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Fascinating NY Times article: Food history/African-American food culture

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Dining & Wine
A 19th-Century Ghost Awakens to Redefine ‘Soul’
By MOLLY O’NEILL
Published: November 21, 2007
A newly discovered vintage cookbook could challenge ingrained views about the cuisine of African-Americans.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/21/din...

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  1. Interesting article. I was a bit puzzled by the statement in the article:

    “[Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen] is an Emancipation Proclamation for black cooks,” said Toni Tipton-Martin, a journalist and food historian in Austin, Tex., who has spent a decade researching the cooking of African-American women".

    To me no cook should require "cultural permission" to prepare whatever dish that they choose nor hesitate to blend or to redefine the cuisine of their "origin".

    Thanks

    1. ChinonOO, I think what Ms. Tipton-Martin was talking about was escaping labels. My mother an African American from Dallas Tex. could make the best chopped liver in the world, an amazing standing rib roast and terrific lasagna. She also worked in a Jewish deli and cooked for a family on Park Ave. But her fried chicken, potato salad and bar.b.q ribs were one in a million. Black men and woman were "America's cooks" for generations and brought their own special culinary stamp to whatever was required or demanded of them.

      3 Replies
        1. re: annabana

          I believe Edna Lewis wrote about this sort of thing when talking about her hometown in Virginia (Freetown, I believe? A community first settled by freed slaves). Miss Lewis was an elegant, enlightened woman who wrote about her ancestors and their appreciation for gooooood food. Much of it would be quite elegant today. What she wrote about makes me almost jealous and yearn to experience it.

          1. re: annabana

            dear annabana:
            Absolutely! here in Durham NC the BEST Yiddishe Brisket-- it was oven roasted-- I ever had was made by an African American man named Aubrey Foster, at his restaurant on Hillandale. IS this a kosher brisket? I asked him. yes, he replied, it was before it was put in our oven! it was perfect with their mac & cheese and
            collards. Gosh, I miss the old Pan Pan!

            I think the larger point of Ms O'Neill's article was to emphasize that stereotypes are spurious and false. Skip Gates made the point in a way I shall never forget: There are 30 million Black folks here in the US-- and so 30 million ways to be Black.

            O'Neill, imho, the most brilliant, incisive and open-hearted food writer in the country today, makes the point in her article: "The black liberation movement of the 1960’s had celebrated “soul food”: dishes with a debt to Africa, like black-eyed peas, greens, gumbo and fried chicken. Neither the activists nor the scholars who later devoted themselves to black studies intended those dishes to be seen as the food on the stove of every black cook in America. But that is exactly what happened, historians say."

            As a third generation Bronx jew living in the south, I am UNwilling to let go
            one single made-in-American dish of any stripe; and am proud to claim
            all-- is it now?-- 44 American ethnicities as my culinary heritage.

            And to ANNABANA, I'd be thrilled to have your mom's Recipe for
            chopped liver and fried chicken-- they're great together with a fruity
            semi-dry red! Serious, would you consider posting them?
            ~marion in NC

          2. What an inspirational story- I hope the Longone's succeed in bringing such a courageous woman (and foodie) to light. Now, that cookbook would truly be a fascinating read.

            1. I guess too what bothered me somewhat about the article was the implication that enlightened people wouldn't or couldn't eat "[s]outhern poverty cooking". I'd like to think that people could embrace innovation without denigrating the traditional.

              1. i thought the article was remarkably short on actual information about the food!

                the author gives just a brief mention, contrasting the "soul food" concept with "sophisticated european-style" recipes: "puff pastry and delicate rose cake, not sweet potato pie [...] an elegant catfish fricassee and sweet onion custard — not a mention of lard-fried chicken legs, beaten biscuits or slow-cooked greens.'

                first, it seems the author and mrs. longone (an ironic name for an antiquarian book expert) are surprised that freed slaves were cooking sophisticated, european-style food. wasn't that their training while slaves for wealthy plantation owners? why is that surprising?

                For example, from a seller's promotion of the eponymous book, the cookbook of Martha Custis Washington (our first "First Lady") was "quite likely ...a family heirloom dating back to the early 1600s. In all, there were over five hundred classic recipes, dating largely from Elizabethan and Jacobean times, the golden age of English cookery." Who was cooking this food? Slaves.

                second, the "soul food" movement had reason (political) for ignoring black achievement in european-style cooking -- because that food style was "white". shows how political agendas can distort reality.

                I expected more from author O'Neill, and more insight from her and Mrs. Longone.

                1 Reply
                1. re: alkapal

                  Very insightful post. Thanks! A few points I want to make though. When we discuss 19th century African American cooking aren't we discussing maybe 3 different things:

                  1) food prepared FOR slaves and post emancipation southern poverty cooking.
                  2) food prepared BY slaves FOR plantation owners.
                  3) food prepared in the homes of pre emancipation "free" blacks.

                  The third is the subject of Malinda Russell’s cookbook if I read the article correctly. And as you pointed out this type of European influenced cooking would have flowed directly from training of slaves as cooks in the wealthy plantation kitchens.

                  So to me since the number of antbellum free blacks were so few at the time the vast majority of blacks during the 19th century would have either eaten as slaves or would have eaten "southern poverty cooking". So it would be reasonable to me for us to consider that type of cooking as "African American". However, I do believe that the "Soul food" movement (as you put it) paralysed the creativity of blacks in the kitchen by villifying attempts at embracing other cuisines.