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She also comes from a long line of Black women who weighed over 200 pounds and refuses to follow suit.
Soul food dominates the canon of Southern cooking and Williams couldn’t escape the question, ‘What foods did we eat that we forgot we ate?’ Soul food is “food that’s distinctively American and created to sustain the body and spirit of the people that you love,” she says. These ideas prompted her to partner with her mother, Alice Randall, to give soul food its rightful place as healthful cuisine in their 2015 cookbook Soul Food Love.
Williams considers this book her ultimate love letter to her mother.
“My mom raised me in love with food,” she says, adding that she feels lucky to have grown up with a mother who had a real respect for food and a gift in the kitchen, When the two teamed up for the book, they wanted to address the rhetoric around the obesity epidemic, specifically in Black America.
“Soul food is a healthy truth,” says Williams. But, for many, soul food is something she calls celebration food.
Take fried chicken, for example: “Good fried chicken takes a long time to prepare,” she says. “Historically, Black people didn’t have the time to eat fried chicken every day. It was a ritual. It was a precious practice that was meant to be prepared to show someone how much you loved them by the time it took to prepare.”
Somewhere along the way celebration foods became the everyday.
Williams has made it a goal of hers to help people understand that clean, elemental, earthy foods are just as much soul food as mac-n-cheese and salted pork. Because, “if you prepare celebration food every day, it actually kills the people you love,” she says.
Dishes like baked fish, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken, stewed greens (of a mess of whatever greens you could find or forage), and fresh berries are what Williams proposes were the original soul food.
To illustrate, fish was a staple not presently acknowledged. She notes that fish bones are often found in archeological digs of slave quarters. “If you were working on someone’s farm during slavery or the Jim Crow era, the white property owner knew how many chickens they had,” she says. “They didn’t know how many fish they had in their stream.”
Pointing to a world where you could argue that spaghetti and meatballs cooked by an Italian grandmother for her family is a kind of soul food, Williams says that the bulk of soul food comes down to how we define it.
The spirit of nurturance is at soul food’s core.
But, for the sake of conversation according to Williams, the soul food many people think of as a regional cuisine from the American South was a result of the Great Migration to cities like Chicago, New York City, and Detroit.
“I think about soul food like I do about Blues music,” says Williams. “Blues is the sound of collective Black American suffering made into popular musical art. And that work evolved over time. Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter sound very different from Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Technically, it’s all the same genre. So, when thinking about soul food, it was made to sustain Black bodies emotionally and physically in Southern American spaces.” The healthy truth about soul food is that it actually kept Black Americans alive from one celebration to the next.
Soul Food Road Trip
Because soul food is more about the spirit in how it was prepared, Williams suggests never planning a Southern road trip without connecting with someone in the region who can point you in the right direction. She offers a few suggestions to help you get started.
Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans, Louisiana tops her list of quintessential soul food eateries. Known as the Queen of Creole cuisine, the late Leah Chase would introduce one of the first Black fine dining restaurants to the country. To this day, the restaurant remains a cultural hub for the Crescent City.
The birthplace of the ‘meat and three’ concept, Nashville, Tennessee is where you’ll find Swett’s. Three generations have served up soul food cafeteria-style for 62 years at what’s become a Music City institution.
Williams vows the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat is at the Double Quick gas station in Moorehead, Mississippi. The grandmother of one of her former students once fried chicken daily at this small-town gas station. Never underestimate gas station food in the South: Chances are good that it was made from scratch by someone’s Mama or MawMaw.
When all else fails, Williams offers this advice for planning a Southern soul food road trip: “Find someone that loves you in the South. It’s about the human experience and interaction.”
Considering the several Blues icons Williams compares to soul food, you’re probably well on your way to an inspiring soul food road trip playlist. A relatively recent song to include is Family Business by Kanye West on his debut album, “The College Dropout” released in 2004. Williams highlights the many soul food and fixing plates references in this song that resonate even today. Still, if the lyric “You know that one auntie, you don’t mean to be rude, but every holiday nobody eating her food,” doesn’t encourage you to get your game on, maybe this Breakfast Casserole recipe from Soul Food Love will.
“When I first fell in love with breakfast casserole, it was a version that contained full-fat cheddar cheese, fatty pork sausage, whole eggs, and cups of grits. It was decadent and delicious and something that just had to be eaten on Thanksgiving morning. Stripped of much of the fat, this version of breakfast casserole is different, but equally delicious—and quicker to make. Mama has served this to visiting physicians and noted black cardiologists; I serve it at Sunday dinner to musicians trying to get over their hardworking Saturday night. Whomever you’re serving, they’ll finish it all.”
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 Tablespoon ground nutmeg
1 pound ground turkey
1 Tablespoon olive oil
6 large leeks, white and light green parts, chopped and well rinsed
2 cups cottage cheese
4 ounces (1/2 cup) fresh goat cheese
4 cups tightly packed chopped fresh spinach
1 quart egg whites (from about 16 large eggs), lightly beaten
In a large bowl, mix the oregano, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, salt, and nutmeg. Add the turkey and mix with a spatula or your hands.
Slick a large skillet with the olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Add the turkey mixture and cook until the meat is no longer pink and a meat thermometer reads 165° F, about 7 minutes. Add the leeks and cook for another minute; then add the cottage cheese and goat cheese. Keep cooking and stirring over low heat until the goat cheese just begins to melt.
Pour the turkey mixture into a 9×13-inch baking dish. Spread the spinach on top, and then pour in the egg whites. Use a spatula to make sure the egg whites are distributed evenly in the dish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Bake the casserole until a knife stuck into the center comes out clean; about 45 minutes. Serve hot.
— Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams
Melissa Corbin is a Tennessee-based journalist writing about food, travel, and folks who make their corner of the world so unique.