American cuisine with Adrian Miller
and his recipe for mustard and turnip greens with smoked turkey

Church barbecue in California

the United States

While the words ‘soul food’ might conjure images of crispy fried chicken, tender ribs caramelising on the barbecue or an abundance of beans, greens and okra, its story runs much deeper. Slavery and racism are formative factors in a cuisine that is often misunderstood. Adrian Miller is an avid cook and a culinary historian who took writing about African American soul food to a scientific level.

What food did you eat growing up?
“I grew up eating a lot of different foods, because my mum was a very good cook. She was practiced at making the main style of food that I ate, which we call ‘soul food’ in the United States. It’s one of the traditional foods of the African Americans with roots in the American South.

“I grew up in Denver, Colorado, which actually loses me all street credibility on the subject of soul food and barbecue. But it’s a common American story: what happened is that millions of African-Americans left the South and went to other parts of the country for opportunities they found there, and brought their food with them.

“One of my favourite dishes growing up was fried chicken. I loved fried chicken. But I also loved barbecue; greens like kale, mustard, turnip and cabbage; black eyed peas cooked with pork - a lot of soul food really. As for desserts: there’s this thing called a lemon ice box pie. Imagine a key lime pie, except the custard is made with lemon and the crust consists of vanilla wafers rather than crackers, glued together with melted butter. Delicious.”

You’ve written a book called Soul Food, The Surprising Story of American Cuisine. Why was it important for you to write a book on soul food?
“Soul food is heavily and unfairly maligned. There are two main critiques against soul food. The first one is: hey, it’s slave food, right? This is that stuff that White slaveholders didn’t want. They forced it on Black people. So why are you eating this food? You’re literally digesting White supremacy by eating and celebrating this food.

“The other critique is that it’s inherently unhealthy and that if you eat soul food on a regular basis, it’s going to kill you, but I looked at the food of these other cultures, food that’s widely celebrated, and came to the conclusion that those aren’t healthy either. So why is soul food getting so much hate?

“Furthermore, these stories about the poor health outcomes for African-Americans ignore systemic racism. We know that long term exposure to systemic racism leads to higher blood pressure and other poor health outcomes.

“When you consider what nutritionists are telling us to eat, at least in the United States, they say more dark leafy greens, more sweet potatoes, more fish, okra. All of these things are the building blocks of soul food. So it's really a matter of how the food is prepared and in what context we're eating it.

“That’s why I wrote this book, to really delve in and sort out fact from fiction. Soul food is incredibly complex. It’s a fusion cuisine that borrows from several cultures and it’s something that should be celebrated. It felt like this was both a love letter and a bit of a defence. It’s one of the earliest fusion cuisines of the Americas, and therefore merits further inquiry.”

Denver skyline

Adrian grew up in Denver, Colorado

One of the topics you cover in your book is Sunday dinners during the times of slavery.
“This is something I didn't know, because we don't really learn a lot about slavery here in the United States. We learn that it's a bad thing, but you don’t get into what the minutia was of how enslaved people lived their lives. So one thing I found out is that the work schedule slowed by pretty much noon on Saturday. Enslaved people had the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday off before they resumed work on Monday morning.

“So a lot of Saturday was spent doing chores and other things, but also preparing for the Sunday feast. And so that Sunday meal began to have significance. It was a break from the monotonous diet that African-Americans had during the week, which was pretty much: you wake up at dawn, you get a trough with crumbled cornbread with buttermilk that you had to eat with your fingers or with the clamshell, because a fork or knife was a potential weapon, and then the daytime meal was usually seasonal vegetables with maybe some meat in there. Often smoked, dried or salted. Then supper - the late night meal was essentially the leftovers from that midday meal.

“So on weekends, that's when you could start getting access to things like white flour and sugar. You could make the glorious cakes and biscuits and you could make fried chicken, you could barbecue. All of those things happened on the weekend. So that Sunday meal has cultural resonance and we see that extend beyond emancipation, where the Sunday meal is still important to many African Americans today.”

Has education on slavery improved over the last, say, few decades in the US?
“There's just a lot more information available now, so students can supplement their learning as long as they go on the internet. At the same time, there is so much autonomy at the school district level in terms of what's taught, so it varies a lot in what students get to know about slavery. And believe it or not, we have a lot of people in the United States that don't want the true story of slavery to be told.

“Some people say: hey, that happened a long time ago. None of my family was involved in that. Why do we keep talking about this? And a lot of other people, me included, say: that was a seminal, integral part of our history that still has ramifications to this day. And we've never really grappled with the guts of that in order to reconcile and as long as we don't do that, we're going to continue to have this racial strife in our society. And as a person who wants to have a shared multicultural future, I think we need to reckon with that.

“I think the George Floyd case was a huge wake up call for a lot of people, especially White people because since then, I've seen White people do things that I really thought would happen with other racial incidents in this country, but never really materialised. The horrific video just left no doubt about how George Floyd died. That video changed the narrative.

