Celebrating the Black American culinary history

Published 6:47 am Monday, February 26, 2024

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Before the bugle plays taps – lights out on February – let’s blow the horn one more time in celebration of Black History Month.

I’m a total buy-in – to words I recently read by chef, Adrienne Cheatham, giving praise to the legacy of Black American culinary history, notably referred to as, Southern Cuisine.

In her book, “Sunday Best,” she destroys all myths of Black American foods as having been poorly characterized as heavy and unhealthy – and always getting a bad rap. Like recipe modification, Adrienne reworks these pre-existing claims into novel ones of originality. And when we stop to think about it – these claims stand to reason. Southern Cuisine was some of the first farm-to-table food.

And I say, let’s pass the gravy boat, giving a drizzle of flavor to this concept.

First, let’s take time to recognize and celebrate those who have had influences on our culinary culture and food histories. If you were raised in the South like I was, I know you already understand where many foods of the American South originated – from Black Americans. Food came from the fields.

In reality, Southern Cuisine is probably one of the most diverse cuisines because it incorporates so many cultural influences. And even though the food’s often seen as unhealthy – it’s not. First and foremost, the food was simple, fresh and oh-so-unassuming. The original farm-to-table foods included some of the healthiest and plant-based cuisines.  In fact, many soul foods like collards and other leafy greens, along with peas and corn, and even free-range chicken, and lean beef and pork –top the list of greatest hits when it comes to Southern Cuisine.

But there’s so much more to these dishes than just what lands in your gut. The foods weren’t just heavy dishes all fried up and filled with fat calories. These dishes were celebration foods, served for Sunday afternoon suppers and on holidays. Another misconception is that folks were eating fried foods every single meal of the day. They weren’t.

All over the world, regions identify with regional cuisines, and in this case, Southern Cuisine has been an important part of our culture.

Today, I pay homage to and salute the soul food that I have enjoyed over my lifetime and will continue to enjoy as part of my Southern heritage.

With March’s arrival and fresh foods coming into season – we can step back from the comforting foods of winter. Let’s put more of this delicious soul of the South back on our tables. Today’s recipes are a few lively, jazzed-up renditions of this cuisine.

As we prepare to move outdoors with back porch container gardening, field, farm, greenhouse, back yard, and barnyard gardens, take time to remember where it originated. Let’s give thanks by showing respect and appreciation to Black Americans for a legacy of Southern Cuisine – the original, farm-to-table procurers of fresh, healthy nourishment created from such humble poverty.

But first, let us thank God for provisions of physical and spiritual sustenance. What we need – He will always provide.

BACON DRESSED SPINACH AND CARROTS

1 Tbsp. oil/olive oil

6 slices, ½-inch cut, bacon

4 julienne strips, large carrots

3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp. light brown sugar

¼ tsp. salt

Pepper, to taste

1 ½ lbs. trimmed fresh spinach

Tear spinach into bite-sized pieces. In a skillet, cook bacon and carrots in oil until bacon is browned and carrots crisp-tender. With a slotted spoon, remove mixture to a serving bowl. Into the pan drippings, stir in vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper until sugar dissolves. Add half the spinach and stir fry until wilted. Remove to the serving bowl. Stir fry remaining spinach until wilted. Add to serving bowl and include the pan drippings. Thoroughly toss salad mixture to blend. Serve immediately.

CHICKEN AND TATERS WITH ROSEMARY

4 Tbsp. olive oil

2½ – 3 lb. cut up chicken

3 1 ½-inch chunked potatoes

2 minced cloves garlic

2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary

6 Tbsp. freshly lemon juice

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Grease an ovenproof skillet with 2 Tbsp. of oil. In a bowl, toss the chicken pieces and potatoes with remaining 2 Tbsp. of oil. Arrange meat and potatoes in the skillet in an even layer. Sprinkle with garlic, rosemary, and half the fresh lemon juice. Loosely cover skillet with aluminum foil and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 15 minutes while turning chicken occasionally so that it browns evenly. When serving, divide the chicken among 4 plates and sprinkle with remaining lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon some of the pan juices over each plate.

GRAHAM CRACKER PUDDING

1 tsp. melted, salted butter

1 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. heaping, all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

3 beaten egg yolks

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Crust

17 crushed graham crackers

¼ cup melted, salted butter

¼ cup sugar

Meringue

3 beaten egg whites

6 Tbsp. sugar

In a saucepan, melt butter and swirl around to grease the pan. Add sugar and flour. Stir in egg yolks, milk, and vanilla. Cook until thickened making sure it doesn’t stick. For the crust, combine crushed graham crackers with melted butter and sugar. Mix well. Reserve 1/3 of crumb mixture for the top and set aside. Place remainder in a layer in the bottom of a casserole dish. Pour the hot custard over this layer. For the meringue, in a mixer bowl, beat the egg whites and sugar until standing in peaks. Evenly spoon over the pudding and seal edges. Sprinkle on the reserved ½ cup of crumbs. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 15 minutes or until brown.

