In his 1993 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” Southern food scholar John Egerton had said that no one had written the definitive tribute to African American cooking.
A decade later, Adrian Miller, a lawyer who worked on a race reconciliation project at the White House during the Clinton administration, read Egerton’s book and reached out to find out if he still thought that statement was still true.
Edgerton said he hadn’t seen anyone since Edna Lewis write so thoroughly on black foodways, so Miller set out to do so.
That book, “Soul Food,” which came out last year, ended up winning the James Beard Award for Miller’s scholarly, yet engaging, approach to demystifying the namesake cuisine as not worthy of celebration because it’s roots are in slavery and that it should have a warning label because it’s unhealthy.
“I had no qualification except eating it a lot and cooking it some,” he told a crowd gathered under the Central Market cooking tent at the Texas Book Festival late Saturday morning.
As part of his research, he traveled across the country, eating at 150 soul food restaurants in 35 cities and 15 states. “I actually lost weight while I was doing that,” he said, in part because of the healthy approach that many soul food cooks are taking these days, including reducing their use of salt, fat and sugar and embracing veganism.
The book looks at a representative soul food meal and breaks it down into its parts: fried chicken and catfish, greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, hot sauce, desserts and, his favorite, red drinks.
“Red is a flavor” in African American communities, he said, and the white man who invented Kool Aid in Nebraska in 1929 doesn’t get credit for it. Red drinks have been integral to Africans for centuries because of the native cola nut and hibiscus plants. Cola nuts, and the red teeth you’d get if you chewed on them often, were a sign of wealth and hospitality.
Sweet potato pie, mac and cheese and chicken and waffles have all been considered royalty foods, and it’s Miller’s goal to help those food regain their elevated status through education about where they come from and how they’ve evolved, especially through migration, both from Africa to North America through the slave trade, and throughout the U.S. after the Civil War and again during the Civil Rights Movement.
Throughout his talk, Miller demonstrated how to make turnip and mustard greens simmers with a smoked turkey leg and a traditional hibiscus tea. He also commented about what he’s working on next: getting soul food into space. “NASA said no crumbs, so we can’t send cornbread, and no chitlins because you can’t roll down the windows.”