“Soul food” is a term that is thrown around to describe Southern American cuisine with African influences. Historically and culturally it is and should have a much deeper meaning than what we subscribe to it. From Africa to the Antebellum South, from the Great Depression to post World War I, from then to this very moment, our food, “Soul food” has been a crucial part of our history, and our connection to the African diaspora in general.
In my research, I learned to put more thought to my food, and not just chew it and swallow. We never think about the significance of what we put into our bodies, nor the historical influence of it either.
For example: What dishes do you expect to see on your plate at a soul food meal? Baked Macaroni and cheese perhaps?
According to American Urban Legends, your favorite dish was introduced to the Americas by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and 3rd President of the United States.
Truth is, that legend is as unsubstantiated as George Washington’s axe and cherry tree.
Macaroni and Cheese was eaten by the well to do in America, and has its original origins in European culinary history. Although it was eaten by Jefferson at his state’s dinner in 1802, he did not invent the dish. According to Isaac, a slave of Thomas Jefferson, the only time Jefferson would enter the kitchen was ‘to wind the clock’.
Anyway: the African Slave was the centerpiece of the Southern American economy and the work of African people’s laid the very foundation of the United States. We were considered less than human (no more than 3/5 of a person); stolen from our homes, and stripped our humanity, our names, our heritage and our religion, yet we worked and toiled doing jobs even the ones without slaves wouldn’t condescend to do.
The last thing we have, the last thing they didn’t take from us, was our food. African slaves ate organic fruits and vegetables; home-grown. They used the whole animal. Nothing went to waste. The parts they were allowed to eat, the parts the white massas would throw away, are what are known as Soul Food delicacies today.
Soul Food. Food does sound “black” when you add the soul moniker in front of it. Sexier, even. More gritty. Urban.
In the intro, the author of A Taste of Heritage says: “The translation of Soul Food was food cooked with the senses. Pastry had to be felt, fried chicken was turned when it made that just-right crackling sound, greens were seasoned by touch with a pinch of this and a shake of that; as were foods that came from the soul.” (xv)
Today in this modern era we have affordable processed chemicals masquerading as food, to go with our pre-cleaned chitterlings and pre-washed, pre-cut (stemmy) greens, limited access to fresh produce and limited understanding of where our fresh meat comes from, if we can get it.
And where is that all too important ingredient Soul Food requires? Where is the LOVE?
Where does the L O V E go when most people only crave instant gratification and are too distant from their own history and knowledge of self?
There is a term I discovered in my research called “culinary justice”. Coined by culinary food historian Michael Twitty. Twitty is the author of a book called The Cooking Gene, and in it, he seeks to foster a restorative dialogue about food and oppression.
“When you call your cuisine ‘soul,’ you’re after something metaphysical,” he says. “It has the power to transcend differences.”
Culinary Justice as it is accurately defined in the video, is the idea that communities & cultures have the right to their own gastronomical identity and worth. A lot of us claim to be woke or waking up to our own identities through religious rebellion, economic stability, etc. It’s not just a piece of clothing or changing back to a natural hairstyle. Blackness is on the rise as a singular identity. We are and have always been a force to be reckoned with.
I went to speak to Chef William Garrett in my home town of North Chicago, and I showed him the video. And we had a discussion about, soul food, cultural identity and cultural justice. Chef Garrett is 49 years old, born and raised in North Chicago, and he got started cooking and serving people his various culinary creations in 2012. 2016 was the coming out year of his business Chef Garrett’s Kitchen, and to date, he has developed a fan base of well over a thousand people.
He had the opportunity to try out for Fox television’s Master Chef program (Season 9), and though he wasn’t successful, he was shown a lot of love and has used that experience to uplift and show more love to his Lake County, IL community.
UWM: How do you approach a traditional soul food meal? If you were cooking for yourself and/or someone you loved, what would be on the plate?
Chef Garrett: My first take on that would be, you’ve got to have the black-eyed peas, you’ve gotta have the turnip or the collard or the mustard greens, you’ve got to have the candied yams. The baked candied yams with the marshmallows, ya’ know. Put your own little twist on them. Season them. You’ve got to have that turkey neck (for the greens) which most people are vegans (vegetarians) now and they want not pork or bacon or fat back or anything of that nature in their greens nowadays. Like back in the day, what momma or daddy put in the food, that is what you ate. But now, ‘What you got in the greens Mr. Garrett? I hope it ain’t pork.’
UWM: And I think some of us are being kind of snobbish towards that (pork) and its getting out of hand with the attitude about no pork or no meat here. This was all we had at one time. We got the scraps or the left overs. So, like it’s still the same dish in my mind. But, I’m an omnivore, I’ll eat anything.
Chef Garrett: Right. But it’s like required in people who are handling food now. It’s like ‘Chef Garrett I know you ain’t got no pork in there.’ And then they won’t order the food -or- ‘Do you have anything to supplement the greens? But I want the greens!’ And I am like I’ve already made them the way that I have made them, not just for you, but for every one.
