Soul food cafeteria line at Morrisons, 8127 S. Ashland.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Soul food cafeteria line at Morrison’s, 8127 S. Ashland

The richest food cultures come from the people with the hardest histories, in which food was always a matter of immediate concern. That’s why you can’t go wrong reading a book about Jewish food (or writing one), and you won’t regret a minute spent with Adrian Miller’s lively, eye-opening Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, which just won a James Beard Foundation award in the reference and scholarship category.

Miller, a Denver-based attorney who worked for Bill Clinton and Colorado governor Bill Ritter and is executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, guides us through the culinary characteristics of a dozen soul food classics, from fried chicken and catfish to sweet potatoes and cornbread. Some, like chitlins, are pretty much exclusive to the African-American community, but most are just “American” (that is, part of the self-perceived white “mainstream” food culture). And what emerges is a looking-glass history of American food, in which black Americans, from slavery to the present day, were always contributing to and evolving mainstream cuisine, half ignored at best, and imbuing the dishes with their own struggles and meaning. You’ll never look at mac ‘n’ cheese the same way again.

At the same time he’s aware that soul food is, like most ethnic cuisines as assimilation progresses, something of an endangered species—one of the first things in the book is a list of Chicago soul-food spots that closed up in recent years, like Army & Lou’s and Izola’s. But he also sees a future in how it’s evolving to address health concerns, with the use of turkey in place of pork and with vegan and vegetarian soul food at the center of innovation in the cuisine today. I spoke with Miller from his home in Denver.

Michael Gebert: So you say in the book that the first question people ask you is, what’s the difference between soul food and southern food? Which of course was going to be my first question. So let’s jump straight to your answer, which is that there was a difference before the Civil War, but not after. What was the difference before emancipation?

Adrian Miller: There was kind of a racial caste system about food. African-Americans, particularly enslaved African-Americans, often got what were perceived as nonprestige foods as their day in, day out foods. The typical slave rations were five pounds of corn meal or rice or sweet potatoes, a couple of pounds of smoked meat which could be pork, beef or fish, depending on what was cheapest, and maybe a jug of molasses. To that extent African-Americans had to supplement their diet by hunting, fishing, foraging, or other things.

What happens after the Civil War is that the gulf between prestige and practical disappears. Because of the food shortages and other things, a lot of the foodways merged during that time. So things that whites may not have eaten in the past became necessary for survival, got embraced to some extent.

One of the conclusions in my book is that when you think about southern food and soul food, it’s really more about class than race. People of the same socioeconomic status, white and black, are eating the same foods. There are some distinctions—for instance, chitlins are something you might see in a soul food restaurant, which you probably won’t see in a southern restaurant. Though some whites do eat them from time to time. They may not admit it publicly, but they do eat them.

I think the real hallmark is the difference in seasoning. It’s going to be sweeter, it’s going to be saltier, it’s probably going to have more red pepper. Within the south the lines are pretty blurred, but once you get outside the south, these distinctions become much sharper. For instance, in Denver there’s a really popular southern place called Tom’s Home Cooking, and a lot of people argue with me that that’s soul food, and there are a lot of common ingredients. But what they’re serving tends to be more subtle in terms of the seasoning, where if you cross the street and go to these soul food joints, it’s going to be a different feel.

Offerings at Macarthurs, 5412 W. Madison.

Well, and you say the term “soul food” is a fairly recent invention. That it comes out of the Black Power movement in the 1960s.

To break that down a little bit more, it goes mainstream in the mid-60s with the Black Power movement and strong expressions of black cultural identity. But “soul food” as a term was bouncing around at least a decade before that. It really comes from the music world, when these disgruntled African-American jazz musicians were mad because the white musicians were getting all of the money and publicity and the best gigs. So they decided to take jazz to a place where they thought white musicians could not mimic that sound. And that sound was the gospel church of the black south. And they started calling that gospel sound “soul” and “funky.”

So that “soul” concept starts to get slapped onto other aspects of black culture—soul music, soul brother, soul man, soul food. But what happens in the 60s is that the term “soul food” starts to get racialized and radicalized. You had black power advocates trying to unify a very disparate African-American community across the country, and they thought cultural norms are the best way to connect people. And food is one of the best connectors.

And so the things that we think of as soul food—they started saying that whites didn’t understand these foods, couldn’t relate to these foods. Which was news to white southerners, because they had been eating the same foods for about 300 years. So the fallout of that is that “soul” becomes black, and “southern” becomes white, and we deal with the legacy of that today. I mean, name someone associated with soul food on a national level. Very few names pop up. Where if you say southern food, you get a longer list of names—Paula Deen, her sons, Trisha Yearwood. So saying that soul equals black and southern equals white obscures the major contributions that African-Americans have made to southern cooking.

