How Selma, Birmingham helped chef reclaim soul food
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Chef Carla Hall knows soul food. She’s been cooking it for her entire career. Now, her mission is to reclaim it. When she set out to trace the path of soul food throughout the South, that journey brought her to Alabama.
In her cookbook “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration,” released Oct. 23, her first step in reclaiming soul food is to define it.
“Soul food is the true food of African Americans,” she writes.
Hall explains the origin of soul food from its roots in West Africa throughout the United States: dishes from the Cotton Belt of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama that dispersed to the rest of the country during the Great Migration as millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to the North and West in the early to mid-1900s.
And that relocation, Hall notes, is when soul food began to undergo a transition. Foods that traveled well — such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, normally reserved for holidays and large gatherings — began to eclipse daily meals based in vegetables and grains.
“Our celebration foods — smoked whole hogs, candied yams, caramel cake — became what we ate all the time,” writes Hall. We forgot about all of the amazing daily meals we created from greens and beans and grains.”
With roots in her African heritage (Hall has traced her own ancestry to Nigeria and Bioko, an island of Equatorial Guinea) the dishes in “Soul Food” are present-day twists on culinary traditions passed down from black cooks.
Hall weaves through the ways African Americans prepared food with seasonal vegetables, meats, and, for those on the coast, an abundance of fish and shrimp.
She redefines soul food with a collection of her favorite recipes, combining daily meals, like black eyed pea salad with hot sauce vinaigrette, with rich celebration dishes such as poured caramel cake.
“This book shines a light on those everyday foods my people were eating for generations in the South,” writes Hall. “That, my friends, is as much soul food as our celebration meals.”
But after this warm welcome and embrace, the acclaimed chef and TV personality makes it plain:
“You may be wondering, ’What’s the difference between Southern food and soul food? Easy answer: black cooks. And I’m one of them.”
At its core, “Soul Food” is more than a collection of recipes. It’s a history lesson. It’s a love letter. It’s Hall’s rededication of soul food to the black culinarians and griots of black foodways that came before her.
Readers familiar with Hall on Bravo’s “Top Chef” or on the former daytime television show “The Chew” can see her radiant personality shine through this cookbook. “Soul Food” is cheerful and inviting. It’s also deeply personal and upfront. Hall isn’t only reclaiming soul food. She’s doing it with raw honesty and vulnerability.
For “Soul Food,” she hit the road for a two-year trip through the South with her co-author Genevieve Ko and photographer Gabriele Stabile to retrace the path of her ancestors. Stabile — whose portfolio spans food portraits to long-term documentary style projects — shot visually stunning photos that captured intimate conversations and solemn moments.
Imagining what her ancestors would eat today, the Nashville-born chef traveled through the region, sharing meals and stories with African American cooks, chefs, and farmers.
In Alabama, Hall visited civil rights landmarks and went to Selma for the first time.
As she stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Hall writes, she felt the energy of those who marched for the right to vote from Selma to Montgomery, and the beatings they endured on Bloody Sunday when they were attacked by state troopers.
In an emotional moment, surrounded by the resilience of her ancestors, she declared her pride for soul food.
“There may have been times when, as black people, we didn’t feel proud of that food history,” she writes. “At Selma, I went back in time and looked at this history and said I’m not afraid of soul food. I’m proud of it. This is part of our heritage.”
Hall took those emotions and channeled them into recipes as she traveled the South, speaking to Black cooks and chefs about the recipes and foods they hold dear.
In East Selma, Hall visited Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot and spoke to Lula Hatcher, the granddaughter of founder Lannie Moore Travis, who welcomed her into her home.
Seated in her living room, she told Hall stories of 1965. Hatcher recounted the time when voting rights activists crowded into Lannie’s to celebrate the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to town. She talked about the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 and how her friend and pivotal voting rights activist Annie Lee Cooper was brutalized by Sheriff Jim Clark at the Dallas County Courthouse. In the years before and after, Hatcher’s family fueled the movement with food by smoking whole hogs and bringing plates and sandwiches to civil rights leaders.
