28 July 2014
But very often, seeing it and explaining it are not mutually inclusive. Then Adrian Miller came along with his book Soul Food. Miller is about as good as anyone at explaining what soul food is and why it is so important. This is especially necessary at a time when "Southern cooking" is becoming so prevalent that every city from Juno to Jackson Hole thinks they can throw a piece of chicken on a plate with some greens and claim to be soulful!
Readers of this blog know that my "go to" guide for soulful, Southern is Granny Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies, who knew a thing or two about chitlins, grits, and crawdads. Food used as fodder for jokes in the 1960's now finds its way to restaurants across the country. (and before you e-mail, yes, I know that Granny was actually Daisy Moses, a Clampett in-law and not an actual Clampett, but she was often referred to as Granny Clampett. Let me also say that I am delighted to find so many Beverly Hillbillies sticklers out there, but I digress...)
It is hard to extricate food, class and race from discussions of soul food. It is very easy for these issues to be glossed over or generalized to the point of common clichés. It is the great strength of Soul Food to move the discussion forward. Miller acknowledges the easy generalizations. He addresses them, then shifts the discussion to a larger context, both historical and culinary. His chapter on chitlins is a prime example. Walk into an old-fashioned Southern, soul food, "meat and three" restaurant in the South and the food will be remarkably similar. However, one can tell immediately if the owner is African-American by the inclusion of a single dish -- chitlins.
Miller points out that the "face" of nose-to-tail cooking is a Brit, Fergus Henderson. Henderson has been lauded for his revolutionary approach to eating whole animals, but a subway ride to Harlem (or a drive to any Southern city) would turn up dozens of cooks using snouts, ears, intestines, and tails. (Once again, I digress but if Daniel Boulud would put squirrel on his menu, just saying...)
Miller dispels that common notion of "white folks wouldn't eat it" by pointing out that chitlins were considered rather high end cooking to the likes of Hannah Glasse. Still, for both races in the South, there is a classist stigma to eating chitlins. Of course, that same classist mentality was prevalent in West Virginia where children were laughed at for eating ramps which are now selling for $15 a pound in Brooklyn.
Historic nineteenth-century Southern cookbooks were devoid of chitlin recipes regardless the race of the author. Miller finds chitlins recipes in Freda DeKnight's 1948 A Date With A Dish. Miller notes that while DeKnight offers introductions to other recipes, there are no headnotes to the chitlin recipes. (I cannot confirm this as A Date With A Dish is a book I have been searching for in it's jacked, first printing, but when I find it it is always out of my price range, but again, I digress...)
"Chitlin eating among whites went private or entirely underground..."
I know that when I go to the Florida Avenue Grill and order chitlins, there is a a definite pause before taking my order. While I haven't cooked chitlins, I have watched my Mother cook them. I don't recall either experience being private or underground, but who knows?
I say screw class, screw race, lets all get together for a big old chitlin whoop-de-do.
But first, you need to grab a copy of Soul Food, the worthy winner of a James Beard Award. And for more info check out Adrian Miller's blog.