It goes deeper too, because you have African-Americans who don’t even want to cook this food because there’s too much pain associated with it. And part of it that is what I call the two main critiques of soul food. One is, that soul food needs a warning label. That if you keep eating a lot of the food it’s going to kill you. And the other is that soul food is slave food, that it’s the master’s leftovers. A cuisine of oppression.

And some choose to distance themselves from that because of that painful past. What I’m trying to argue is that a lot of beautiful things come out of struggle. And soul food is one of those beautiful things. And it’s worth celebrating because elements of soul food are already ingrained in our national diet.

Mac and cheese and stuffing at Morrisons.

I found the chapter on mac ‘n’ cheese really interesting because I went into it thinking, well, it may be popular with African-Americans, but it’s a universal food, everybody has the box of Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese. But you show that that dish really has a twisted history that ping-pongs up and down the social scale over the centuries, starting as an aristocratic food introduced by Thomas Jefferson, no less, later becoming something blacks and Italian immigrants shared because they were basically socially equal at the bottom, and so on.

It’s a rare example of a double influence because African-American cooks were cooking in the big houses on these plantations, were making this dish for their masters, but then you’re getting it at the low end. And what’s interesting about mac ‘n’ cheese is that it was really popular before we had huge waves of Italian immigrants in this country. Because usually what happens is that an ethnic food becomes popular after the people show up.

I know older African-Americans who believe that African-Americans invented mac ‘n’ cheese, and that white people are stealing it from us. When it’s clearly the opposite. I don’t know if Thomas Jefferson was the first, because it’s in some of the early cookbooks, but he was a big mac ‘n’ cheese fan. I mean, any man that smuggles a macaroni maker out of Italy, you know he’s got a mac ‘n’ cheese jones.

Going back to the point about health, I thought the chapter about greens was very interesting, because here’s something that ought to be healthy, but it gets a bad reputation because it’s always made with pork, and now you have people trying to make healthier greens with smoked turkey, or even entirely vegetarian or vegan greens.

I love greens, and that’s one of my favorite things to eat and make. And they show a strong continuity to West Africa, since greens are central to the West African diet. So you can see this kind of effort by African-American cooks to embrace their cultural heritage in a new setting by substituting greens that probably captured a similar taste, although not identical since you’re using temperate area greens instead of tropical greens.

But I have to tell you, the creative energy in soul food right now is in the vegetarian and vegan components of it. Because people are really distancing themselves from meat and trying to make this food really healthy. And it’s interesting because nutritionists are christening traditional soul food greens as superfoods. Everybody’s going crazy for kale, and I always say welcome to the party because we’ve been eating kale for several centuries.

And so a lot of cooks are playing around with that. But you’ve really got three kinds of traditions going on with that. You still see the old-school people using pork. And you’ve got smoked turkey as a substitute. And then you see others who have gone the vegetarian/vegan route, and so they’re trying to create the profile of traditional greens, but just not using meat. So they may use smoked paprika or some other spices to create that flavor.

Vegetarian soul food at Yahs Cuisine, 2347 E. 75th.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Vegetarian soul food at Yah’s Cuisine, 2347 E. 75th

Okay, from getting healthier, let’s switch to another ubiquitous soul food item: red Kool-Aid. I kind of knew that was a thing—I’ve seen red Kool-Aid pickles here—but I didn’t know it was such an important thing in the black community, for example, that black soldiers in Vietnam asked for it more than anything else from home. And again, you say it had a subterranean influence on white America, because things like Coca-Cola essentially evolved out of the African-American taste for these red drinks.

Whenever you see a communal situation of African-Americans, whether it’s an emancipation celebration, a wedding, or just some gathering, there’s some kind of red drink. In early newspaper accounts after emancipation, the red drink of choice was red lemonade, and then it transitions to red soda pop and red Kool-Aid. And you have to understand that red is a flavor, okay? We don’t get caught up in whether it’s cherry or strawberry, it’s just red.

In thinking about why this tradition continues, I found out that there are two traditional red drinks that crossed over from West Africa. And one is kola. Our modern colas are colored brown, but kola is white or red. And typically, in West African hospitality, a visitor would be offered red kola nuts to chew, or a kola tea.

The other drink is hibiscus, which comes over and gets transplanted to Jamaica. And you know, if you’ve ever spent any time in the Caribbean, there’s a hibiscus drink called sorrel which is very popular. Well, that starts to spread all over Latin and South America and gets called agua de jamaica. So if you’ve ever been to a taqueria and had agua de jamaica, you were drinking a West African drink.

Some are trying to figure out, “Why red? What’s the deeper meaning?” And there’s been an argument that it symbolizes the blood shed by ancestors in slavery. That’s a plausible theory, but I haven’t been able to see any documentation of that. It just seems a social tradition. Now the younger generation is starting to break from that, you’re starting to see purple. But I think red drink is still the official drink of soul food.