Text by Charlotte Druckman, The Washington Post
Carla Hall's intentions were clear when she started working on her third cookbook: She wanted to focus on the food of her native South. But it wasn't until a "pivotal point" with okra and tomatoes that the D.C.-based chef and TV personality figured out how to put her vision on the page.
"There is a stewed okra dish that everybody in the South knows," said Hall, who was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. "I'm not a huge fan of okra, but I respect it as part of the ingredients and the culture." She tried making a broth with canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and bay leaf, and roasting the okra separately, so the pods got crunchy, before dropping the vegetable into the aromatic liquid. "Immediately, the broth just permeated with this beautiful okra taste," Hall marveled, triumphant that there was no trace of the vegetable's signature sliminess.
At that moment, Hall remembers, she said: "This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to take a classic dish and think about the way that we live now and have those same tastes, and food memories, but in a dish from today."
But "Carla Hall's Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration" (Harper Wave), which arrives next week, is much more than a cookbook that updates traditional recipes. It also seeks to educate home cooks across the country about, as the introduction states, "the true food of African-Americans."
The impetus was a DNA test that revealed Hall's ancestors were the Yoruba people from Nigeria and the Bubi from Bioko Island off the west coast of Africa. She wondered what they might eat today if they lived in the United States. At the same time, she noticed that many grains - millet and sorghum among them - that were brought from Africa as part of the transatlantic slave trade and eventually incorporated into Southern foodways were available here again. Her soul food, she decided, would be that of her culture's heritage, and of her family, childhood and adulthood.
She and co-author Genevieve Ko did copious research, relying on the work of such culinary scholars as Tonya Hopkins and Jessica B. Harris and such literary powerhouses as Maya Angelou - for her poetry, fiction and cookbooks - and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose novel "Americanah" juxtaposes African and African American cultures with notable depictions of food. They also traveled extensively through the South with Italian photographer Gabriele Stabile, whose documentary-like images, candid portraits and intimate shots are a departure from the carefully styled pictures of standard cookbooks.
Collectively, these choices allowed Hall to convey the multivalent nature of her subject, which, as Harris said, is "difficult to define because people tend to view African Americans and African American life in the United States as monolithic, and it's not. People therefore are at a loss when it comes to seeing the varieties, and the range of lives and lifestyles that are involved in something like soul food."
While the term "soul food" didn't come around until the mid-20th century, Hall writes, it "refers to the dishes of the Cotton Belt of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama that traveled out to the rest of the country during the Great Migration," when millions of African Americans left the rural South.
Images: Marvin Joseph, The Washington Post