Soul Food Celebrates Black History

LUNCHTIME is hopping at Bob the Chef's Restaurant. Here, people come for "Soul Cuisine at its finest," as the menu touts.

Entrees of Chef's GloriFried Chicken, Pan-Fried Porgy, Pork Chop Special, Soul Chitterlings, "Bar-B-Qued" Spareribs appear, then disappear. Side orders of corn bread, smothered fresh cabbage, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and mashed turnips surround place settings. Rare is the table without a piece of sweet-potato pie.

As Americans celebrate Black History Month, many will focus on the food that has been integral to African-American culture, past and present. They will recognize heritage food's potential to help understand ancestry, unlock memories, even unite families.

In his 1991 book "Kwanzaa: an African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking," Eric V. Copage showcases African-American cuisine in the context of Kwanzaa, the week-long, nonreligious celebration observed by millions in this country between Christmas and New Year's.

"It speaks so much to who we are, the best in ourselves," says Mr. Copage in a phone interview. The first Kwanzaa celebration was in December 1966.

Kwanzaa, Swahili for "first fruits of the harvest," is a time to focus on African-inspired culture, including food and traditional values.

Food is very much a part of the celebration, as seen in Copage's book, which has recipes from black cultures worldwide.

Copage says he sees African-American cuisine, sometimes called "soul food," as part of a revival of interest in black culture: "I think there's a trend in all things African-American."

Rap music, thought at first to be a fringe art, has become mainstream, for example. So has colorful African Kente cloth, now popular in fashion.

LIKEWISE, says Copage, African-American cuisine will show up on more menus and will be integrated with other cuisines.

"We will have more dishes that are based on older dishes," he says.

One example is Hiram Bonner's Mustard Greens Souffle. (See recipe.) The administrator and executive chef of New York Mayor David Dinkins's Gracie Mansion says in "Kwanzaa": "I was thinking of foods that were familiar to me while I was growing up and ways of applying my French culinary training. That's how I came up with this mustard greens souffle.

"When I serve it, most of the time people will ask, 'What is it?' They are surprised to find out that it is only mustard greens, especially in the North, because many of them have never had it before."

"As with all people, food is a great leveler," says Dorothy I. Height. "It's a great means of bringing people together." Dr. Height is president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Negro Women Inc. "The meal is one of the essential situations that has been related to the African-American family. What we feel is important today is to restore some of those rituals," she says.

In "The Black Family Reunion Cookbook, Recipes & Food Memories from the National Council of Negro Women just released for Black History Month - Height points out the cuisine's cultural and personal significance:

"During decades of public life, I have seen more problems settled in a dining room than in a conference room. A good meal creates a special fellowship that can break down barriers. And, of course, some of my fondest memories of family and relationships revolved around the table or in the beckoning warmth and aroma of the kitchen."

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