breaking apart, about 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the fish to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep it warm. Boil the cooking liquid until it reduces to 1 cup, then keep it warm over low heat.

Combine the flour, curry, and butter in a small bowl. Mix with a fork or fingertips to form a smooth paste. Roll teaspoon- size bits of the paste into balls.

Return the cooking liquid to a simmer. While stirring slowly and continuously, drop the balls into the liquid one at a time, letting each one dissolve before adding the next. Cook until the sauce returns just to a boil and thickens to the consistency of gravy, about 5 minutes. Check the seasoning.

Pour the gravy over the fish and boiled rice, sprinkle some parsley on top, and serve hot.

From SOUL FOOD: THE SURPRISING STORY OF AN AMERICAN CUISINE, ONE PLATE AT A TIME by Adrian Miller. Copyright © 2013 by Adrian Miller. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

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