Soul Food Captures a Cultural Spirit and Flavor

A luncheon of gospel music and fine fixin's makes for a joyful gathering up North

'I've got a river of light pouring out of me," sang the Spiritual Explosion Mass choir led by the Rev. Darryl Davis. The gospel choir was performing to a joyous, appreciative group here in celebration of Black History Month on the last day of February.

And a river of light wasn't the only thing pouring forth on that day. It was a gospel lunch that filled the soul with music and body with food - soul food.

And while the choir sang on, caterer Ginny Scott was in the kitchen whipping up the "vittles".

She and her staff prepared barbecued ribs and chicken, creamy potato salad, spicy black-eyed peas, collard greens, and hot corn bread, and topped the lunch off with traditional Sweet Potato Pie, and a melt-in-your-mouth Georgia Peach Whipped Cream Cake.

Real soul food should be complemented with a preacher sitting at the head of the table, or a gospel choir praising the Lord.

That day we were blessed with not one, but two gospel choirs and several ministers, as well as an abundance of good dishes. And it was garnished by families, friends, and community coming together over bountiful food. Anyone walking past the Center City Marketplace that day could join in if they had a modest $8.95 for the lunch.

Today, families across the United States are coming home from work or church and fixin' some of this Southern African-American cuisine.

It has moved out of church basements and is now featured in restaurants, cookbooks, TV shows, and magazines. Soul food is getting more attention, more acclaim, and becoming more mainstream. Why, there's even "Soul Food," the movie.

So what puts the "soul" in soul food?

Joyce White, author of "Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections from African-American Churches" (HarperCollins, $25) defines soul food as "food that is cooked with inspiration."

Ms. White grew up in Alabama and has traveled the South gathering these traditional Southern recipes for her book. Each recipe is accompanied by a story about life, love, or worshipping God.

"It is food that is well-seasoned, creative, that uses the ingredients at our disposal to create something delicious and ingenious," she says.

During the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, many African-American families didn't have fine delicacies at their disposal. So they made use of food such as chicken, greens, and beans, usually discarded by the upper class, says White. They'd fry up some chicken, cook collards with a ham hock, and serve up some corn bread made with leftover corn from the mills that day.

But the table would always be overflowing, says White. You don't run out of food when you entertain.

"It's the way we share our bounty. And we like to share it in our homes and with our church," says White.

And like anyone who cooks soul food, Ms. Scott has her own story to tell.

She grew up eating soul food because her parents brought their Southern heritage into their home. Her family would often invite the preacher over for some fried chicken.

"The preacher always got the first pick, and he always took the biggest piece," Scott remembers. Scott has made a career out of her family's traditions and makes her living cooking soul food. She runs a restaurant in Lowell, Mass., and has a TV cooking program on local access cable, showing that even Yankees have a taste for that Southern, down-home flavor.

Today, many people are more attracted to African-American cuisine because it is has become lighter. "It's evolved." White says. "The recipes now use more herbs, onions, and garlic."

And the years are seeing an improved soul food. It has less fat. Cooks have replaced the high-fat ingredients such as ham hocks for example with smoked turkey.

White says as more Southerners migrated North, communities developed a richer sense of what soul food is. Folks brought Southern-style green beans to Detroit and fried chicken to New York.

People are now making the time to make corn bread and other African-American cuisine that may have seemed too time-consuming. White attributes this to many black people celebrating their identity and their roots.

"Most people who cook these foods cook with love and spice and soul. Creating good food is like creating a piece of art. It takes time and attention," says White.

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