Many cooks enjoy experimenting with various ethnic cuisines. Someone may try French cooking, let’s say, or Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean, or Asian.
But rarely does one experiment with African-American food preparation, or as it’s more commonly known, soul food.
Soul food comes in two basic categories, says a pair of Great Lakes Bay Region soul food specialists: Mary Mosley, owner of Saginaw’s Light House Bakery & Deli, and Betty Williams, co-owner of Magic Kitchen & Catering in Saginaw, with her husband, Lee Williams.
First come choices specific to soul food, such as pig feet, pig ears, ham hocks, and chitterlings. Chitterlings are made of hot intestines, neck bones, or ox tails, and are rarely consumed in Northern regions outside of black culture, although the Mississippi-born Mosley says Southern whites also partake.
Second on the soul food menu are cross-ethnic foods that virtually all cultures share, such as fried chicken and fish, and pork or beef ribs. Side dishes include macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and the equivalent of spinach: collard, turnip, or mustard greens.
Betty Williams defines soul food as “a way of food preparation” that involves a great deal of attention and effort, often with instinctive hand-measuring of ingredients. Spices come into play—not necessarily hot spices, but a creative mix involving seasonings such as paprika, lemon pepper, and seasoned salt.
For her part, Mosley offers a succinct definition of soul food: “Southern cooking.”
She elaborates on the use of animal extremities, often summed up by non-partakers who ask how in the world anyone could consume a pig’s innards, one of the ingredients in chitterlings. Thorough cleansing is required, of course, and the intestines shrink like bacon while they are slow-cooked. In fact, chitterling, or “chitlin,” devotees are as passionate about chitterlings as the general population is for bacon.
“Black people didn’t have the means down South to keep the premium parts of a hog, such as the hams and the shoulders, and so we learned to make do with what was remaining and available,” Mosley explains.
Light House Bakery & Deli in Saginaw sells mostly baked goods, desserts, and deli meats, but Mosley reserves Tuesdays and the occasional Friday for soul food meals. One common meal is ox tail stew, serving as an example of how animal parts once considered disposable have attained premium ranking. Ox tails nowadays retail at grocers for $5.99 a pound.
Williams says cooks who wish to venture into preparing soul food might want to begin with more familiar items, such as fried chicken. The first priority is to go beyond the same-old salt and pepper seasoning, and to mix flour with her paprika, lemon pepper, and seasoned salt blend. The second step is to deep fry, not pan fry, the chicken, making sure not to crowd too many pieces of chicken into the grease. She also recommends using corn oil.
Williams adds ham hocks to the slow-simmer process, while Mosley goes with bacon grease, which she says should always be preserved. Both soul food proprietors agree that greens are a must on the side.
The meal would not be complete without dessert. Williams favors peach cobbler, made popular by the abundance of peaches in the South, especially in Georgia. Mosley recommends a 7UP® pound cake made with carbonated soda, a pecan pie, or a caramel layer cake.
Delorese Grant, head cook at Saginaw’s Neighborhood House, grew up on a family farm in Guyana, where she says soul food takes on a Caribbean culture with dishes such as jerk chicken, curry duck, and dirty rice.
At her Saginaw home, Sundays are reserved for family soul food dinners for which Grant is free to choose the menu. A recent Sunday featured fried tilapia, fried cabbage, and steamed rice.
“When I tell the kids we’re having soul food, they’re ready to eat,” Grant says. “My definition of soul food is that when you’re cooking, you put your heart and soul into it. We all need to be able to enjoy something in life.”
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