The historian and scholar John Hope Franklin used to tell the story about the end of segregation in the South.
Blacks in his town were excited by the prospect: At last they would get to see what the white folks ate. But their first trips to previously all-white restaurants quickly turned to disappointment.
Southern whites were eating ham hocks, cornbread and collard greens. They were eating the same things we were, he would say.
The Black version of the food, of course, came to be known as soul food. And like other folk cuisines, in recent years it has split in two directions.
Most soul food is still the old-fashioned, down-home food that has been feeding families for generations. But there has also been a surge in upscale, gentrified soul food — soul food with a modern touch. We're talking collard greens pesto, charred okra and blueberry-sweet-tea-brined chicken thighs.
Give me the down-home soul food any day. You know, the soul food with soul.
I made a big batch of six old-school soul-food recipes, just right for a big Sunday dinner.
Much soul food falls into three main preparations: fried, smothered with gravy and cooked at a low temperature for a long time. The dishes I made fell neatly into all three categories.
I began, naturally, with smothered pork chops. It just isn’t Sunday dinner if there aren’t pork chops smothered in a gravy with plenty of onions.
Half of the flavor comes from a simple rub that coats the chops before they are pan-fried. Onion powder, garlic powder, seasoning salt and pepper work their magic on the naturally sweet pork. A light dredge through flour creates a thin but beneficial crust on the chops, which are then cooked in the always desirable combination of olive oil and butter (that part probably is less old-school than the others).
To keep the pork from drying out, cook it just until the moment the pinkness inside disappears — you can actually cook it just a little bit pink and still be safe, according to the FDA.
The other half of the flavor is the gravy. You begin with some of the leftover fat in the pan, which flavors the onions and garlic, and provides a robust basis for a quick roux. A combination of chicken broth and buttermilk creates just the right consistency for a heavy and hearty gravy.
In the category of fried foods, I made fried catfish, although fried chicken would have been equally traditional. Like the pork chops, the catfish is dredged through flour before frying, but this time the flour is mixed with cornmeal, which creates a satisfying crunch.
A handful of spices (garlic powder, cayenne, celery seed, paprika and black pepper) are mixed in, too, so the crust dazzles the taste buds before yielding to the soft sweetness of the catfish.
If you disparage catfish as a bottom feeder, and I know many people who do, you can use the same technique to cook other thin fish such as tilapia and trout with equally excellent results.
Another soul food necessity — an absolute necessity — is macaroni and cheese. Here I decided to go a little fancy. Instead of making a typical, average mac and cheese, I made a recipe we ran in the Post-Dispatch several years ago for Sweetie Pie’s Macaroni and Cheese.
This is restaurant mac and cheese, as opposed to family mac and cheese, and the calorie count reflects that fact. But so does the taste, the rich, smooth, creamy, soul-embracing taste. Also, and I cannot emphasize this enough, it is Sweetie Pie’s macaroni and cheese.
Perhaps you make macaroni and cheese with one kind of cheese. Maybe you make it with two. It is even possible you get it out of a shiny blue box with powdered orange stuff, which I guess technically counts as cheese?
Not Sweetie Pie’s. This insanely addictive dish is made from sharp cheddar, mild cheddar (or American), Velveeta and Colby-Jack, which is actually two cheeses but I am only going to count it as one.
Plus, it has evaporated milk, whole milk and butter. If you’re lactose-intolerant, perhaps you shouldn’t try it. That is a shame, because there may be literally nothing better to eat on this Earth.
Cornbread is almost as constant a fixture at Sunday dinner as macaroni and cheese. There are three basic ways to make cornbread — plain, sweet and spicy — and I made mine the soul food way: sweet.
I am not ashamed to admit that the basis for my recipe came from the carton for Quaker Oats cornmeal. That makes a frankly delicious cornbread, but it isn’t sweet and it isn’t soulful. So I made two changes that shot it into the realm of soul.
The first was to use buttermilk instead of whole milk; buttermilk adds a faint tang that dances with the sweetness of the cornmeal. The other was to add honey, which layers an undertone of rich, earthy depth to the dish.
It is almost like cake, and it is amazing.
Naturally, I also made collard greens, which is one of those dishes that needs to be cooked slowly at a low temperature.
The long, slow simmer is needed to turn the tough greens into something delightfully tender. But the technique also brings out the most of the greens’ hearty flavor, as well as allowing the tastes added in the cooking liquid to come out — onion, garlic, paprika (some of these ingredients may begin to seem familiar), bacon grease, Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, crushed red pepper and ham hocks.
