Soul Revival

Down-home cuisine is getting a stylish remake with new ingredients and a move toward more healthful fare.

February 20, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to the Sun

It is down-home comfort food that warms the heart and celebrates the legacy of family.

Southern fried chicken, savory collard greens, candied yams, and creamy macaroni and cheese. Black-eyed peas, spicy gumbo, crispy catfish and tangy barbecue ribs. And please don't forget to pass the warm corn bread, fluffy biscuits and sweet potato pie.

Indeed, some of these dishes -- such as fried chicken or gumbo -- have mass or regional appeal. Put them all together and the fare becomes what is widely known as soul food.

It's a term that became popular during the civil-rights movement of the 1960s to describe ethnic or Southern-style cooking in the African-American community. Today chefs are talking about "nouveau soul" and "Southern revival" cooking as they experiment with new ingredients and create a more healthy fare.

But this type of food has always been about more than mere nourishment. For many black families it is rooted in ritual, tradition and love.

"Our family gatherings centered around food, and, of course, the cooking was Southern," says Edwin Burke, a retired Baltimore City educator and native of Chattanooga, Tenn. "My cooking came down to me from my mother and sisters," the longtime home economics teacher remembers. "One family specialty was hot rolls, and cakes baked from scratch."

Food memories are shared with pride in The Black Family Reunion Cookbook: Recipes and Food Memories From the National Council of Negro Women Inc. (Simon & Schuster Trade, 1993, $13). "You are partaking in centuries of history, tradition and culture," writes Dorothy I. Height, past president. "You are continuing an important legacy that is central to the fabric of African American life."

The significance of this culinary legacy can be found in the historic footnotes that accompany much of this cooking. For instance, hopping John -prepared with ingredients like black-eyed peas, rice, onion and bacon - is not simply a New Year's tradition; it was also served to mark the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves free.

And okra - a staple in gumbo - came to America by way of Africa. So did yams, various greens, cowpeas (related to the black-eyed pea) coconuts and certain types of rice.

Baltimore has in recent months welcomed several new restaurants in the soul-food tradition. Britton's on Antique Row on Howard Street in Baltimore is winning fans for its extensive lunch buffet and warm, friendly service. Then there is Sydnee De Mar in Upper Fells Point, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month.

The elegant, cozy bistro features Cajun and Louisiana-inspired cuisine, mixed with Southern favorites. The moderately priced menu also features homemade sweet potato pie and coconut cake. Chef James Divers says he enjoys giving so-called "heritage recipes" innovative new twists.

To that end, his Southern fried chicken is boneless, topped with honey-tomato chutney and served with sauteed spinach.

The restaurant's Louisiana Style Catfish comes with well-seasoned rice and toasted French bread. "I make sure my dishes are something for you to remember," says Divers, flashing a smile. "I love to bring people together. Food makes people happy, especially black folks."

This type of "nouveau soul" food is gaining popularity, as evidenced in a wave of glossy, high-end cookbooks. In Grace the Table: Stories and Recipes From My Southern Revival (Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1997, $25), chef Alexander Smalls explains why he coined the catch phrase "Southern revival" cooking.

"Revival allowed me some liberties when it came to adding arugula to my salads, duck sausage to my gumbo or wild rice to my Hoppin' John cakes," writes Smalls, former proprietor of CafM-i Beulah in Manhattan. The one-time hot spot drew celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Willis, Spike Lee and Quincy Jones.

He continues: "I was committed to bringing a new refined face to the Southern kitchen, reshaping people's impressions of the bounty of Southern cuisine, and doing it in style with elegance, charm, hospitality and grace."

There are other trends in soul food - namely, a move toward more healthful cooking. Many health advocates say it is time to replace standard seasonings in soul food - bacon drippings, ham hocks and heavy oils - that are often high in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

"I am on a mission to prove that good-tasting food can be healthy," says Wiley Mullins, founder of Uncle Wiley's Specialty Foods Inc., based in Fairfield, Conn. "Health and spirituality is the approach I take. Black people tend to acknowledge Scripture. We must treat our bodies as temples."

He runs down various statistics: The American Diabetes Association says some 16 million Americans have the disease. One in three blacks suffer from hypertension. Diets high in fat may increase risks of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

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