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SHEILA FERGUSON: “Aunt Ella’s Recipes Speak for Themselves”

“Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice ye careless daughters! Give ear to my speech.”

— Isaiah 23:9

You may have been surprised to see so few posts about women last month on a blog that is named after a woman.

From memorable historic figures, to my friends Michael Twitty and Adrian Miller, February was a time to celebrate the achievements of male African American food industry professionals — written history makes it so much easier to report the culinary accomplishments of men. W. E. B. Dubois, for example, praised male caterers in his sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, while the personal papers of Presidents Washington and Jefferson elevated male kitchen workers from slave to chef status — ignoring Edith Fossett’s legacy of French cuisine, once characterized by Daniel Webster as “good and in abundance.”

It is time to get back to The Ladies.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, the Jemima Code exhibit hits the road tomorrow, sharing life-changing culinary truths, and rewriting black women’s history, one recipe and one audience at a time.

Our first stop is part of a series of events hosted by the University of North Carolina – Charlotte’s Center for the Study of the New South, which will explore the history of race in southern kitchens and includes a two-day conference in September entitled: “Soul Food: A Contemporary and Historical Exploration of New South Food.” Then we are off to Chicago for the 36th annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).

“The Jemima Code fits into the Center’s study of new south food by bringing life to the untold history, triumphs and struggles of one of the primary groups, African American women, associated with what we call southern food,” said Jeffrey Leak, director of the Center and Associate Professor of English. In presenting the Jemima Code in multiple settings — campus, church, and museum — the University hopes to demonstrate its commitment to community engagement and to sharing knowledge with other institutions in the community, Leak explained. “In doing so, we create the possibility of improving upon or creating relationships with these institutions that will lead to collaborative approaches to some of our communities most difficult challenges.”

Jemima Code events kick off with a talk and tea hosted by UNCC and the Social Justice Ministry at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church,  featuring the memories of a former slave from Asheville, Fannie Moore. In her WPA interview, Moore details the family technique for preserving peaches showing us how slaves practiced local, seasonal, organic and sustainable living and underscoring the message: “claim your heritage to reclaim your health.”

Next, we’re off to a meeting with students in UNCC’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences focused on a few ways recipes and cookbooks preserve identity. We will uncover evidence of entrepreneurial and personal values like industriousness and discipline in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which the former slave observed in her grandmother, a cookie vendor.

On Monday, at an intimate reception, conversation and Jemima Code exhibit at the Levine Museum of the South, guests will be surprised and amazed by African American kitchen proficiencies in stories told by author and R & B singer Sheila Ferguson.

In her 1989 cookbook, Soul Food Classic Cuisine from the Deep South, the former lead singer for the Three Degrees writes in a fast-talking, jive-style that is complete with snappy expressions and memories of cooking and eating at home with family and friends. She has a theory that cooking the soul food way means “you must use all of your senses. You cook by instinct, but you also use smell, taste, touch, sight, and particularly, sound…these skills are hard to teach quickly. They must be felt, loving, and come straight from the heart and soul.”  To prove it, she esteems family members, including her Aunt Ella from Charlotte, writing about brilliant dishes of animal guts smothered with rich cream gravy in a colorful rhythm that might just make you want to run out and trap a possum. For real.

Finally, a conversation at IACP on March 16 will explore lessons in culinary justice taught by iconic Chicagoland cookbook authors, like Freda DeKnight. Food writer Donna Pierce helps me set the table with her research on the culinary industry’s middle class. We wrap up with an interactive workshop that I hope will spur Jemima Code audiences to enact what they discover about black cooks, with inspiration from these adapted words of abolitionist Lydia Maria Child:

“For the sake of my culinary sisters still in bondage…”

In Her Kitchen

Aunt Ella’s Squash Bake with Cheese

Ingredients

  • 5 cups sliced thin-skinned yellow squash
  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1/4 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped celery
  • 1 (10.5-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • Paprika, optional

Instructions

Cook the squash in 1/4 to 1/2 cup water for 10 to 15 minutes or until fork tender. Drain well and puree it. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium yeat and sauté your onion, celery, and green pepper until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the soup, undiluted, and cook, stirring constantly, until the soup is smooth and well-blended with the vegetables.
*Serves 6-8

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix but do not beat your squash puree, soup and vegetable mixture, with the egg, salt, pepper, and half of the cheese. Pour into a well-greased 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Mix the remaining butter with the breadcrumbs and the rest of the cheese, and spread this over the top of the squash. Sprinkle with paprika if desired. Bake in the oven for 35 to 45 minutes or until your squash bake is brown and bubbly.

Variation: Do not puree squash. Substitute evaporated skim milk, 2 eggs and 1-2 tablespoons melted butter for the canned soup and 1 egg.

Aunt Ella is one of the finest soul food cooks in our family and she makes squash taste like something out of this world. If you can’t find the right kind of squash this is almost as good made with courgettes.
Adapted from Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the Deep South, by Sheila Ferguson

In Her Kitchen

ADRIAN MILLER: LOVE, PEACE AND SOOOOOOUL FOOD

It didn’t take much to bring the soul food debate raging back into the limelight — Black History Month and a fried chicken, watermelon and cornbread lunch planned at a California Catholic school. Critics were outraged, but I don’t blame the students at the all-girls’ school for recommending a menu composed of heritage foods; I blame the grown-ups.