Or at least it should have ham hocks. But ham hocks have been difficult to find recently, for reasons I don’t quite understand. The last time I needed them, I substituted smoked ham shanks. This time, I went with smoked turkey tails. These have some wonderful meat in them, but you have to dig through quite a lot of fat to get to it. Next time, if I can’t find the hocks, I’ll use a smoked turkey leg.
Finally, I made another standard soul-food dish, oxtails. These became part of soul food because they were so inexpensive, but like so many other cheap-but-great cuts of meat that have been discovered they have suddenly become much more expensive.
Nevertheless, I persisted. Oxtails, which are actually made from the tail of a cow, are another slow-cooking dish. I used a slow cooker, though they could also be made on a stovetop or in an oven, to cook the tails in a sauce made from beef broth, onion, garlic and Worcestershire sauce.
The flavors in this sauce highlight the rich beefiness of the oxtails, which slowly turn meltingly tender as they cook.
And they are good. They are so good. I had mine with cornbread and collard greens. It was a satisfying meal with soul.
Soul food recipes
RECIPE: Fried Catfish
Yield: 4 servings
Oil for frying
1 cup buttermilk or milk
4 catfish fillets
¾ cup fine cornmeal (not coarsely ground)
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon celery seed
Hot sauce, optional
1. If cooking more than 2 fillets, place a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet and preheat oven to 200 degrees.
2. In a heavy frying pan, preferably cast iron, pour in enough oil to come ½ inch up the sides of the pan. Heat on medium-high.
3. Pour buttermilk or milk into an elongated dish or bowl. Put catfish in dish to soak.
4. Mix together the cornmeal, flour, garlic powder, pepper, paprika, cayenne and celery seed, and place in a shallow dish for dredging.
5. Allow the oil to reach 350 degrees (if you do not have a cooking thermometer, flick a little of the dredging mixture into the oil. If it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.)
6. Season the catfish with salt and dredge 1 fillet in the cornmeal mixture. Shake off the excess and gently lay the fish in the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillet. Use a metal spatula to gently turn the fish over and fry on the other side for another 2 to 4 minutes.
7. Remove to a platter if cooking 1 or 2 fillets, or to the rack-covered baking sheet if cooking more than 2. Place the baking sheet in the oven to keep cooked fish warm and crispy while cooking the rest of the fish.
8. Repeat with the rest of the fillets. Keep an eye on the oil temperature; cast iron retains heat, so you may have to lower the heat on the burner. The oil should be kept around 350 degrees.
9. Serve with hot sauce, if desired.
Slightly adapted from simplyrecipes.com
RECIPE: Southern Collard Greens
Yield: 8 servings
6 small bunches or 2 large bunches collard greens
1 extra-large and meaty smoked ham hock, see note
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon bacon grease
1 tablespoon seasoned salt
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or less if desired
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ cup onion, finely chopped
Note: If you cannot find ham hocks, use another piece of smoked pork or smoked turkey.
1. Place the greens in a clean sink and rinse them thoroughly to remove all grit, sand and debris. Rinse under cold water until the water runs clear.
2. Pull and tear greens away from tough stems. Roll up a handful of greens and cut the roll crosswise into small pieces.
3. Rinse the ham hock and add to a large pot with enough water to fully submerge it. Cover and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes until the meat is nearly tender.
4. Add the greens and enough water to barely cover them. Add the sugar, bacon grease, seasoned salt, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, red pepper, garlic powder, paprika and onion.
5. Cook at a low simmer until completely tender, at least 2 hours. There should always be enough liquid to cover the greens; if the liquid evaporates below the top of the greens, add more water and cover for the rest of the cooking.
6. When you are done cooking, you can save and refrigerate the liquid — called pot likker — and use to make soups, stews, gravy or to cook dried beans.
Per serving: 160 calories; 7g fat; 3g saturated fat; 55mg cholesterol; 18g protein; 5g carbohydrate; 4g sugar; 1g fiber; 929mg sodium; 60mg calcium
Slightly adapted from grandbaby-cakes.com
RECIPE: Smothered Pork Chops
Yield: 4 servings
4 bone-in pork chops
1½ teaspoons onion powder
1½ teaspoons garlic powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon seasoning salt
½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme, or ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup chicken broth
¾ cup buttermilk or heavy cream
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
1. Pat the pork chops dry with paper towels to remove any moisture. Season with onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, seasoning salt, pepper and 2 teaspoons of the olive oil.
2. Dredge each chop in the flour; shake off the excess and keep the remaining flour.
3. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet or pan over medium heat. When hot, fry the pork chops in a single layer on each side until golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes per side (if using boneless pork chops, cook 2 minutes per side). Remove from the pan and keep warm.
