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I have been reading Edna Lewis’ classic The Taste of Country Cooking and realizing how perceptions of African American food are painfully limited. The scope of what this food can be is so limited, this bothers me, because it has also limited the scope of what African Americans seem to think of as African American food. I am guilty of the same circumscribed thinking…

The argument that the concept of Soul Food (and it really is a concept) is not new. Chefs, writers, scholars who are passionate about African-American food and culture have debated it quite a bit in the years,since the term first appeared in the 1960s to describe the food. Then it was a rallying point, it provided a sense of pride, ownership, and belonging in the community. It was ours and it was (is) delicious. The term/concept, however, didn’t seem to take into account the diversity of the African American culinary experience or repertoire and it certainly didn’t explore origins, from what I can see. Soul Food, as most people think of it includes dishes like fried chicken, barbecue, greens, of course, chitlins (something that pretty ubiquitous across cultures actually), cornbread, peach cobbler, etc. Sadly, this list doesn’t really go on much further in popular consciousness.

While I am not vehemently opposed to the term, I count myself as part of the camp that rejects the it, but to explain why would require a much longer post. I’ll just say that it seems to render the food I grew up with and way that I cook, something of a novelty.

But back to Edna Lewis and Country Cooking. One of the things I love about this book is that it broadens the scope of what has always seemed possible with African American food. In the book recipes call for fresh thyme, sage, chervil, and parsley. Dark leafy greens (not just collards) abound. Fresh fruit, fresh, wholesome dairy products, pork, beef, lamb, mutton, poultry, and game, shellfish. Fried, braised, baked, grilled. Soups, stews, salads. Everything is fresh and prepared from scratch, of course the book is also an account of her years growing up in a small Virginia farming community, but the point is that it shows a diversity of ingredients and cooking techniques. But really all of this is what African American food has always been.

For a long time, in my own kitchen, I saw the use of some of these ingredients or cooking techniques as something new and different from what I assumed the African American culinary canon to be. But, along with my reading of other African American heritage cookbooks I have come to see that African American cooking is really the epitome of the slow food philosophy of cooking: the use of fresh, seasonal, local ingredients cooked in simple ways that maintain and enhance flavor and the most healthful aspects of what the land has to offer. Getting back to this would undoubtedly mean a reduction in the incredibly high rates of high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes in the African American community.

It’s a shame that this philosophy of cooking has been all but lost in the African American kitchen but I am hoping that the spirit of change can touch our kitchens, grocery lists, and dining tables too.

3 Responses to Food for Thought

  1. […] already discussed in an earlier post, how this myth is debunked by the late, great Edna Lewis in her seminal The Taste of Country […]

  2. Dear Rachel, my fondest memories from my childhood were related to whole foods. The points you make in this post support how I view southern cooking and the evolution or I should say devolution of healthy eating/cooking practices in our homes. Near a local culinary school, across the street from the projects, are every fast food joint you can name. There are food trucks that sell fried chicken wings, fries…but no whole foods. Oh well…you know that story. Glad I found you and this blog.

  3. Rachel Finn says:

    Hi, Robin.
    Thank you for your comment. Yes, certainly food traditions evolve. In my view, African American food traditions have almost stopped evolving, however, primarily because of what you say in your comment. So many people live in urban areas where fast food is the norm, what’s closest, easiest, and many times quite tasty (particularly if you grow up with it). I do think that we own the responsibility for this stagnation in many ways. But I am hoping that particularly in the areas to which you refer people will begin to revisit and revive food traditions, because the foundation is there. There are pockets of people in those areas with their gardens (and I’m not talking about those newfangled food fighters, though I have nothing against them) and their canning and preserving. The old folks, their children, you know who I’m talking about. I’m hoping that the people doing the food fighting are connecting with those people, I’m hoping that they are seeking out those people, doing the quiet work as diligently as the fancy, sexy, press-ready work to help our food traditions continue to evolve. At Roots Cuisine, I’m trying to do the quiet work, you know? It’s so very important. I’m so glad you found Roots Cuisine and me, I hope we’ll stay that way!

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