For more reasons than I can address in this space, soul food has an image problem, and many adults have a love-hate relationship with it, provoked by years of propaganda that used cabin cooking and stereotypes to denigrate black people —  marginalizing our foods as dirty and nasty, something you eat with your hands.

So, what follows is a rant and a challenge, summarized by a hilariously funny post about this news story written by a Facebook friend of mine:

“This is ridiculous!  I’m outraged! Do you have hot sauce?”

Soul food is a tale of two worlds, bound to a complicated history, as my friend Adrian Miller writes in the introduction to his intelligent book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine — made up of stereotypes, poor ingredients, making-do, the low status of blacks, racial stigma, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and communal spirit; denounced as a diet for “slumming” or death. Or both

If there is such a thing as a “soul food code,” Miller certainly cracked it with this thoughtful endeavor to give soul food a “very public makeover.” To help us think differently about soul food, the writer, attorney and certified barbecue judge poses a few questions:

“What are the important soul food menu items?” “How does a food get on the soul food plate?” And, what does all of that mean for African America culture and American culture?” The surprising answers might just quiet the fury.

“I do hope that through greater understanding about soul food — how and why it developed — the cuisine gets valued as a treasure, and we are not so quick to jettison it as cultural baggage,” Miller said.

Last week, I had a couple of experiences that demonstrated ways this “save soul food” message is getting through, at least here in Austin.

The first was a Cultural Heritage Supper Club dinner that my son and I attended.  For the gathering, teens and their moms saluted black culinary achievement with a wide assortment of dishes representing the full African American food experience. The buffet was laden with a fusion of dishes that combined African and European techniques with American ingredients, and ranged from starters to desserts: pimiento cheese-stuffed celery, chicken wings, gumbo, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, greens, tossed salad, West Indian chicken roti, sweet potato pie.  Noticeably absent were the poverty foods that polarized the black community and seem to be paralyzing everyone else — salt pork, green beans, pork hocks, collards, pig tails, beans, pig ears, cracklin’ cornbread, pigs feet, black eyed peas, fried chicken, pig jowls, barbecue, pickled pork, candied yams, side meat, mac and cheese, bacon, and sticky sweet desserts.

A few days later, I joined elected officials, public servants, restaurateurs, and other “soul foodies” at Manor High School’s first annual Black History Month soul food competition and lunch. This is a new tradition that encouraged district faculty, staff and culinary students to share their favorite recipes and family history with hopes that food might bring together and build up the small town’s diverse community, according to Rob McDonald, the school’s culinary arts instructor.

McDonald and a district manager reduced their risk for the type of backlash that stunted celebration efforts in California by involving the neighborhood in preserving their cultural culinary traditions, and then recommending “healthier substitutes” to update those shared  family heirlooms.

“We want to encourage the students (and the community) to consider food “from the soul” and to adapt it from their heritage keeping the story,” McDonald explained. “The stories that come from the family are part of the overall appeal [of soul food].”

The contest entries included everything I tasted at the teenagers’ supper club, and more: potato salad, red beans and rice, navy beans and cornbread, pig ears, sautéed greens with red bell peppers, banana pudding, coconut cake. The bill of fare also included an inspiring message, passionately presented by Anterrica Culbert, a 12th grader with hopes of attending Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts:

“Soul food is not just about food. It is what happens around the kitchen table and where we learn our family traditions that keep us going on our journey of life. It’s the recipe that has no recipe (a little bit of this and a little bit of that) without measuring…As we celebrate Black History Month we honor and remember those who passed down these wonderful recipes and in doing so fed our souls.”

I was in the grocery store when Cublert’s words collided in my mind with Miller’s scholarship and the sentiments written by 1960s cookbook authors, leading me to an AHH-Ha, make-do moment: it’s not the ingredients or the dishes that make soul food special and worth celebrating; it is the heart attitude AND culinary aptitude.

It all started in the produce section of the grocery store, where, to my surprise, I encountered the most beautiful, fresh-from-the-garden cauliflower, nestled deep inside a cradle of bright green leaves. At home, as I trimmed the leaves and tossed them into my compost bucket, the spirit of Jemima Code’s soul authors came to mind and touched my spirit, reminding me of one their prudent cooking lessons  that says nothing goes to waste.

Without really thinking, I retrieved the leaves from the bucket, refreshed them in cool running water, then sliced them into a fine chiffonade, as in the Brazillian manner, and voila: couve. My adaptation of sautéed collards emerged from the reservoir of recipes in my memory, seasoned until it tasted just the way I wanted — not according to a formula or some African American natural instinct. It was the same kind of improvised cuisine our ancestors practiced when they crafted delicacies from homely ingredients — soul.

But, my cauliflower couve does not represent my full culinary ability any more than cabin cooking or soul foods express the contours of a black cook’s kitchen. It does represent learned skill.

In each of these cases, soul food emerges as a personal expression based upon the cook’s history and knowledge and whatever ingredients are at hand.   When we remember these inspirational kitchen characters and their monumental accomplishments during Black History Month, young students like Culbert are free to pursue their dreams.

If grown ups will get out of the way and build up African American food history Culbert might one day be the owner/operator of a popular heritage restaurant, such as the Bay Area’s Brenda’s French Soul Food, where diners wait two hours to be seated and served fried chicken, cornbread, and probably, watermelon.

…now go ahead — debate!