Chefs celebrate the roots of African-American cuisine

SOUTHERN FLAVORS

March 04, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

As a spate of recent cookbooks makes clear, there's plenty of soul - in the form of tradition and reminiscence - in the kinds of foods favored by African-American cooks. But if you're going to talk about the dishes, you might want to find a more inclusive term than soul food.

Call it Southern revival, African-American (as in Italian-American) or heritage cooking. For those terms more accurately reflect the history of food prepared by people of color, say today's chefs and cookbook authors. Despite diverse backgrounds, they are united in a desire to get Southern-based cuisine the universal respect they think it deserves.

Chef Joe Randall said one of the reasons he wrote "A Taste of Heritage: The New African-American Cuisine" (with Toni Tipton-Martin, Macmillan, 1998, $27.50), was to bolster a perception that African-American cuisine "is the equal of any other ethnic cuisine."

Randall, who's headed prominent kitchens in Baltimore (the Fishmarket in Fells Point), Buffalo and New York City said, "African-American cuisine is a derivative of Southern food." People who say it's something separate are forgetting, he said, who was in the kitchen. "How could it not be our cuisine if we were doing the cooking?"

"It's not just soul food," he said. "That's an integral part of it, but it's not the totality." It's not fair to the whole tradition of Southern cooking to imply that it is nothing more than a cozy, family-based style of eating, he said. "Yes, there are some recipes handed down from mothers and grandmothers, but that's not different from recipes handed down from Italian, or German or any other chefs."

Randall's dual missions are to promote the image of Southern cooking and to encourage young African-Americans to enter the food-service industry - "but not just as part of the work force," he said. He wants his young chefs to take a major role in shaping the perception and the promotion of Southern food styles.

Although there are some recipes in his book that have been handed down through the generations, he drew heavily upon the experiences of a group of young African-American chefs who are making their names in major kitchens from Las Vegas to New York, from New Orleans to Chicago.

It's a marriage of classical technique and traditional ingredients that results in such dishes as pan-fried, almond and pecan-crusted breast of chicken with honey glaze, from Darryl Evans, executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta, and bacon and Cheddar cheese muffins from Earlest Bell, executive chef at the J. W. Marriott in Washington, D.C.

And then there are the catfish fingers with remoulade sauce Randall served as appetizers at a Black Student Union dinner at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. The catfish was accompanied by Vidalia onions in a peanut vinaigrette, smothered chicken with sage gravy, or roasted rack of pork and bread pudding. "They went wild," he said.

Texas-based writer and food historian Angela Shelf Medearis said, "For me, African-American cuisine is like German-American or Italian-American." The point of the hyphenation is to refer back to foodstuffs and customs brought to the Americas by people from other lands - a concept that vastly increases the range of what's "Southern."

The foods that Africans brought with them were the ones they grew back home, and because "so many of them were employed as cooks," Medearis said, they incorporated familiar foods into the native foods they found.

These items included peanuts (goobers), sesame seeds (benne), okra (gumbo) and black-eyed peas. "These were not popular items until 1619 on, when African-Americans heavily inhabited" the Americas, Medearis said.

Her new cookbook, "Ideas for Entertaining From the African-American Kitchen" (Dutton, 1997, $27.95), uses the foods and dishes that came to America from Africa, often by way of the Caribbean, where they picked up new flavor notes, to celebrate a year of African-American history and culture.

There's a buffet for African-American History Month in February, with African fruit salad with peanut butter dressing, Kenyan chicken with coconut milk, Caribbean new potatoes and fresh vegetables with sesame sauce. For June there's a "Jumping the Broom" rehearsal dinner with marinated chicken with bananas and honeyed sweet potatoes.

She hopes that presenting it as party food, and food with a history, removes "a big block in people's minds about African-American food" as heavy family fare.

It might be hard to find anyone more passionate about elevating the image of Southern food than Alexander Smalls, an unlikely combination of classically trained singer, restaurateur and caterer and Southern food entrepreneur.

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