In a recent interview, Scott Barton, Chef Vivian's mentor, and respected soul food authority, offered in-depth, scholarly insight on the influence of African-American culture on southern food.
1) First, what led you to care so deeply for the culture of southern food and the contribution of African and African-Americans to it?
Shirlette, there are several reasons that I first became interested in southern food in general, the contributions of African and African-American to the culture of food and foodways, and the need to render their contributions and some of the paradigm shifts/shape shifters more visible. In brief, as an African-American I had a preliminary interest in the cultural history and heritage that relates to my roots as an American.
Within my nuclear family my mother’s people came to this country from Barbados and St. Kitts in the Caribbean. My dad’s family was bifurcated between Massachusetts and Tennessee. Where my maternal grandfather had had roots in Madeira and the postcolonial system of indenture in the Caribbean, my paternal grandfather is a direct descendant of slaves and Native Americans.
As a chef who in my ascension was predominantly French trained, I observed that the foods that were served in the homes of my grandparents and sometimes by my mother reflected their pasts. As I became more adept in professional kitchens I saw that my father had an obsession with certain foods, all things from the sea from his Massachusetts youth, and then a need for key foods, that I would call iconic heritage foods such as cornbread, BBQ spare ribs, chicken fricassee, pig’s feet, biscuits, pecan pie, shortcake, and collard greens from his southern past. I came to learn that a meal became complete when cornbread was on the table. All of these were not inherently part of my mother’s heritage as a New Yorker or daughter of the Caribbean. I noted all of these nuances but had no agenda with which to act on these observations.
In the late 1990’s Drew Nieporent and the Myriad Restaurant Group invited me to be the executive chef of a new project that they were engaged with in Harlem and approached me. They were planning to re-open the then shuttered Minton’s Playhouse, the birthplace of Bebop music. Minton’s was the alternate type of jazz club present in Harlem during the Renaissance. A club owned and frequented by blacks as opposed to the Cotton Club or Savoy where blacks worked but could not attend as guests. The house band was a cadre of (then undiscovered) young Turks, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. The food in venues such as Minton’s was not Continental, as it was in the elite clubs. It consisted of regional southeastern fare: hog Maws, liver and onions, pig’s feet, fricassee, et cetera.
When this opportunity arose I had been working in San Francisco in French restaurants. The proposed concept for Minton’s was slated to bring both high-quality dining to Harlem, as well as reflect the food heritage of the neighborhood and the Renaissance. The research required me to look in several directions. I analyzed the demographics and racial makeup of early twentieth century Harlem, study old menus, methods of cooking, and cookbooks reflective of the African Diaspora. During this period I became a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. At an early symposium questions involved with the origins of Southern cooking fueled a debate that lasted beyond the meeting. That moment was a paradigmatic shift for me.
Unfortunately politics and economics precluded the success of the Minton’s venture. I continued to work with Myriad, after they pulled out of Harlem. I had become “infected” with a bug to research African Diaspora culinary culture, and African-American influences in American Southern cuisines. I traveled throughout the South, furiously read old and new cookbooks, interviewed food writers, food historians, restaurateurs and journalists whose work, geography or inspiration was the American South.
A few years passed. In the spring of 2001 I was selected to be the executive chef by another restaurant group who wished to revisit the Minton’s project. This time one of the principal partners was Swiss chef, Grey Kunz. We were set to go to contract in mid-August. The primary investor was lighting fires all over Harlem in his attempt to revitalize its restaurant scene and foodways. Unfortunately, we all know of what September wrought. The project again crashed and burned.
I was still enamored with research and continued my part time job as an archivist food scholar after running restaurants and consulting. I had by then spent time on the board of directors on the Southern Foodways Alliance. I had opened and closed Voyage, a Diaspora influenced restaurant in the West Village. I had consulted locally, nationally and particularly in the South on a variety of regional projects or product development initiatives.
Following the demise of Voyage, a dear friend encouraged me to apply for a residency grant in northeastern Brazil. I had always wanted to make a food tour of the Middle Passage beginning in Brazil where the lion’s share of enslaved Africans were imported to during the plantocracy era of colonialism. I was selected by the Sacatar Foundation on Itaparica Island near Salvador da Bahia de Todo os Santos, Brazil to be their first chef-scholar in residence.
