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!



By the time I was 30 years old, I could count my Southern life experiences on one hand. When you grow up in a tiny family in Los Angeles, sheltered by expatriates who left skid-marks when they quit the South, it is easy to believe that your family drama does not play east of the San Bernardino Valley. As children of the civil rights era, we lived in exile – sheltered from the narrow perspective of Negro subservience and proper place, liberated from the burden of low-class living. My parents built new and improved lives in the sands of the Pacific.

Not that the social, cultural, or culinary dimensions of Southern living were unrecognizable out West. Sweet tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade washed down Aunt Jewel’s crisp fried chicken, smoked pork bones seasoned Nannie’s Sunday greens, and Mother always baked her cornbread in a big, black cast iron skillet. But that was just dinner; everybody we knew in the middle class community of Baldwin Hills ate that.

I didn’t care all that much for pork ribs and became easily nauseated by the potent smell of chitlins that blasted through the air like a dragon’s fiery breath every time our neighbors from Tennessee opened their front door. Perhaps the most arresting evidence of my Western upbringing was my unapologetic admission that I sprinkled sugar on my grits.

As far as I could tell, precious few of my culinary notions qualified as Southern banners, and it was entirely possible that I would stumble blindly through the rest of my life without ever discovering the Aunt Jemima spirit living in me, if it hadn’t been for Vera Beck.

Vera resembled one of those African American matriarchs who once upon a time were thought of as saints – a woman in her twilight years whose culinary expressiveness was like a gift she bestowed upon the people she loved.

Whenever I think of her – and it’s often – I see a proud, generous, loving, tenderhearted, talented, exceptional cook. She made the best cornbread, chow chow, fried green tomatoes, and Mississippi mud cake I ever ate. And, although she earned her living as my test kitchen cook at one of the few major daily newspapers that dared to preserve the tradition, she was self taught and followed recipes handed down by word of mouth through generations of rural Alabama cooks.

Hers was a tradition that was less instinct and more five senses, but skill nonetheless; one that earned respect from the likes of well-known American cooking authority James Beard, and one that has all but disappeared among contemporary cooks.

As I got to know Vera better, she forced me to circle back and confront the peculiarity Virginia Woolf described as contrary instincts. I thought I was contented – a thirty-something food editor living far away from home on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, enjoying amazing and exotic world cuisine – the daughter of a health-conscious, fitness-crazed cook whose experiments with tofu, juicing and smoothies predated the fads.

In the few short years we had together at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Vera taught me a few life lessons while showing me the way to light and flaky buttermilk biscuits.

She confirmed what I already had begun to fret about: that growing up as I did – outside the counsel of competent cooks who dispensed first-hand kitchen wisdom the way they apportioned hunks of ham to their children from bubbling pots of collard greens – made me an unfortunate casualty of the cruel social conditioning I call the Jemima Code.

While it is correct that black women did much of the cooking in early American kitchens, it is also true that they did so with the grace and skill of today’s trained professionals, transmitting their astonishing craft orally, from generation to generation.

When we consider the work accomplished by Vera Beck and generations of obscure cooks just like her, we should see a nearly extinct breed that honed their kitchen skills the way culinary students do today: by observation and apprenticeship. They expressed both art and skill when they cooked. They made do, certainly, but they also seasoned our lives and made our existence pleasurable – even under the most adverse circumstances. They cooked our meals from scratch, sewed our clothes, salved our wounds, nurtured our spirits, and imparted wisdom over a steaming plate of nourishment – and they did so while miraculously maintaining jobs outside their homes.

So, how is it that these are not the predominant images of African American cooks? Why don’t we celebrate their contributions to American culture the way we venerate the imaginary Betty Crocker? Why wasn’t their true legacy preserved? Can we ever forget the images of ignorant, submissive, selfless, sassy, asexual, despots? Is it possible to replace the mostly unflattering pictures of generous waistlines bent over cast iron skillets burned into our eyes? Will we ever believe that strong African women, who toted wood and built fires before even thinking about beating biscuit dough or mixing cakes, left us more than just their formulas for good pancakes?

I hope so.

In Her Kitchen

Cornbread with Cheese and Chiles


  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 (14.75-ounce) can cream-style corn
  • 1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles, drained
  • 1/4 cup chopped green onion
  • 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese


In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. Mix well. Melt the shortening in an 8-inch cast iron skillet. Pour shortening, buttermilk and egg into the dry ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon until just moist. Stir in the corn, chiles and green onion and pour half the batter into the hot skillet. Sprinkle with cheese. Top with remaining batter. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven 30 minutes or until done.

Recipe and photograph courtesy of The Plain Dealer, 1978.

In Her Kitchen