UWM: What I’ve learned from my studies is that in our beginnings in Arica, we used every part of the animal. Every part. And we ate a lot of fresh vegetables, whether it came from a tree or in the ground, we utilized it for our nourishment. At the end of everything, I guess what I am trying to say is that I can’t imagine being snobbish toward a dish I grew up with, you know.
Chef Garrett: Right. It’s like what has changed over the years with you (anyone) trying to be healthy and active with these fresh vegetables and fresh fruits and then turn around and say, I’m not eating pork anymore. What is going on with that? All the sudden you want to be healthy in your latter years–
UWM: Oh your too good for it! (laughs)
Chef Garrett: But you grew up on this dish! From your grandmother, from her ancestors, they brought this dish here, to family functions, but oh no you don’t want that–I mean it’s soul food! You got to–I don’t know what it is with women and men, I mean, what do want from the Chef or someone who had an establishment like a restaurant?
UWM: I think it is with our people in particularly, some of us are just waking up to the idea that we have choices. Not even just with our food. It’s in the choice of what we wear or the company we keep. In a way, a lot of us never thought we would have that.
Chef Garrett: I understand the choices, but it seems overrated sometimes. All the choices.
UWM: Now, when you are cooking, where does the LOVE come into recipe? How do add that into the mix?
Chef Garrett: You have to passion in everything that you do. Everything I touch is love, it’s coming from my heart. And if your heart is not in it in whatever you do, it’s not going to turn out right. You have to have that Umph! You know, it’s not about the money all the time, it’s about how you prepare and how you produce what you are making. And it’s the best feeling in the world when somebody is like referred to Chef Garrett’s Kitchen and I know I’m doing something right. And that LOVE comes from my mom, she taught me, and I took what she instilled in me and here it is. But it’s done my way, Chef Garrett’s way. And it’s a beautiful feeling.
UWM: What’s your favorite thing to cook?
Chef Garrett: Everything.
UWM: You have to have at least one signature thing. What is it?
Chef Garrett: Ribs. With the “Trouble Sauce”. One taste and I got you.
UWM: You definitely had me at the Trouble Sauce. How did you begin to market that?
Chef Garrett: I started with just having like sample parties. I’d have ribs with sauce and ribs without sauce and it ended up where everyone was putting the sauce on the non-sauced ribs. So, I decided I was just going to go with that. And that’s where the Trouble Sauce began. I have my own way of doing my sauce and everyone loves it. The quantities have been lifted from the mason jars to where now people are buying it by the gallon.
UWM: Your mother inspires your cooking techniques and your cooking style. A lot of us grew up in the North but have relatives in the South. Where do your people come from?
Chef Garrett: My mom’s from Tunica, Mississippi and my dad’s from Talladega, Alabama. And she brought all that up here from her mom and it’s like, it’s tradition. The Duncans and the Garretts. It’s tradition. The other half of my family cooks as well. The ribs cooking is from my Granddad on my Dad’s side. All my uncles and everybody, I watched them growing up. Like, how do you do that? They built grills out of barrels. My Granddad would be out there welding and putting racks on this and that and the ribs would come out so good. I was like, I want to be like that when I grow up one day.
UWM: I used to marvel at the barrel grill too. Because you can’t get that at the store. You cannot get that at the store, you have to hand make that. And a lot of things we do as a people, are just innovative and creative. And the stereotype is we haven’t worked since slavery. The stereotype is all black people are lazy and stupid. Well, you can’t get (kidnap) people coming over here to do free labor and them not knowing what they are doing. We didn’t just cook for each other after working all day. We cooked for them, we raised their livestock, tilled their fields, raised their children and warmed their beds. WE were everything from blacksmiths to horse trainers, and that is all things we took from Africa to the Caribbean to the Americas.
Chef Garrett: And we still don’t get credit for a lot of things that we do. So, it’s like why go work for somebody when you can go work for yourself and invest in yourself? Pay yourself, and you don’t have to worry about nothing missing. You account for everything. And that is why Chef Garrett’s Kitchen has been so successful. Just not tolerating a lot of inconsistencies with people and their attitudes towards you. Instead, you are going to get your fair share of what you are worth, and the time you put in, that is how much you are going to get paid.
UWM: One thing Micheal Twitty says that stood out to me was you can take away our culture, our religion and our names, and the last thing they left us with was our food.
Chef Garrett: And that’s what it is.
Chef Garrett’s Cafe is coming soon in the Kenosha, Wisconsin area in 2018. Until then you can reach him for inquires on how to buy his famed Trouble Sauce at ChefGarrett23@gmail.com.
WhatsCookingChef23@gmail.com for any parties or cooking events in the Lake County, Illinois area.
This blogger highly recommends Micheal Twitty’s THE COOKING GENE. And of course, you can find videos of him speaking about culinary justice and soul food history on You Tube. Twitty was the inspiration for this blog post.