That experience irrevocably changed my life. The respite from full-time restaurant work and part-time research, to an existence of full-time research with ethnography inspired me to apply to graduate school following a nearly three decades hiatus after receiving my BFA. The project I wished to pursue was a study of Diaspora foods and food culture that was sacred and secular. The research was located in a few distinct geographies in Brazil. I am now defending my dissertation, editing film shot of food, cooking, ritual practice, and popular festivals involving food in Brazil.
2) I've always thought 'soul food' was as much southern as it is black. What exactly defines soul food and what is the contribution of both Black folks and the south to the concept of soul food?
To me “Soul Food” is a euphemism for good food. Generically yes in the U.S. the moniker“Soul Food” is only ascribed to Southern cooking. Yet every culture can be said to have its “Soul Food”.
There is a quandary when we link “Soul Food” solely to blacks. Historically it can be seen to render visibility to the formerly invisible cadre of African-American cooks and chefs. There is a necessity to bring African-American cooks, and African-American culinary contributions to light. Since the inception of the American presidency black men and women have cooked for the first family and in the White House. Yet, no one would ever name Hercules’, James Hemmings’, Daisy Johnson’s cooking as “Soul Food.”
As much as it is an apparent complimentary salvo to gusto, it also steps over that aspect of “Soul Food” born of the necessity and ingenuity of enslaved impoverishment, lack of access or agency in the kitchen. If we refer to the aforementioned genre as African-American or African Diaspora cuisine, suddenly it holds a place on the world stage alongside French, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Mexican and numerous other noteworthy cuisines.
Concurrently, “Soul Food” connotes a cuisine wholly born out of the slave kitchen, or hands of the enslaved working in the big house. An argument can be made that there is both white and black “Soul Food.” If we interrogate nineteenth-century Southern receipt books, what happens when slave cooks are named as seen in Karen Hess’s Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection, which includes a facsimile of the Carolina Rice Book. Are those recipes that name Maum Sarah, et alia more soulful than the other fare enumerated in the book, most probably made by the same said Maum Sarah, albeit without authorial recognition?
Contributions will always be in the discourse and the debate of originary foundation of Southern and or North American cookery. We can point to foods that are of African origin such as okra and black-eyed peas. We can point to cooking methodologies such as the ubiquity of stewed, or long cooked greens such as collards, turnips, mustard, et cetera. Collards themselves are northern European, yet the stewing method West African. The ham hock or streak-o-lean that begins to build flavor in the pot? Again European. West Africans would more likely have used smoked or dried fish. The hot pepper, West African. Thus simply we have a mixture of influences European (French, Spanish, Germanic, British and Dutch), Indigenous and West African. In certain circumstances we can trace a dish or its foundations, yet too often adaptation causes the finished product to wear too many hats. Gumbo apparently stems from amala the sacred offering for Xangô. Without the presence of African oil palm oil, Elaeis guineensis, to extract the dendê palm oil common to this sacramental dish, does a chestnut roux function as simulacra of the red hue to maintain contiguity with West African cultural traditions? Or is that just a bastardization of a French roux interpreted by Creole cooks of the Gulf States?
3) Why is it important to know the cultural history of food? What does it tell us about a place and the people who live there?
The body as landscape of cultural memory refers directly to the 19th century aphorisms of author and gourmand Brillat-Savarin and philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach: Dis-moi ce que tu mange, je te dirai ce que tu es, 1825, and Der Mensch ist, was er ißt, 1850, explicitly direct the subject towards self identity via their consumption habits. This comment requires food to communicate from different registers of our consciousness. Iconic and quotidian dishes honor creativity, ingenuity, and the legacy of Africans struggling in the colonial Americas. The inference suggests that in addition to nourishment and gustatory pleasure consumption engenders an African presence within our own bodies. Concurrently the attribution can be any of the aforementioned contributors to North American Southern cookery. I cite Africans and African-Americans based upon the line of questioning and the significance of the enslaved cooks and their unseen dominion in colonial kitchens. Legend and fear said, “slave cooks could nurture or kill!” (Brillat-Savarin & Fischer 1971; Shapin 2014).
