“There is a stewed okra dish that everybody in the South knows,” said Hall, who was born and raised in Nashville. “I’m not a huge fan of okra, but I respect it as part of the ingredients and the culture.” She tried making a broth with canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and bay leaf, and roasting the okra separately, so the pods got crunchy, before dropping the vegetable into the aromatic liquid. “Immediately, the broth just permeated with this beautiful okra taste,” Hall marveled, triumphant that there was no trace of the vegetable’s signature sliminess.
At that moment, Hall remembers, she said: “This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to take a classic dish and think about the way that we live now and have those same tastes, and food memories, but in a dish from today.”
But “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration” (Harper Wave), which arrives Oct. 23, is much more than a cookbook that updates traditional recipes. It also seeks to educate home cooks across the country about, as the introduction states, “the true food of African-Americans.”
The impetus was a DNA test that revealed Hall’s ancestors were the Yoruba people from Nigeria and the Bubi from Bioko Island off the west coast of Africa. She wondered what they might eat today if they lived in the United States. At the same time, she noticed that many grains — millet and sorghum among them — that were brought from Africa as part of the transatlantic slave trade and eventually incorporated into Southern foodways were available here again. Her soul food, she decided, would be that of her culture’s heritage, and of her family, childhood and adulthood.
She and co-author Genevieve Ko did copious research, relying on the work of such culinary scholars as Tonya Hopkins and Jessica B. Harris and such literary powerhouses as Maya Angelou — for her poetry, fiction and cookbooks — and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose novel “Americanah” juxtaposes African and African American cultures with notable depictions of food. They also traveled extensively through the South with Italian photographer Gabriele Stabile, whose documentary-like images, candid portraits and intimate shots are a departure from the carefully styled pictures of standard cookbooks.
Collectively, these choices allowed Hall to convey the multivalent nature of her subject, which, as Harris said, is “difficult to define because people tend to view African Americans and African American life in the United States as monolithic, and it’s not. People therefore are at a loss when it comes to seeing the varieties, and the range of lives and lifestyles that are involved in something like soul food.”
While the term “soul food” didn’t come around until the mid-20th century, Hall writes, it “refers to the dishes of the Cotton Belt of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama that traveled out to the rest of the country during the Great Migration,” when millions of African Americans left the rural South.
Michael W. Twitty, whose book “The Cooking Gene” (Harper Collins, 2017) won top honors this year from the James Beard Foundation, has three definitions for it. The first is “the product of the Great Migration,” except, for him, “The Great Migration is an idea: the idea that we will use momentum to leave our past.” It is also “the memory cuisine of the great, great grandchildren of enslaved people,” an answer to the question “Who are we?” Finally, soul food is “the African American vernacular cuisine.” It is the culinary counterpart to African American vernacular English, “in other words, black English, Ebonics,” he explained. “Because it’s not slang, and it’s not a poor adaptation. It’s not a pathology.”
The tendency to disparage soul food as “poor people’s food” is one that Hall and many African American food writers and chefs continue to challenge. “It’s a melding of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas,” said Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food” (The University of North Carolina Press, 2013). “Like many other cuisines, it’s a mix of the high and the low. There are elements of soul food which started as European royalty food, but soul food is consistently cast as a poverty cuisine.” That association dovetails with another myth Hall wants to dispel: that soul food is unhealthy. “When you hear nutritionists telling us what we need to eat,” Miller said, “they keep saying dark, leafy greens; sweet potatoes; more legumes; okra is now a super food. You know, more fish and chicken, less red meat — these are all the building blocks of soul food.”
Hall battles this misconception by offering two categories of recipe: Everyday and Celebration. Remembering the vegetables her grandmother picked from her garden and cooked for the daily meals of Hall’s childhood, it struck her that portrayals of soul food tend to focus exclusively on large festive gatherings and holidays instead of reflecting how people eat on a regular basis. Some dishes are present on both daily and celebratory tables, and she identifies those accordingly. But the cookbook emphasizes vegetable-centric items you could eat any day of the week, and is mindful of reducing fat and sodium.
This is another way, as Hall writes in the book, to “redefine soul food, to reclaim it,” and to do that on behalf of her community. “It’s really getting back to being proud of this food . . . to reintroduce it to other African Americans,” she said. She was met with skepticism from her literary agent, who, when Hall announced her next cookbook would focus on soul food, advised against it out of concern that her client would ostracize the rest of the country. “Nobody would say that about other cultures,” she replied.
She questions the assumption that it wouldn’t appeal to non-black readers simply because it covers a product of African American culture. It’s a prejudice that other black food writers have faced. Harris, who has written more than 10 volumes on the origins and development of black food in America, believes resistance to the subject matter is rooted in unease. “The history of African Americans, in not just this country, but this hemisphere, is loaded . . . with questions of enslavement, questions of disenfranchisement,” she said. “I think there is a level of historic discomfort that people have with soul food. Because it’s reminding them — people who didn’t grow up with the food . . . of a history that is difficult, to say the least.”
To complicate matters, the work of black chefs and food writers is often pigeonholed as dealing exclusively with soul food. “It has been so marginalized in the culinary space,” said Alexander Smalls, an opera singer, chef-restaurateur and cookbook author in New York City. “It’s either down home, get down, finger-licking food, you know, or it is essentially branding every person who is an African American — everything they cook is soul food.” On the one hand, he explained, “You have to be black to make soul food.” On the other, “You have to understand that even though you have to be black, all black people can’t make soul food.”
