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Black History Spotlight: Black Chefs Fighting For The Soul of Soul Food




by G. Brown

When you hear a menu of fried chicken, collard greens, fried okra, chitlins, oxtails, and mac ‘n cheese the next thought you have is ‘Yum, soul food’. The term soul food didn’t come into fruition until the 1960s under the Black Power movement, before that we just called it ‘Sunday dinner’ or Grandma’s best. The dishes we’ve grown to love as soul food is a tasty tether back to the African continent.

Africans forced into slavery prepared dishes that reminded them of their homeland.  As slaves, they were given rations of food like catfish, chitterlings, greens, and neckbones.  Some say slaves were given the foods their masters didn’t want but they turned those scraps into mouth-water cuisine that was adopted into Southern culture, eventually introduced to the North and is now as much a part of American culture as the grand old flag.

Slaves and Black cooks created food so sought after that President Benjamin Harrison fired his French cooking staff to hire a Black woman name Dolly Johnson to prepare his meals. (Wikipedia)

Just as with music, fashion, and other cultural trends, Blacks are often mimicked but seldom given the credit for their culinary accomplishments.

NBC News says, “Dismissed for too long, black chefs are trying to revise a whitewashed history of American food that treats black culinary achievements as second-class.” Yet name one major food chain that hasn’t borrowed from these “second-class” cuisines—KFC, Popeyes, Bojangles, Church’s…all remain in the top 10 chicken franchises because of that greasy, fried chicken.

An Austin, Texas-based journalist and author puts it this way, “African American chefs have always been with us. Dating back to enslavement, well-trained plantation and pastry cooks and free entrepreneurs of color… But it takes effort to find evidence of black culinary accomplishment. Their stories are buried within sources intended to promote white supremacy and black subservience, not to celebrate or credit black knowledge.”

NBC says the history of some of America’s greatest chefs has been whitewashed along with much of its history. But there are people like Tonya Hopkins who is fighting to change that.  Hopkins is producing segments for podcasts and publications to rewrite history and educate people about the role Blacks played historically in America’s food obsession. Hopkins says, “This whole historic ‘under the radar’ thing has everything to do with intentional, systemic and psychological racism – American style.

People like Hopkins are on social media and any channel or platform that will give them a voice, but it’s still an uphill battle.  As we’ve seen with battles to take down Confederate statues and monuments, America likes the version of history that has been the norm and rarely likes to alter it even if means telling the truth.

The title “Between Harlem and Heaven” is a book co-written by Black Chef Alexander Smalls and JJ Johnson. Smalls says giving chefs their due is important because it opens doors to funding and money to help these cooks and chefs become restaurant owners and entrepreneurs.  Smalls says, “I not only had to own my seat at the table; I had to own the table, Had I not had ownership, you would not have heard about Alexander Smalls.”

This Black History month as you dine on Sunday feasts of fried chicken, collard greens and homemade biscuits, give a moment of silence in honor of all those unheard of cooks who poured their souls into creating the best of soul food.

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