“At the same time, I'm already hearing that there's White ‘fatigue’ about talking about race, but if we're ever going to break through this, it's going to have to be a long, sustained discussion. Another stumbling block is that there are White people who really want to talk about race but they don't know how.”

BLM protests

How would you answer that question – how do you talk about race?
“Part of it is to just create an understanding about what race is and how race has operated in this country. You have to make a connection to show why it's in a White person's interest to not only understand race, but to create a society where race is not something that hampers the progress of other people. Some people have the idea that if Black people progress, White people must be regressing.

“The main issue is that people don't know other peoples’ histories. I don't want to just limit that to Black and White; I think that goes across a lot of different spectrums. I know that most people have no idea what has happened to Native Americans and the genocide that was practiced on them and the racial injustice that continues to this day.

“We’re having a Black/White racial reckoning right now, but we have to do a reckoning about indigenous people too. We have to do a reckoning about how we treat women in this country. About what's happened to Asians, and poor Whites.

“I think it's going to take some skilled people to show that we can all win if we all work together and we try to build a multicultural and multiracial society that's been founded on respecting other people and trying to figure out how we all can benefit together.

“Maybe that's pollyannaish. Maybe that's unrealistic. But I sure would like to try.”

You’ve also written a book The President's Kitchen Cabinet, about African-Americans in the White House kitchens. What was your most surprising finding?
“I guess I just never really appreciated how much African Americans dominated the presence on the resident staff. I discovered 150 African Americans who have cooked for a president since President Washington. Even to this day, the current president [Trump at the time of interview] has three people on staff who are African American. So I just never really appreciated that dominance.

“The other thing I didn't appreciate are the instances where our presidents did talk to African American staff to get a window on Black America and just get a heat check on whether their policies were working or appreciated. And, you know, some of our most successful presidents benefited from that.”

You’ve worked in the White House yourself as well. What was that like?
“I actually was on the policy side of the equation. So I worked on something called the Initiative for One America. It was an outgrowth of President Clinton's initiative on race. So I was working there in the late 1990s, early 2000s. And the whole idea behind the initiative on race is that if we just talk to one another and listened, we might realise that we have a lot more in common than what supposedly divides us. I know: sounds radical and crazy, right?!

“I'm just kicking myself because I didn't get the idea to write a book about American presidential cooks and chefs until I left The White House. If I had gotten that idea while I was in The White House, I'd have so much scoop. But, you know, that's just how it worked out.

“But it was just such a privilege to be there. I was there for a short time, only for about 16 months. But man, I just really relished that time.”

White House

Let’s circle back to soul food – what defines soul food?
“Its connection to African American culture is one thing. Another is the versatility and ingenuity in the sense of using what we call variety cuts. The things that people often cast aside or don't use to season food (e.g adding an offcut of meat to a pot of greens).

“Also: blurring the lines between savoury and sweet. For instance, cornbread in soul food will have a little bit of sugar in it. A lot of white Southerners think that if you add sugar to cornbread, it becomes cake. That's not the case in soul food with soul food cooks.

“And soul food cooks usually make their food a little spicier. Those are some of the hallmarks of soul food cooking. There's a lot of confusion between what Southern and soul is because there are a lot of common ingredients and techniques but I think it's really the performance that makes the difference.”

Something that struck me when reading the recipes in your book is the use of all these leafy vegetables. That’s very common in large parts of West-Africa too. Is that one of the strongest influences that you can still see today?
“Oh, yeah, I think that's one of the strongest corollaries on each side of the Atlantic because as you note, the use of dark leafy greens is central to West African food. And you just see it show up all over the place in various cuisines that are African heritage cuisines in the Americas.”

“Bitter leaf is one of the popular greens in West Africa, but the soul food greens that I mentioned earlier: collard, kale, mustard, turnips, those are all bitter European greens. What that shows us is that at some point, West African cooks, most likely enslaved, will have remembered the dishes from the other side of the Atlantic, but they couldn't get bitter leaves because they were transitioning from a tropical climate to a temperate climate. So these cooks decided to substitute the greens they used back home with whatever they could find locally.”

Leaf vegetables in West-Africa

"The use of dark leafy greens is central to West African food. And you just see it show up all over the place in various cuisines that are African heritage cuisines in the Americas."

Adrian Miller

One of the most iconic dishes in soul food is fried chicken.
"There's a lot of discussion about where it comes from. A lot of people have given it a West African provenance. I just don't see that. There were chickens, there was a deep fry tradition but the way West Africans eat chicken is just not the way that we eat fried chicken. Usually, the bird is cut into small pieces and it's more like a quick fry just to seal it and then it's braised in a liquid. So it's more like a fricassee approach.