Hatcher’s stories of barbecue and feeding people were the inspiration for Hall’s slow cooker pulled pork.
Most of the recipes in “Soul Food” are centered around vegetable dishes. In a spin on mustard greens, she mixes the greens with caramelized leeks and pureed chow chow for a soup, paying homage to history when her ancestors had to make the most out of humble ingredients.
“African-Americans were cooking farm-to-table centuries before it was a label to slap on hip restaurants,” writes Hall. “Foraging, pickling, preserving — that’s how we survived. Our farms were all ‘organic.’ ”
Hall is a champion of farmers markets and community gardens. In Birmingham, she spent time at Jones Valley Teaching Farm, a community farm program for the city’s students.
She spoke to Chef John Hall, the owner and executive chef at Post Office Pies in Avondale.
John Hall grew up near Jones Valley Teaching Farm. Leading her around the garden one summer, he spoke to Hall about coming home to Birmingham after cooking in Luxembourg and New York. John Hall has built an impressive culinary resume, cooking with Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants, such as Chef Léa Linster in Luxembourg and New York’s Per Se, Gramercy Tavern, and Momofuku Ssam.
While picking okra, he told Hall that he wanted to lead by example and teach kids in the community how to cook and eat the vegetables on which he was raised.
“Farm to table’s always how we knew food to be in my family, with my grandfather’s farm out in Alabama country.”
John T. Edge, author and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, has likened John Hall to Frank Stitt, the James Beard award-winning executive chef and owner of Birmingham’s Chez Fonfon, Bottega, and Highlands Bar and Grill — the 2018 James Beard Award winner for most outstanding restaurant in America. Hall spent a summer working for Stitt, who is also on the Jones Valley Teaching Farm’s board of directors. Like Stitt, Hall left Alabama to improve his craft, but returned home to contribute.
Since returning to Birmingham, John Hall has made good on his desires to give back to the community and teach kids from the area how to cook. Boasting a menu of locally sourced ingredients, Post Office Pies has included vegetables from Jones Valley Teaching Farm. John Hall has also partnered with the farm for community garden education.
“What I love about this place is that it gets vegetables in the kids’ minds early,” he told Hall. They attach the good food here to the good way of life.”
Hall’s conversation with John reminded her that it’s possible to get the next generation to love vegetables. Hearing him crunch okra, writes Hall, inspired her to create a dish with a crisp version of the Southern staple — chunky tomato soup with roasted okra rounds.
She also spoke with chef Roscoe Hall, who was the director of operations for the now closed Fero, chef Akhtar Nawab’s Italian restaurant in the Pizitz Food Hall. Before Fero opened, she sat down with Hall. As they spoke, his team sent her plate after plate. One dish — the potato gnocchi with pickled mustard seeds — blew her away. It inspired her to pickle mustard seeds for her spin on potato salad — smashed red potatoes with mustard mayonnaise drizzle.
Roscoe Hall was born into a family of Alabama BBQ royalty — his grandfather is Dreamland BBQ’s John “Big Daddy” Bishop.
But Hall is forging his own path and he spoke to Carla Hall about his struggles finding his place in the food industry.
The son of an ex-Black Panther and raised in Chicago, Hall moved to Birmingham when he was 17. After high school, he worked at Bottega where Frank Stitt taught him how to cook. He also worked at Chez Fon Fon and James Beard award-winning chef Chris Hastings’ restaurant, Hot & Hot Fish Club. Hall is also an artist with a Master of Fine Arts from the Savannah School of Art and Design. A fan of punk music, he describes himself as the “punk rock voice of food.” ...
Like punk is a voice for misfits and the counterculture, Hall wants to give a voice to people who are typically on the outskirts of the culinary world. To him, everyone should have a seat at the culinary table. His goal is to break through elitist food circles to make food accessible to everyone, and he spent time working at an eating disorder clinic, where he worked with a dietician to design meals.
