This is food born in necessity, in the need to feed a family something good and hearty on a budget. Slaves, and then politically and societally oppressed African-Americans, most often had to make due with the less-than-desirable cuts of meat, with the starches and vegetables that those with money and more opportunity—and, frankly, their own freedom—had passed over. African-Americans in the South performed the alchemy of turning middling ingredients, sometimes combined with foods from their home in Africa, into one of the great culinary traditions of the world.
“If you go all the way back to slavery, the slaves were given the scraps, they were given the things that people didn’t really want, such as chitlins, such as pig ears ...,” says KeVen Parker, owner of Ms. Tootsie’s Soul Food Cafe (1312 South St.), among a roster of other businesses. “But they learned how to cook those, and they learned how to utilize them and make it work for them.”
Some of this success has to do with the nature of the ingredients themselves. Ask any food professional, and you’ll find that most would much rather tear into a flank steak than a filet mignon. Though the latter is more expensive and tender—perhaps even more “prestigious”—its lack of fat means it generally doesn’t taste of much beyond what it’s seasoned with. Being forced to work with inherently flavorful components like intestines, or gelatinous or cartilaginous ones like ears, actually turned out to be a de facto hedge against flavorless food.
The key is in the preparation, and that’s where soul food’s signature techniques come in.
Many of them—smoking, stewing, frying—were initially employed as ways to either preserve foods for longer than they otherwise would have been capable of keeping, or to ensure nothing went to waste. The humble fried green tomato is a great example.
“It’s necessity and ingenuity,” says Erin O’Shea, executive chef of Percy Street Barbecue. “Because you’re taking tomatoes at the end of the season that haven’t turned, and you’re turning them into something delicious. You’re not letting anything go to waste. It’s the same idea as preserving the meats by smoking them. It’s really all kind of the same thing.”
This, of course, is true all over the world: Poor or oppressed people make due with what they have, and in the process create the specific dishes and overall foodways that eventually come to define the culture’s cuisine. It’s almost impossible to talk about soul food, however, without addressing its related cuisines outside the South itself. As might be expected, there are any number of remarkable similarities between American soul food and its many counterparts in the islands that also saw significant populations of people arrive—willingly or otherwise—from Africa.
“There are a lot of similarities in some of the things that we do,” says Iman Marcano-Sowell of Calypso (8229 Germantown Ave.) and the Mini Trini food truck (follow @theminitrini for daily locations). “The way we make our sweet potatoes, [for example], and things like that. Soul food is considered soul food because it’s from the heart.”
She adds: “Our food is slow-cooked, nurtured along the way and watched over delicately. So I think it’s the same idea in traditional [American] soul food. It’s the spices that we use that are different” from the soul food of the continental South, she explains, “but the technique is the same.”
Which is where the great curries of the island come in, the fried dishes, the deeply comforting soups whose flavors have typically been deepened by the addition of parts of the animal that aren’t quite as edible or palatable on their own.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance that economic hardship has had on the development and evolution of soul food. “My parents, and their parents before them, were all working class,” Marcano-Sowell says. “So you have to get something hearty, something good on the table in a quick way. So sometimes you’re not able to bake [a bread] ... so you fry it to get it done quickly.” Hence one of the great breads you can find, the counter-intuitively named Trinidadian “bake,” which is actually fried.
The darkest stain on our nation’s history—slavery—has led to a cuisine that is now enjoyed by people of all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. Smoked meats, fried chicken and fish, stewed greens: These are the great equalizers at the table.
“Over time, I think that people kind of get caught up with thinking of food as equated to certain races or religions,” Parker says. “I think that we’ve crossed that barrier over the years, and people are learning to just enjoy cuisine.”
In Philly, there’s an abundance of spots to explore and enjoy. Go forth.
People, you may have noticed, are fat. Real fat. And getting bigger every day. But lost in the endless conversations about the no-longer-new obesity epidemic that threatens to sink our country into a pit of health-care debt we can never pay is a very real and glaringly obvious fact: We’re all a hell of a lot skinnier than we could be.
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