Pop South is pleased to introduce readers to Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine (UNC Press, 2013), which won a prestigious James Beard Award. Miller will be speaking at UNC Charlotte’s Center City location on Thursday October 2, 2014 at 6pm. There is no charge, but reservations are required. RSVP to Dr. Jeffrey Leak, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below, Miller talks about soul food and his book.
Q: You aim to explore “where Southern food ends and soul food begins.” What’s the difference between the two?
A: Inside the South, the distinctions between the two are so subtle that it almost seems meaningless. In my experience, black Southerners are just as quick to call soul food “home cooking” or “country cooking.” I found that the Southern diet, particularly after the Civil War, is demarcated more by class than race. In other words, blacks and whites of a similar socioeconomic background pretty much eat the same foods. That said, I find that soul food dishes tend to have more intensity than their counterparts in Southern cuisine. They’re sweeter, more highly spiced and tend to have a higher fat content—all the things that one would expect from a cuisine using a lot of bland starches and lesser cuts of meat. Then there are the differences in preparation. Soul food joints and home cooks tend to have more bone-in meat selections (neckbones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) and hardcore offerings like chitlins.
Q: You’ve structured your book around the dishes that might be found in a typical soul food meal. Was it difficult to select what to include?
A: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard, especially after I did my national soul food tour. Once one gets out of the American South, the soul food offerings at restaurants are pretty uniform. I thought long and hard about okra. It’s such an iconic food item, but I just didn’t see it on many soul food menus in the North and West even though fried okra is popping up at many more mainstream restaurants as a standard appetizer. It’s been more challenging to tell people what makes up my representative meal. As much as I say that I endeavored to describe a general meal that a soul foodie might eat at any time and at any place in the world, they think I’m whacked because I didn’t include their family favorite. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see a trail of smothered neckbones across the country.
Q: Who are two or three of the most important figures associated with soul food?
A: If you’re expecting me to name a famous chef or TV personality, it’s a no-go with soul food. There really isn’t a Julia Child for soul food. I’m tempted to say Edna Lewis, but she was adamant that her cooking was Southern and not soul food. There are some notable figures out of New Orleans like Leah Chase and Austin Leslie, but I think Creole cuisine is different than soul food. The only person who comes close to being a soul food icon is the recently departed Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Thanks to her business savvy, New Yorkers and tourists from around the world have made her cooking synonymous with soul. Otherwise, soul food’s most important figures are the cooks who carried on culinary traditions by making Sunday dinner and holiday meals for their loved ones time and time again.
Q: Why are red drinks such an important component of a soul food meal?
A: Throughout our history, African Americans have made red drinks the beverage of choice for social occasions, especially big communal gatherings. There are some popular red drinks in West Africa such as bissap (known as hibiscus tea and agua de Jamaica in the U.S.), and some in the United States such as red lemonade and red soda pop. In present times, it’s hard to imagine a soul food meal without a red drink, whether it be a powdered drink, a punch, or a carbonated beverage. Walk into any soul food joint or fast food place with a primarily black clientele and you’re going to get offered a red drink. I know this is controversial, but I think that red Kool-Aid is soul food’s official drink.
Q: Are you optimistic about soul food’s future—both among home cooks and as a chef-driven cuisine?
A: I am optimistic! There’s so much interest in food now. I know a lot of people who are into watching cooking shows on television even though they will never actually cook. What’s gratifying is that more and more people are in search of and eager to explore bizarre foods, comfort foods, healthy foods, regional foods, unusual foods, and vintage foods. Soul food has all of those elements! I think this interest will move people to cooking instead of just watching TV and visiting a restaurant. The irony is that unless soul food’s stigma can be mitigated, culinary adventurers of all types may end up discovering more about what soul food has to offer than African Americans.
(Interview courtesy of Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2013.)