Now, Hall works as a consultant in the hospitality industry and a chef for private dinner parties. He cares deeply about the next generation of food in the city and his vision for Birmingham includes eradicating food deserts. Hall also works closely with the Jones Valley Teaching Farm. He’s painted murals with the students and has also been a resident chef for the Twilight Supper Series annual fundraiser. One of his biggest passions is mentoring young chefs and teaching them how to be unapologetically themselves.
“I want to show kids in the hood how to mirepoix,” he told Hall.
Hall’s love letter and devotional comes at a pivotal time for cuisine and black foodways.
She furthers the work of James Beard Award-winning journalist Toni Tipton Martin, whose 2015 book “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks,” examines the contributions of black cooks through a chronicle of over 150 cookbooks from Rufus Estes to Edna Lewis.
She’s also one in a line of black chefs over the past two years who are rewriting the definition of soul food by examining its origins. This year, chef Todd Richards released “Soul.” Organized by ingredient — including grits, peaches, and collard greens — Richards embraces soul food traditions with new creativity, designing dishes such as pickled plum salad with braised ham hock, onions, and mint.
In his book “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South,” Michael Twitty traces the roots of Southern cuisine and culture through his ancestry, examining the political and racial history of soul food. This year, the book won a James Beard award for best writing and book of the year.
By examining the roots of soul food, Hall and her fellow authors are also dismantling the disparaging notion that soul food is unhealthy.
In the introduction to “Soul Food, “Hall notes that while people started consuming more diets of heavy celebration food, industrialized food also affected the health of African Americans.
“We lost that connection during the Great Migration and in the decades since as industrialized convenience food made us unhealthy and sick.”
Even though years of studies show that regular consumption of fast food has adverse health effects, soul food has often been named as the culprit when discussing the causes of obesity, diabetes, and heart health in African Americans.
In September, yet another publication placed the blame on soul food. And it had roots right here in Alabama.
A study released by The Journal of the American Medical Association that included research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggested that a Southern-style diet may be the main reason why black people in America are more prone to hypertension than white people.
The study drew criticism from black culinarians and those who study black foodways because, while it did acknowledge factors like higher intakes of fried food, it didn’t address access to healthcare, access to healthy food, and food deserts — all factors that also contribute to health disparities between black and white people in America.
In an interview with NPR, food historian Adrian Miller, whose James Beard award-winning book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time” explores black culinary identity and history, acknowledged the impact that fried foods have on the health of African Americans. But he also said those kinds of studies are a reminder that Southern food isn’t a monolith. Like Hall, Miller says there is another approach — examining soul food’s early origins.
“Maybe studies like this are an opportunity for us to revisit the core roots of this African heritage food that’s based on vegetables: greens, sweet potato and beans.”
Michael Twitty heavily criticized the study in a thread on Twitter, saying placing the sole blame on the Southern diet was a “dog whistle.”
He had harsh words for people who self-righteously shared the study, but instead of knowing the true definition of soul food, listed its caricatures, such as KFC or Popeyes. Another source of his indignation: people who blamed “soul food” for health problems, but not fast food.
In an October interview with The Washington Post, food writer Nicole Taylor, author of “The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen,” described Carla Hall as the “most visible black person in soul food night now.”
And she may be right.
Hall has enjoyed a steady rise to fame since her days on “Top Chef.” She’s cooked at the White House Easter egg roll.
Good friends with Patti LaBelle, Hall and the Godmother of Soul have cooked together on TV and thrown a midnight soul food jazz breakfast in Harlem.
In 2017, she took her talents to the big screen with a cameo in the movie “Girls Trip.”
After ABC’s “The Chew” was canceled in May, her departure from the network was short-lived. In September, she joined “GMA Day,” the third hour of “Good Morning America,” as a food contributor.
And, she judges cooking competitions on Food Network.
This year, Hall returned to host the James Beard Awards, one of the nation’s highest culinary honors, for the second year in row.
The theme of this year’s show was “RISE,” celebrating the power of community in food. In an pre-show interview, Hall proclaimed “I rise for diversity,” saying there needs to be more seats at the table in the culinary world.
That night’s awards show was its most diverse. Eleven of the 15 chefs awarded that night were women or people of color. Dolester Miles, the culinary icon at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon was named most outstanding pastry chef in America.