GREEN BEANS IN COOKED DRESSING

6 strips cooked, crumbled bacon

1 diced medium onion

5 Tbsp. vinegar

4 Tbsp. sugar

1-quart cooked fresh green beans

In a skillet, fry bacon until crispy and drain. Add diced onion to bacon fat and slowly cook until onion is yellow. Add vinegar and sugar. Simmer 2 minutes and pour over cooked beans. Simmer uncovered for at least 10 minutes. When ready to serve, stir in crumbled bacon and serve warm. You can use canned green beans but drain and add salt.

FISH AND POTATO CROQUETTES

2 ½ cups cooked, mashed potatoes

1 beaten egg

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

½ cup chopped green onion tops

½ cup chopped parsley

1 cup chopped fish

Seafood/Creole seasoning, to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

All-purpose flour

Crisco shortening

Cook and mash potatoes. In a mixer bowl, beat egg. Add potatoes, flour, onion, parsley, and chopped fish. Season to taste. Mix thoroughly, and roll into balls, and flatten. Roll in flour and fry in shortening or fat until golden brown.

WHIPPED YAMS WITH PINEAPPLE

2 ½ lbs. canned yams

8 oz. crushed pineapple

½ cup melted, salted butter

¼ cup sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ cup chopped pecans

¼ cup light brown sugar

Mash and whip yams and combine them with pineapple, melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Cook yams in a butter-greased baking dish in a preheated 300-degree oven for 40 minutes. Sprinkle top with a combined mixture of pecans and brown sugar. Return to oven for 10 minutes or until slightly browned.

APRICOT-STUFFED PORK CHOPS

6 1-inch pork rib chops

16 oz. apricot halves

2 Tbsp. oil

2 Tbsp. chopped onion

¼ cup ketchup

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

½ tsp. dry mustard

Cut a pocket in each chop, cutting from fat side almost to the bone edge. Season cavity with salt and pepper. Drain apricots, reserving ½ cup syrup, and set aside. Place 2 apricot halves in the pocket of each chop. Cut up remaining apricots. Grill chops over medium coals for 35 minutes. In a saucepan, heat oil. Add onion, catsup, lemon juice, and mustard, and reserved apricot juice with cut-up apricots. Heat to boiling, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Cook chops 5 additional minutes, brushing often with apricot mixture. Serve gravy bowl with sauce to go with chops.

BROWN SUGARED LEMON CHESS PIE

3 beaten eggs

3 cups packed brown sugar

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

3 Tbsp. whole milk

¼ lb. melted, salted butter

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 tsp. fresh lemon juice

2 unbaked pie shells

In a mixer bowl, beat eggs. Add sugar and mix well. Add flour with milk, butter, vanilla, and lemon. Mix well. Bake in 2 unbaked pie shells in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25-30 minutes or until knife tests clean.

APPLE BARBECUED RIBS

6 lbs. spare ribs

4 quarts water

Sauce

¼ cup Wesson vegetable oil

½ cup chopped onion

½ cup catsup

1/3 cup chopped parsley

2 Tbsp. honey

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. prepared mustard

½ tsp. ground ginger

¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

2 minced cloves garlic

16 oz. applesauce

Cut ribs into serving-size pieces. Simmer in water for 30 minutes. For the sauce, in skillet, saute onion in hot oil until tender. Add everything else and simmer 15 minutes. Grill spareribs over slow coals for about 40 minutes while frequently turning. Brush with sauce, and cook additional 20 minutes, still basting and frequently turning. Baste with remaining sauce before serving.

APRICOT GLAZED POTATOES

3 lb. sweet potatoes

1 cup light brown sugar

1 ½ Tbsp. cornstarch

¼ tsp. salt

1/8th tsp. ground cinnamon

1 cup apricot nectar

½ cup hot water

2 tsp. grated orange rind

2 Tbsp. salted butter

½ cup chopped pecans

In a pot, cook potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain and cool. Peel and cut potatoes in half, lengthwise. Place in a shallow 2-quart casserole. In saucepan, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cinnamon. Add apricot nectar, water, and orange rind. Bring to a full boil while constantly stirring. Remove from heat and stir in butter and pecans. Pour sauce over potatoes making sure all are completely glazed. Bake uncovered in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25 minutes.

DOWN SOUTH SHRIMP

½ cup olive oil

6 chopped cloves garlic

4 chopped green onions

½ tsp. dried hot chilies

14 drops hot pepper sauce

½ cup soy sauce

2 ½ lb. shelled, medium shrimp

French bread

In a skillet, heat olive oil over high heat. Add garlic, and saute until garlic begins to color. Stir in green onion, chilies, and hot pepper sauce and simmer 3 minutes. Add soy sauce and shrimp and stir for 3-4 minutes or just until shrimp are cooked through. Do not overcook. Spoon into dishes and serve with French bread.

BRAISED RED CABBAGE WITH GOAT CHEESE

3 Tbsp. salted butter

2 tsp. olive oil

1 shredded small head red cabbage

1/3 cup chicken broth

1 tsp. crushed fennel seed

Pinch of cinnamon

4 oz. crumbled goat cheese

In a skillet, melt butter and olive oil on high heat until it foams. Add cabbage and toss to coat while sauteing until heated through. Add chicken broth to the hot skillet. Then add fennel and cinnamon. Continue to toss until liquid is evaporated and cabbage is crisp-tender and still brightly colored. Keep warm. When ready to serve, toss with the goat cheese.