“I think most evidence points to Western Europe, and then it was brought to the Americas and the enslaved. Our African-American cooks were forced to make this food and then became very adept at it and in time became known as the most skilled fried chicken makers in the country.

“The interesting thing that happened in the late 1800s is that fried chicken gets this racist connotation. So now, even though everybody eats fried chicken, racist Whites who are intent on undermining the status of the newly freed African Americans engaged in a culture war and argue that African Americans were either childlike or subhuman. Food images often played a role in conveying that message. So that's where we start to see this idea of fried chicken and watermelon showing how playful and childlike African-Americans are. And it did a lot of damage to this day.

“I know African-Americans who will not eat those foods in the presence of Whites because of the social stigma that's been attached to them, so that just shows you how powerful these cultural forces can be.”

What ingredients make soul food special?
“I think it's the use of dark leafy greens. The use of sweet potatoes, black eyed peas, okra. The use of all these variety meats. Chitlins, which is more of a delicacy that you only see during parts of the year, but ham hocks, oxtails, turkey tips, chicken feet, pig ears. Soul food cooks manage to make it delicious or use them in very adept ways. And I think that's one of the hallmarks of soul food. It just shows the resourcefulness and the ingenuity of these cooks. Then the key is seasoning, just finding that right balance so that the food is not bland.”

Man barbecueing (historic image)

Photographer: Russell Lee, through 20x200.com

Man slicing barbecue at a fair, 1939

Another essential part of soul food is barbecue, right?
“If I could eat barbecue every day without any health consequences, I certainly would. But I know there are some, so I don't.

“During most of the 1800s good barbecue was synonymous with Black cooks, so much so that newspapers would include Black people in writing the description of the method. They would say: OK, you've got to have an old coloured man. That was the vernacular at the time: a coloured man has to do this, this and this. You can't have barbecue unless you have a Black guy in the mix. So now we get to this point where we have media that's just not even including Black people. I've watched hour long specials on barbecue purportedly going around the United States, including the South and they don't show any African-Americans. Like, what the heck, man?”

Mustard and turnip greens with smoked turkey

The Dish

One of your favourite dishes is mustard and turnip greens with smoked turkey. What do you like about it?
“I make it a lot because greens are so good for you and I just love the taste of greens. It has an interesting tradition, too. People from the American South especially, and even African Americans living outside of South, have greens and black eyed peas on New Year's Day. The tradition is that you eat those on the first day of the year in order to have symbolic prosperity, because greens represent money (currency is green in the United States). And then black eyed peas represent good luck. In a lot of cultures, beans represent good luck or prosperity because they swell so they get bigger. So the idea is you'll have some kind of increase.

“So one of the kind of misconceptions about greens is that you cook them for hours until they almost disintegrate. That's over overcooking greens. You just want to cook greens until they get tender. So when I'm cooking mustard and turnip greens, that's going to be 30 to 45 minutes, depending on just what kind of heat you got going. But when you do tougher greens like collards and kale? That's going to be more like an hour, maybe an hour and a half to cook those”

How could you substitute the smoked turkey?
“So some people have been using tofu, you can get smoked tofu, but you know, I wouldn't even bother with the tofu. I would just use some seasoning. So just add your favourite seasoning blend to that. Another idea is that you use vegetable stock or vegetable bouillon instead of water to get that hearty flavour.”

The Ingredients

2
smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey leg or wings (about 450 g / 1 lb)
450 - 700 g
turnip greens
450 - 700 g
mustard greens
1 tbsp
granulated garlic (or 2 minced garlic cloves)
1
medium onion, chopped
pinch
red pepper flakes
pinch
baking soda
pinch
sugar
pinch
salt
2
smoked ham hocks or smoked turkey leg or wings (about 450 g / 1 lb)
1 - 1.5 lbs
turnip greens
1 - 1.5 lbs
mustard greens
1 tbsp
granulated garlic (or 2 minced garlic cloves)
1
medium onion, chopped
pinch
red pepper flakes
pinch
baking soda
pinch
sugar
pinch
salt

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1.5 hours | Yield: 8 servings | Category: main

  1. Rinse the hocks, leg or wings, place them in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the meat is tender and the cooking liquid is flavourful, 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside the hocks, leg or wings.
  2. Meanwhile, remove and discard the tough stems from the greens. Cut or tear the leaves into large, bite-sized pieces. Fill a clean sink or very large bowl with cold water. Add the leaves and gently swish them in the water to remove any dirt or grit. Lift the leaves out of the water and add them to the hot ham stock, stirring gently until they wilt and are submerged.
  3. Stir in the onion, pepper flakes, baking soda, sugar, and salt.
  4. Simmer until the greens are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve hot. If desired, cut the smoked turkey into bite-sized pieces and mix with the greens. Otherwise, compost or discard the meat.
< Cambodian Samlor korko Georgian Khachapuri >