Later that night, Highlands Bar and Grill was named most outstanding restaurant in America.
The awards were a defining moment for Birmingham — so much so that Bob Carlton, the senior features writer at Al.com who has chronicled the path of Frank Stitt, Highlands Bar and Grill, and Dolester Miles, wrote that Alabama should declare Miles’ coconut pecan cake the state’s official dessert.
There’s a benefit to being so visible. Nicole Taylor hopes that Hall’s visibility will create more opportunities for black writers and chefs. In September, she penned an essay for the James Beard Foundation after the organization reached out to thought leaders in the industry. Her words were candid and straightforward:
“The wonderment of this year’s achievements shouldn’t be a once-in-a-blue-moon occasion. Why had this moment taken so long to come? There are two major reasons: the first is that the Beard Award categories — and the types of restaurants and publications nominated — don’t reflect the realities of today’s dining and media scenes.”
The James Beard foundation seems to have heeded the voices of black culinarians like Hall and Taylor — so far, at least.
In October, the James Beard Foundation outlined its commitment to diversity, changing rules and regulations to make the awards more inclusive. One of the changes: the volunteer committees that choose the nominees will aim to be more diverse and more reflective of the population of the United States.
Carla Hall can help with that. And she knows it. In “Soul Food,” Hall acknowledges her platform.
“You may not see many African-Americans as executive chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants, topping lists, or winning the big awards. Not yet. You don’t see us, but we’re here,” writes Hall. “We’ve always been here. And we’re rising. Now, I’m here to help y’all see us.”
Hall doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk. In November, she invited black chefs, including John Hall for a dinner at the James Beard House to cook their interpretations of dishes inspired by “Soul Food.”
Carla Hall’s work is important, particularly since cookbooks may prove to be more essential than restaurants when it comes to future of black foodways.
With “Soul Food,” Hall continues to keep the door open for more black food writers to tell the story of black cuisine’s evolution, inspired their personal experiences. Texas-based food writer and researcher Deah Mitchell’s forthcoming book “Cornbread & Collard Greens: How West African cuisine and slavery influenced soul food” is also a guide to the culinary history of the African American diaspora. Based on her travels around the world, the memoir will include her modern interpretation of Southern classics, such as ravioli stuffed with collard greens and creamy collard green soup with crispy prosciutto.
In a September essay for TASTE, Therese Nelson, chef and founder of the site Black Culinary History, suggested that cookbooks will be more substantial for the long-term future of acclaimed black chefs than award-winning restaurants.
“The work they’ve put into these wonderful restaurants needs to be crystalized in book form,” wrote Nelson.“Because as wonderful as these spaces are, they aren’t eternal. Books are.”
That idea might hold water, especially as more award-winning black chefs continue to gain publicity.
Naturally, with Dolester Miles’ James Beard recognition came national attention. After her win, the Washington Post and The New York Times swept into Birmingham to tell the rest of America stories about the Bessemer native’s craft that Alabama had long known.
Of course, with the national attention came the recipe sharing.
Before the James Beard Awards, The Local Palate published a short feature on Miles, including the recipe for her famous coconut pecan cake. Her sweet potato pie with bourbon Chantilly cream graced the October/ November 2018 cover of Garden & Gun’s annual Southern Food issue.
So far, Carla Hall isn’t headed back to Alabama on her cookbook tour, but based on her track record, we can count Hall in as a devotee to the history and richness and of Alabama’s black foodways.
Three days before her book release, Hall told Atlanta Magazine that her goal is to show soul food as a cuisine, not a trend.
“I’m taking the opportunity to educate and say what soul food is and what it isn’t. It is the food of black people.”
And for Hall, “Soul Food” goes beyond just cooking. It’s about showcasing the craft of black chefs, whether they are award-winning culinarians running their own kitchens, or cooking behind the scenes at catering companies.
“I want all of us to be proud of soul food. Soul food is ours. Claim it. Reclaim it,” Hall writes as she concludes her introduction. “I’m just here to share a taste.”
Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews