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Food for the body and soul

Black History Month celebrates culture that continues to evolve in the kitchen

Black History Month celebrates culture that continues to evolve in the kitchen

February 05, 2003|by Chris Copley

chrisc@herald-mail.com

Southern food. Comfort food. Plenty of fat, plenty of salt and lots of pork-flavored dishes. That's soul food - the black cooking tradition in America.

Soul food originally developed in black communities in the South, according to Hagerstown cook William Woodson. He served up collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, rice fried chicken and just about any part of a pig that's edible.

Until recently, Woodson operated a soul food cafe on Jonathan Street. Nowadays, he serves up his specialties at his church, Zion Baptist in Hagerstown, and through his catering business.

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"The name 'soul food' goes back quite a distance," he said. "I'm about 65 and as far as I can remember, that's what they called it. It's a Southern tradition. As you go further down South, they really into it."

Woodson was raised in rural Buckingham County, Va., in a family of nine children. His mother taught him to cook.

"I learned to cook what we had," he said. "We raised a garden. We had our own chickens, hogs."

Black cooking traditions in America stretch back through time, to two centuries of slavery on plantations and farms in the American South, on Caribbean islands and across the Atlantic Ocean to West and Central Africa.

Half a million African natives were brought to work in America before Congress abolished the slave trade in 1807. The slaves brought to the New World not only regional African cooking techniques, such as deep-fat frying, but seeds and seedlings for familiar foods: okra, peanuts, black-eyed peas, sesame seeds, yams, hot peppers.

Slavery continued as a practice in the South until the end of the Civil War. Freed and on their own, former slaves typically remained in the South, living in poor rural areas. Their food and cooking traditions didn't change much.

Slaves' meals were typically based on vegetables and cornmeal or rice, flavored with salt and "sidemeats" such as salt pork and neck bones. Stephanie Bryant, co-owner with husband Keith of Jokers' Wild Cafe in Hagerstown, said slave cooks developed a body of recipes based on these marginal ingredients.

"Customarily, it was leftovers that were given to the African-Americans to eat. They had to make do," she said. "When slavery was over, they passed it down."

She said African cooks typically season foods more heavily than in the European tradition. African spices made even marginal cuts of meat flavorful.

"Take Buffalo wings," Bryant said. "People with money threw chicken wings away. Now it's the hottest-growing type of restaurant."

Keith Bryant grew up in North Carolina. He said pork and pork products were common in the soul food he ate.

"Anything that starts with 'pig' was on the menu: pig's ears, pig's feet, pig's nuts, pig's eyeballs," he said.

Stephanie Bryant said meat has been a common flavoring in soul food kitchens. Bacon and fatback flavor stewed greens. Pork neck bones flavor rice.

"My mother can take some neck bones and egg noodles and some other things and make a meal," she said. "My grandmother is approaching 80, and to this day she does not use prepared food. She makes everything."

Hagerstown resident Alicia Blake grew up cooking from a young age. Her family operated a catering business in Winchester, Va.

"I cook a lot from scratch," she said. "I taught my son the same way."

The valued intuition of Blake's mother, grandmother and other cooking relatives prevails over measurement.

"The only thing they taught me is that everything has to feel right," she said. "We made homemade dough. There is no measuring the flour - you put in enough flour until it feels right. I'm still like this. The food never tastes the same twice."

With its pervasive use of salt and fatty pork for flavoring, soul food is not health food. Blake said black cooking is evolving, but slowly.

"In the black family, there is a lot of high blood pressure and diabetes," she said. "A lot of people in my generation are trying to get away from the fat. In California, they use a lot of smoked turkey to add the flavor.

"A lot of people who grew up that way, they don't change. They don't use artificial sweeteners."

As it has in the past, soul food may evolve to meet current conditions. But its hearty, stick-to-the-ribs nature likely will not. With centuries of tradition behind them, black American families and communities continue to rely on cooking traditions to build identity while breaking bread.




Sweet Potato Pudding


Evelyn Mosby grew up as the second of nine children in Carroll County, Md. Her mother taught her to cook when she was quite young. "Not fancy dishes, just plain food," she said.

Holidays called for traditional dishes: Black-eyed peas on New Year's Day; sauerkraut and sweet potatoes on Christmas.

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