Brillat-Savarin, J. A., & Fischer, M. F. K.. M.K.F. Fischerʹs translation of the physiology of taste: Or meditations on transcendental gastronomy. New York: Knopf, (1971).Shapin, Stephen. “‘You Are What You Eat’: Historical Changes in Ideas About Food and Identity.” Historical Research, (2014).
4) Can you give a short timeline of how foods that were once delineated to slaves became 'high-end' delicacies (many parts of the pig come to mind)?
The better resource here is the wonderful reference tool created by the recently deceased scholar and archivist Lynne Olver, http://www.foodtimeline.org/
5) When you think of southern food influenced by African people what dish or recipe most quickly comes to mind?
Hoppin’ John, Gumbo, Dirty Rice, Jambalaya, Hoe cakes to name a few dishes.
6) What are some quintessential ingredients that define African-American food?
Hard to say. As previously stated there are ubiquitous products such as hot peppers and sauces made from them, okra, black-eyed peas, true yams, sesame seeds that come out of the West African plantscape. But as cooks and chefs skill and acumen foster an engagement with the full larder. Is a Soy Beurre Blanc less or more French than a Fines Herbes Beurre Blanc? If someone produces a Green Peanut Beurre Blanc is it French, Afro-French, African-American, Southern, or just ingenious command of materials and knowledge? Are we always already relegated to lesser cuts and leavings? Those items which dominated the lack attributed to the slaves? If we use salted meat and fish to create polished dishes, those foodstuffs that were easy to store in colonial tropical climates, ingredients foisted upon us, not chosen by us, do those items qualify or should they be sublimated?
7) This time of year, what is your favorite dish to make that best represents the contributions of Africans and/or African-Americans to southern food?
Not sure here. Living in the northeast many items have limited availability in the dead of winter. I would say hearty stews such as Gumbo or simply cooked black-eyed peas in their own gravy, Spoonbread, composed rice dishes such as Low Country red rice, jambalaya, or pilau, and grits.
8) How has approaches to traditional African-American cooking changed to better reflect the movement towards healthier cooking?
Love and hate relationship to pork products. For some this is a political choice with its associative connection to enslavement. The fact that there were a significant amount of Muslims among the enslaved caused some to suffer and die rather than consume the Haram, pork products. For others it is a gustatory choice, or lack of gusto and concern for health/freedom from the diseases common to African-Americans. See then LeRoi Jones essay on Soul Food, Vertamae Grosvenor’s essay “Kitchen Crisis” in Toni Cade Bambara’s Black Woman, or Doris Witt’s Black Hunger. Cooking LITE of any sort comes with its adherents and detractors.
We always need to interrogate what we eat. Replicating historic meals is a wonderful exercise. Eating copious amounts of calories from a social position that is large sedentary rather than active as the enslaved were or the early to mid-twentieth century Americans tied to labor production had been does not make sense for today’s populations, black, white or otherwise. Trying to decide how to choose, whether margarine, over butter, over lard, Canola or Olive oil. I argue that we should stay true to the dishes origins. Olive would have had no place in much of the historical recipes that modern cooks may wish to replicate. In baking lard reigns supreme. It is superior, both in relation to flavor and technical performance. If I was serving non-meat eaters homemade pie, I would choose butter, over margarine or Crisco for the crust. Otherwise lard would be ideal—or a combination of lard and butter.
The larger point is the amount that we choose to use of various ingredients that come out of historical larders. Also the portion size that goes on our plates is important to pay attention to. I think we need to cook. We need to use whole foods. We need to ask where our food comes from. How it is grown. We need to create relationships with our farmers, fishmongers/fisherfolk, butchers, grocers and other purveyors. They are first line of defense.
Eating is for life, for longevity and health. Fast food is a stopgap in the anteroom of health issues. The choices are always ours to make. Few truly have a temple for a body. Ongoing, active choices at every stage from seed to plate that we can engage in will improve our diets, and overall health. Including taking time off to eat calmly with other people. Share stories and participate in the commensal moments of our lives.
Follow Scott Barton on Twitter @MrOkra