As a boy, Wiley Mullins spent his time watching his mother cook in their home in Tuscumbia, Ala. Her specialties were staples of the African-American soul-food tradition: dirty rice, collards and turnip greens, fried chicken and catfish, black-eyed peas and butter beans.
At home in his kitchen in Bridgeport, Conn., Mr. Mullins whips up his own version of dirty rice: browned ground hamburger, white rice and about a half cup of seasoning with water added. In a matter of minutes, a steaming plate of spicy rice is ready to enjoy.
Despite his traditional roots, Mr. Mullins is doing some very untraditional things with soul food. The seasoning he uses is from the most recently introduced line in his Uncle Wiley's Authentic American Soul Food products -- instant seasonings for soul-food recipes.
Mr. Mullins started last year with a variety of canned products -- "Precious" Purple Hull peas, "Yum-Yum" yams, "Tried and True" turnip greens, "Country" collards, "Braggin Beans" and "Spirited" black-eyed peas. The spicy seasonings now include those for turnip greens and dirty rice, green beans, Southern-fried fish, as well as spices for sweet potato pies or yams and potato salad. A line of frozen food will be introduced in the fall. (Uncle Wiley's products can be found locally at Safeway stores).
Despite a fondness for the foods of their childhood, many people find they no longer have the time to spend a day preparing some dishes. As a result, Mr. Mullins says, they are slowly getting away from such foods.
"It might have taken a hour by the time you cut up everything by hand and cooked it," he says. "By that time, you don't even want it anymore."
As for those who say it can't be good unless it's done the old-fashioned way, Mr. Mullins offers a bag of seasoning for a taste. "Did we hit it or what?" he asks, smiling.
He also believes that the elimination of salt and fat in soul-food cooking is a must.
"I started looking at the kinds of health problems African-Americans were experiencing. There is a high degree of diabetes and heart-related problems and cancer," he says. "Those types of things are all driven by the diet. What we really wanted to do is come up with products that were healthy and safe, but traditional and familiar to people."
His dirty-rice seasoning contains black pepper, white pepper, green onion, bell pepper and Worcestershire sauce. It gives flavor but has no salt, fat or pork, and can be reconstituted with a small amount of water.
Of course, naysayers will claim that you can't put soul food in a can.
"It's mostly older people that say, 'It can't taste right in a can.' Younger people think it's great, because they don't have time (to cook)," he says, adding that when doubters taste his beans and vegetables, "they say it's wonderful."
Authenticity is important to Mr.Mullins. For that reason, he says, the small factory that employs 11 people and produces his products is in the South, in Memphis, Tenn. The produce is grown by small independent farmers in Tennessee, whom Mr. Mullins calls a dying breed. "It's a whole way of life that's just vanishing," he says. The company office, which has a staff of three, is in Fairfield, Conn.
Besides convenience, making soul food easy will make it possible for those who did not grow up with such foods to be able to make them successfully and enjoy them. "It could be everybody's food, just like everyone likes Italian or Chinese food," Mr. Mullins says.
His mother remains his authority on soul food, and he often calls for suggestions. "I know pretty much what I want to do, but because I know she's a particular cook, I'll ask her opinion. She's the first person to test and try everything I make," he says. "She won't say it's good just because she cares and loves me. If it doesn't work, she'll say, 'This is not it,' and that's good."
Some people are surprised to pick up a can of soul food and find out it's made by a Connecticut company, he says, but he feels confident he can overcome doubters.
"A lot of people are skeptical. They think, a Connecticut company, it can't taste real," he says. "But I'm very Southern; my accent has not changed, my mannerisms and folkways are Southern. I'm as much a part of this as the food itself."
Mr. Mullins uses his canned goods as the basis for a number of dishes. Here are some recipes he's created.
2 15-ounce cans of Uncle Wiley's Tried and True turnip greens
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons bacon dripping
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup diced red bell pepper
In a large pot or kettle, combine all ingredients, blending well. Heat until mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.
Cold black-eyed pea salad
2 15-ounce cans of Uncle Wiley's Spirited black-eyed peas
2 1/2 cups cooked rice
1 pound boiled chicken livers
1/4 cup diced green bell peppers
1/4 cup chopped white onion
garlic salt and pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, mix black-eye peas with cooked rice. Blend well. In a separate bowl, drain cooked chicken livers, and mash with fork until chicken livers are completely crumbled. Add bell peppers and onion to chicken liver.
Blend chicken-livers mixture with peas and rice in large mixing bowl. Add garlic salt and pepper to taste. Serve cold on a crisp lettuce leaf. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
2 pounds cleaned and dressed catfish
1 stick melted butter or margarine
1 1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
2 garlic cloves, chopped
-- salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Melt butter in small saucepan. Add paprika, red pepper, parsley and garlic to butter. Stir until well blended. Place catfish in shallow pan or cookie sheet. Brush butter mixture on fish. Bake fish 25 minutes. Fish should be firm when done. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with parsley or lemon slice.