African-American influence on food is more than just taste

Jessica Harris and her new book; Harris' Sugar Cane Shrimp (above) was served at Geechee Girl Rice Cafe.
Jessica Harris and her new book; Harris' Sugar Cane Shrimp (above) was served at Geechee Girl Rice Cafe.
Posted: February 17, 2011

FRIED CHICKEN, collard greens, barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese . . . these are just a few of the down-home dishes associated with the African-American table. While Philadelphia isn't as famous for its soul-food restaurant scene as cities like Memphis, Tenn., Detroit and Kansas City, the roots of this vibrant culinary heritage run deep in a city that is home to some 44 percent African-American residents. A tradition that continues to thrive on Sunday supper tables all around Philadelphia, soul food is also served at stylish restaurants and small take-out joints around town.

The term "soul food" entered common parlance in the 1960s, when the word soul became closely connected with the African-American experience, from music to fashion to food. But the roots of southern cooking are as deep as the interconnected relationships among African-Americans and the European settlers who relocated to the American South. The original fusion cuisine, southern food covers a broad range of cooking styles, including African, Caribbean, Cajun and Creole.

In her book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America (Bloomsbury, $26), Jessica B. Harris takes the reader on that journey, tracking the profound effect that enslaved Africans had on American gastronomy.

From their knowledge of rice cultivation to their enterprising adaptation of ingredients and natural cultural fluidity, enslaved Africans from places like Senegal and the Gulf of Benin shaped the cuisine in the American South and elsewhere. Dishes like Hoppin' John, a southern New Year's Day tradition made with black-eyed peas and rice, is one example of that indelible cultural crossover, she said.

"West African okra stews and sauces gombos morphed into some of the gumbos of southern Louisiana, Charleston, S.C., and the Philadelphia dish known as pepper pot, which was also referred to as Philadelphia Gumbo," said Harris, in town recently to prepare recipes from her book at Geechee Girl Café, in Mount Airy, with chef/owner Valerie Erwin.

In her book, Harris hopes to lay at least one misconception to rest - "that African-American food is unhealthy and without history."

"African-Americans have long been an integral and crucial part of the culinary history of this country," she said. "It's time we all acknowledged that at the table."

The soul of African-American cuisine speaks of home and hearth, comfort found in familiar dishes and easy-to-source ingredients. For Erwin, that homestyle cooking always includes rice, a crop that is traced directly to West Africa, where it is a staple. Enslaved West Africans brought their knowledge of rice cultivation with them on their forced voyage. As Harris writes, "Charleston's planters knew that they owed their wealth to the agricultural know-how of their slaves."

Erwin named her restaurant in homage to this African know-how - Geechee was one name for the enslaved West African peoples who lived on the Sea Islands and coastal areas of the Carolinas, Georgia and Northern Florida, where they cultivated rice. "Whatever we ate, from gumbo to chicken and gravy, there was always a big pot of rice on the stove," she said.

A 'village of women'

Nothing tastes more like home to Philadelphia restaurateur KeVen Parker than real southern food, the kind he ate while growing up in West Philadelphia. Parker, like so many Philadelphians, has family roots in the South. His grandmother, who grew up as one of 17 children in a small Virginia town, brought her recipes north, where they were etched into the pages of the Parker family cookbook.

"I was raised by a village of women," said Parker, who named his first restaurant Ms. Tootsie's, an affectionate moniker for his mother, Joyce.

"My mother was a single parent who worked two and three jobs to take care of us," said Parker, the youngest, and only male, of five siblings. "Until I was 7, we lived in a housing project. I had 'aunties' everywhere - one took me to school, one picked me up, one watched me play. It was a very loving way to grow up. And my mother was known as the cook in the neighborhood.

"Every Sunday, there'd be 30 people around our table. It was the most amazing experience of my life, that warmth and closeness in our community."

Parker recreates that sense of community at Ms. Tootsie's Restaurant Bar Lounge, where he delivers honest southern soul in the form of awesome fried chicken, the gooiest macaroni and cheese, crisp fried catfish and caramelized yams so sweet they taste like dessert.

"I'm a big fan of Ms. Tootsie's - love the mac and cheese," said Philadelphia native and two-time Grammy winner Patti LaBelle, a mistress of soul on so many levels, from her heartfelt vocals to the way she gets down in the kitchen. In 2008, Labelle released her fourth book, "Recipes for the Good Life," a tome dedicated to her sassy, no-nonsense approach to food.

"I learned to cook from my mother and father, and from Naomi, the lady who took care of us when I was growing up," said LaBelle, who was reared in West Philly and now lives in the Main Line suburb of Wynnewood. "When I cook, I have to feel it. It's like when I sing, I sing with soul. When I cook, I cook with soul."

Univer-soul appeal

While LaBelle associates soul food with the African-American experience, and foods like greens, ham hocks, corn bread and mac and cheese, she believes that soul knows no boundaries. "Anybody can cook with soul. When Italians in South Philly make that gravy, it's soulful. And there are plenty of white folks who make great ribs."

LaBelle, who has diabetes, has updated some of her family recipes to incorporate more healthful ingredients. "I use smoked turkey instead of pork in my greens," she said. "But the one thing I don't skimp on is flavor, or heat." The fan of hot peppers and spicy food created LaBelle's Hot Flash hot sauce (available at in three strengths.

She also doesn't mess around with classic recipes by adding unneeded ingredients or garnishes. "I'm sorry - you can't add rosemary to cabbage. That's trying to fancy up a simple recipe. That takes the soul right out of it. You gotta keep it real."

Keeping it real is the bottom line at spots like Ms. Tootsie's as well as at the many mom-and-pop places around town. Places like Phoebe's Bar-B-Q on South Street, where the ribs, pulled pork and brisket are rubbed with a secret recipe of herbs and spices and smoked for 14 hours, then paired with fresh corn bread and collard greens. In the Reading Terminal Market, chef Delilah Winder is the force behind Delilah's, a delectable spot for fried catfish, fried chicken, country ham, black-eyed peas and collards.

For Parker, while soul food is associated with African-American culture, it isn't a single color or ethnicity.

"Soul is a feeling of comfort, of warmth, of being together," he said. "No matter what we were going through, the time we spent around the table was our time, to laugh, gather in fellowship, joke with each other.

"In today's world, we all need those moments, times when we don't check our BlackBerry or worry about the stock market. Food truly brings people together."