Soul food for Black History Month
February is Black History Month — a time to learn about black history and African American customs.
Cultural traditions are often centered around food, and soul food is no exception. These culinary creations began during the enslavement era in the American South — the early 1800s. The “deep south” states of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia are the home of soul food.
Popular dishes include fried chicken, various greens, sweet potatoes, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and fried okra. Dessert classics are sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. African American food customs combine Southern American, Caribbean, Creole and West African cuisine.
Jenne Claiborne, author of “Sweet Potato Soul,” calls it “history, triumph, passion, prayer, purpose and love. It is Black heritage on a plate: feeding hungry bodies, nurturing families, keeping traditions alive.”
Enslaved people attempted to preserve their African food traditions but had to rely on what was available on this side of the Atlantic, using things their enslavers discarded. Plantation owners gave low-quality food to the people they enslaved: poor cuts of meat and undesirable greens cut from root vegetables. They cooked beets and turnips for themselves but discarded the greens –which Black people used for sustenance. Slaves were able to grow a few vegetables for themselves.
African culinary traditions use a variety of boiled greens. Enslaved Africans simply adapted the greens available to them — turnip, beet, and collard — to recipes from their homeland. The greens were cooked in pork fat and ham hocks, seasoned with whatever herbs and seasonings were available. The leftover liquid was sopped up with cornbread or biscuits. Many African dishes, like Nigerian fufu and Ethiopian injera, use the technique of dipping starchy foods into a meat and vegetable sauce.
Sweet potatoes are native to Peru and are similar to west African tropical yams. In the American South, sweet potatoes are easier to grow than pumpkins. Inexpensive, starchy, and sweet, sweet potatoes were often roasted in the embers of a dying fire of slave cabins. In the plantation houses, African slaves were tasked with baking desserts like sweet potato pie.
Okra probably originated in Ethiopia and made its way through trade routes to West Africa. From there, slave ships brought the slimy green stemmed vegetable to America. It is popular in soups and stews and can be fried or baked. Gumbo, a savory seafood, rice and veggie stew made that often includes okra, comes from the Bantu word for okra, kingombo”.
Pork was a common meat in the American south — and before refrigeration, it was the enslaved people who were given the job of salting and curing it in order to preserve it. The slaves were also allotted the discarded cuts of meat — like ribs, feet and organs — so they developed ways to prepare and season them.
While macaroni is ubiquitous, cheeses were expensive and not readily available in the South, so this dish was only prepared by slaves working in their enslavers’ kitchens.
After emancipation, however, mac’ ‘n’ cheese casserole became a celebratory dish, served on holidays and special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Milk, eggs and several varieties of cheese are made into a delicious custard. Often, meat and vegetables are stirred in for a fancier feast. The casserole is topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked.
So for Black History Month, try some soul food! This cuisine tends to use loads of sugar and fat — I have tried to create healthier options.
I found 28 ideas at a virtual potluck to celebrate Black History Month on Food 52. You can find them at https://food52.com/blog/18968-a-28-recipe-virtual-potluck-to-celebrate-black-history-month.
Southern Greens Shakshuka
This recipe combines southern greens like collards and mustard with a Middle-Eastern traditional recipe for Shakshuka. I found the recipe at saltysweetlife.com, but it was quite complicated so I simplified. Here is my version. I used a combination of collards and kale but you can use any greens – mustard, turnip, beet, Swiss chard, even spinach.
2 slices bacon OR 1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 or 2 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound fresh or frozen greens
1/4 teaspoon each black pepper, turmeric and cinnamon
1 small can (16 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 cup diced cooked ham, optional
Cook bacon to render fat. Remove to paper towels; set aside.
Drain off all but 1 Tablespoon bacon drippings.
Peel and dice the onion; add. Sprinkle with salt, cover, and cook 5 to 10 minutes on low heat. If you wish you can also add some mushrooms or hot peppers at this point. Peel and mince the garlic, and add.
Prepare the greens while onion is cooking. If you’re using fresh collards you need to strip the greens from the stems. Whatever greens you’re using, chop them coarsely and add to the skillet. Sprinkle with black pepper, turmeric and cinnamon. Cook, stirring, a few minutes. until wilted.
Add tomatoes and their liquid, and cook 5 to 15 minutes until desired tenderness – this will depend on the greens you have chosen and whether they’re fresh or frozen. Stir in the ham, if using.
Break the eggs into the skillet. Cover, and poach 3 to 5 minutes, or until eggs are cooked to your liking. Serve with reserved bacon, if using, and potatoes or fresh bread. Serves 2 for breakfast, lunch or a light supper.
Georgia Peach Cobbler
Georgia is famous for its peaches, and I found a recipe for Aunt Georgia’s Peach Cobbler at dashofjazz.com. Here is my version.
For the filling:
2 to 3 cups sliced peaches, drained or one 15.5 oz can (use fresh, peeled, sliced peaches in season)
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 Tablespoon flour
Juice of one lemon
For the crust:
4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Butter or oil 9” x 9″ baking dish (or a round casserole).
In small bowl, mix together sugar, spices and flour.
Drain peaches. Arrange in baking dish. Sprinkle with spices and then drizzle with lemon juice.
Melt butter in a small saucepan. Add milk.
In bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Add milk and butter to form a soft dough.
Spoon the dough over the fruit.
Bake about one-half hour at 350, or until dough is golden brown.
Serves 6 – 8.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.