4. Pour out all but 1 tablespoon of the fat in the pan and heat over medium heat. Add sliced onions and a pinch of salt. Cook while stirring occasionally, until soft and caramelized, about 10 minutes. (Add 1 tablespoon of the chicken broth if the pan becomes too dry.)
5. Add the garlic and thyme; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons of the remaining flour to the pan. Mix the flour into the onions and cook to dissolve, about 2 minutes.
6. Pour in the chicken broth, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Let the liquid reduce and thicken slightly, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the buttermilk or cream and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes until thick and creamy.
7. Return the pork chops to the pan. Coat them in the sauce and let simmer until the pork is completely cooked through, about 5 minutes. The sauce will continue to thicken as it cooks; if it becomes too thick, add a little cream or broth to thin it out to your desired consistency.
8. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed. Garnish with the chopped parsley before serving. Serve warm.
Per serving: 430 calories; 27g fat; 11g saturated fat; 121mg cholesterol; 27g protein; 20g carbohydrate; 3g sugar; 2g fiber; 781mg sodium; 78mg calcium
Slightly adapted from a recipe from cafedelites.com
RECIPE: Easy Buttermilk Cornbread
Yield: 10 servings
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup cornmeal
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup honey
¼ cup vegetable oil (preferably corn oil)
1 egg, beaten
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8- or 9-inch pan or cast-iron skillet. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir in buttermilk, honey, oil and egg, mixing just until dry ingredients are moistened (do not overmix).
2. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until light golden brown and wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean (an 8-inch skillet will take 25 to 30 minutes). Serve warm.
Per serving: 152 calories; 2g fat; 1g saturated fat; 21mg cholesterol; 4g protein; 33g carbohydrate; 13g sugar; 1g fiber; 155mg sodium; 121mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by Quaker Oats
RECIPE: Sweetie Pie's Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 10 servings
8 to 10 ounces elbow macaroni
½ cup whole milk
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1½ teaspoons ground white pepper
1½ teaspoons granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, cut into small pieces
½ pound Velveeta, cut into small chunks
8 ounces Colby-Jack cheese (or 4 ounces Colby and 4 ounces Monterey Jack), shredded
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup shredded American or mild cheddar cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil; cook pasta according to package directions, just until al dente. (Do not overcook.) Drain well; place in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
2. In the pasta pot, combine whole milk, evaporated milk and eggs; whisk in salt to taste, pepper and sugar, mixing until thoroughly combined. Pour milk mixture over macaroni.
3. Add butter, Velveeta, Colby-Jack and sharp cheddar cheeses. Stir well. Sprinkle the top with American or mild cheddar cheese.
4. Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until top is lightly browned.
Per serving: 510 calories; 34g fat; 21g saturated fat; 140mg cholesterol; 23g protein; 28g carbohydrate; 8g sugar; 1g fiber; 670mg sodium; 440mg calcium.
Recipe from Sweetie Pie’s restaurants adapted for home kitchens by the Post-Dispatch.
RECIPE: Southern Smothered Oxtails
Yield: 4 servings
2½ pounds beef oxtails
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1¼ cups all-purpose flour, divided
¾ cup vegetable oil
3 cups beef broth or water
1 large yellow onion, sliced
2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
1. Season the oxtails with the salt and pepper. Drizzle with Worcestershire sauce and toss until coated. Sprinkle with ¼ cup of the flour and toss to coat.
2. Heat the oil in a large pan, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Place the oxtails in a single layer with plenty of space between them (you will have to do this in batches) and brown on both sides. Remove to a slow cooker. If you are not using a slow cooker, place in a Dutch oven.
3. If there are burnt pieces in the pan, strain out the oil, clean the pan and return the strained oil to the pan.
4. Whisking constantly, add the remaining 1 cup of flour to the pan a little bit at a time. When the flour is about the color and texture of peanut butter, slowly add the broth or water, still whisking all the time. Whisk until the mixture is smooth with no lumps.
5. Raise the temperature to high and bring the gravy to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions and garlic.
6. Add the gravy to the slow cooker or Dutch oven. If using a slow cooker, cook on high temperature for 4 hours or low temperature for 6 hours. If using a Dutch oven, cover and cook at a very slow simmer for 3 to 4 hours, stirring once an hour. The oxtails are done when they are fork tender and nearly falling off the bone.
7. Serve with rice or mashed potatoes.
Per serving: 1,230 calories; 94g fat; 44g saturated fat; 70mg cholesterol; 59g protein; 36g carbohydrate; 3g sugar; 2g fiber; 1,618mg sodium; 35mg calcium