Hall, who splits her time between Washington and New York, was an accountant and model before she moved into food, catering and later parlaying her breakout appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef” into a gig co-hosting the daily talk show “The Chew.” After it was canceled in May, she landed a regular cooking segment on its replacement, the third hour of “Good Morning America.” With the book, to some extent, Hall is trying to achieve what a crossover artist in the music industry might. But, as she clarified, “The crossover that was in my head wasn’t like a hit that would cross over into a different culture; it was the crossover in terms of interest. The same way that we would all pick up an Italian book if we didn’t know about Italian food, or a Korean book, or Japanese, or Indian food — it’s to honor the culture in that way. . . . I’m just asking that you will honor our food.”
She is not the first to attempt it. There is an archive of cookbooks written by African Americans about their food — some with recipes for soul food — and often written with a mass audience in mind. Journalist Toni Tipton-Martin chronicled 150 of them, spanning two centuries, in “The Jemima Code” (University of Texas Press, 2015).
This year, along with chef JJ Johnson and co-writer Veronica Chambers, Smalls co-authored “Between Harlem and Heaven” (Flatiron Books), which explores the style of Afro-Asian-American food he and Johnson served at Harlem restaurants the Cecil and Minton’s, both of which have been relaunched without their involvement.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, Calif., Tanya Holland has spent a decade honing her own brand of modernized soul food at her restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen. Her first cookbook, “New Soul Cooking” (Harry N. Abrams), debuted in 2003, and a second one, named for her venue, was published in 2014 (Chronicle Books) and, due to renewed demand, will be reprinted this year. She is frustrated that soul food isn’t afforded the same respect as other cuisines and that her contributions — like Hall, she is a French-trained chef and former “Top Chef” contestant — have gone relatively unacknowledged. “Basically, Carla is writing a book that I tried to write in both of my books,” Holland said. “It’s just she does have a larger platform than any of us.” Holland also said Hall’s timing is right because “the African American influence in music and fashion is so huge now . . . and pop culture, I think people are more open to our food.”
Food writer Nicole Taylor sees Hall as “the most visible black person in food right now,” and is cautiously hopeful that visibility will enable her cookbook to “be something to open the floodgates” for others. In 2015, when Taylor’s “The Up South Cookbook” (Countryman Press) was published, it was, according to New Republic, one of seven culinary books by black women to be published that year, Tipton-Martin’s among them.
Despite the fact that food media seem to be expressing increased interest in African American chefs and their work, Taylor pointed out that the annual number of notable new releases on related material has dwindled. This year, Atlanta chef Todd Richards wrote “Soul” (Oxmoor House) because he also “wanted to present soul food in the modern context,” he said, and to show it is a technique-driven cuisine; vegan blogger Jenne Claiborne wrote “Sweet Potato Soul” (Harmony), part of a growing subgenre. Next week, Smithsonian Books is publishing the Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook,” co-written by Harris.
More is on the way. Miller’s next book, “Black Smoke,” which will examine African American barbecue culture, is in the works, and Tipton-Martin’s cookbook follow-up to “The Jemima Code” is on deck for 2020. “Alexander Smalls’s African American Cooking: Essential Recipes for Southern Classics” is due out next winter.
Seattle chef Edouardo Jordan, who picked up the Best Chef Northwest and Best New Restaurant awards from the James Beard Foundation this year, is planning his cookbook. It will give readers an insight into his personalized take on African American foodways. “If we’re thinking about the real deal, like Southern and soul food books, it starts with the individual that is actually telling the story,” he said.
In Savannah, Ga., the Grey’s Mashama Bailey, who seeks out ingredients from Africa, the West Indies and America that shaped soul food and are still eaten in homes, would also like to write a cookbook. But she’s in no rush. “I think that you need to pull from historical references, and I think you need to give real examples of how the food in this country has matured and who was involved in it,” she said. “I think it’s a history lesson.”
Hall’s cookbook meets both of those criteria: it starts with the individual telling a story and gives us a history lesson along the way. Her hope is to use the former to give credit to those who came before her.
“I felt like it was my duty, even though I’m not trying to replace them,” she said. “I’m trying to shine a light on what they do.” She knows it’s a tall order. As she told her publicists, “This is a black book from a woman who is 54 years old with gray hair, and she’s black.” But she believes she’s up to the task. Because she’s not just another 54-year-old black woman with gray hair and a cookbook to sell. She’s Carla Hall. “With this platform,” she said, “I can do that. I can take it mainstream.”
What “smothering” means in soul-food terms is coating a slow-cooked meat with a blanket of saucy aromatics that end up as gravy — according to chef Carla Hall.
4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 1½ pounds total)
Freshly ground black pepper
6 large sprigs thyme, plus fresh thyme leaves for serving
2 large onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 habanero chile, partially slit open
1 cup low-fat coconut milk
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large lime, plus wedges for serving
Season the chicken generously all over with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a large, shallow Dutch oven or deep saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the chicken to the pan, skin sides down. Sear for about 5 minutes, turning them over once, until browned on both sides and some of their fat has rendered. (They will not be cooked through.)
Push the thighs to one side of the pan, turning them skin sides up; add the thyme and onions to the other side of the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until they pick up some color.
Add the garlic, chile pepper and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute, then pour in the coconut milk and water. The browned skin on the thighs should remain above the level of liquid. Increase the heat to medium; once the liquid begins to boil, move the onion mixture around the chicken pieces, as needed. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes, or. until the chicken is cooked through. Discard the thyme sprigs.
Uncover and stir in the lime juice. Cook for about 5 minutes, then stir in the curry powder and lime zest. Scatter some thyme leaves on top.
Serve right away (with or without the chile pepper), with lime wedges.