While many find the taste of traditional soul food like fried chicken, catfish and grits enticing, when these foods are not consumed in moderation, like anything else, they can pose health risks.
But soul food as a sector of cuisine is not unhealthy, said Marcus Samuelsson, the award-winning chef and food activist, and the founder and owner of Red Rooster in Harlem, Marcus B&P in Newark, and NoHu Rooftop in Weehawken, and author of “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food.”
“We have so many healthy foods in our communities,” Samuelsson said.
Edna Lewis worked throughout her life to re-imagine southern cooking and soul food. Lewis, a chef and cookbook author, encouraged the use of fresh and seasonal vegetables with every meal, most notably greens, which have been incorporated in many of her recipes like silken turnip and potato soup.
Those traditional foods are only the starting point in relation to the new ideas being created around soul food, and soul food’s return to the blueprint of the African diet.
“Soul food gets a bad rap. It is really the standard American diet that is the problem,” said Detroit’s Dr. Akua Woolbright, National Nutrition Program Director at Whole Cities Foundation.
Woolbright lived in Ghana for a few months and noticed that in West Africa they are not eating “breakfast food,” so beans might be eaten in the morning. “People are eating what’s available to them in their natural environment,”
And what’s available for Black people in America is not always good.
Food deserts — areas where there is a lack of access to fresh foods — exist in many Black communities.
Samuelsson was born in a desert in Ethiopia. He says deserts are not man-made. The “food deserts” in America should instead be called “food apartheid,” intentionally put in place so that Black people do not have access [to healthy food and more], the aftershocks of Jim Crow.
“Places like Harlem, Detroit, there were amazing mom-and-pop restaurants in Black communities,” Samuelsson said.
In the 1950s in these areas, there was almost no presence of fast-food restaurants.
Those mom-and-pop restaurants went out of business for many reasons: landlords didn’t want to rent to Black people, they had no access to capital from banks — that’s structural, institutional racism, Samuelsson said.
When vegetables and fresh foods were ripped out of communities and replaced by fast food places, “it made the food cheap,” Samuelsson said. “Those mom-and-pops disappeared because they couldn’t compete.”
Woolbright calls areas laden with fast-food restaurants “food swamps” — an overabundance of convenience foods, dollar store foods and fast-food restaurants.
But now, people in these communities are doing something about it, Woolbright said.
She has observed a rise in urban farming, food trucks and food stands, where people are going out of their way to make fresh foods available to them and their community.
A conversation on the history of Black cuisine in America
Black chefs and authors, Chef Marcus Samuelsson, Chef Thérèse Nelson, Chef David Rose, and Chef Ameer Natson discuss the origins of soul food and how Black chefs have contributed to American food.
Miguel Fernandez, NorthJersey.com
“Black people again are becoming very resourceful in how to have access to fresh healthy foods,” Woolbright said.
In 2012, Woolbright moved to Detroit to help start a healthy food movement with Whole Foods Market, which transitioned into the nonprofit Whole Cities Foundation. A part of the foundation is the Let’s Talk Food program.
“We teach classes in communities around the country with a special focus in Detroit, Chicago and Newark,” she said. “My promise is that we are a go-to place for sound nutrition advice.”
Vegan soul food is becoming popular, although Woolbright says to be cautious of fake vegan meats, like vegan catfish or fried chicken, because they often include high amounts of sodium, preservatives and soy isolates.
“We need the same creativity that we have in music and clothing as we look to tweak our lifestyles,” Woolbright said. ” … I have been vegan since 1990. My son is 16 — he’s been vegan since the womb and we often have soul food Sundays.”
Among the plant-based options Woolbright has are foods such as “savory collard greens with smoked sea salt or smoked paprika to give it more flavor. You may want to add tomatoes or mushrooms for more heartiness. We may include sweet potatoes, cabbage, corn on the cob, cornbread. And then if I’m getting really decadent, I may add in some barbecue tofu or fried tofu.”
NoHu Rooftop in Weehawken, where Samuelsson is chef, serves a southern food with a modern twist. You can try the pickled shrimp and ceviche, or chicken and waffles, or succotash (white beans, corn, and tomato).
Black chefs know how to innovate and are up for the challenge, Woolbright said.
The community should see “what they can do with eggplant, collard green, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, to give us that same mouthful flavor,” she said. “If a chef can do that, they could have a huge following.”
Samuelsson is optimistic about the future of Black cuisine.
“I feel we have a generation of African-American chefs that are incredible, like chef Adrienne Cheatham and chef Edouardo Jordan,” he said. “I know that we are going to eat well from Black cooks and going to hear from Black cooks in many ways.”
And Samuelsson is adamant about creating a plethora of opportunities for people of color.
“If you want to talk to your family about race and ask ‘How can I help?’ I think this is an amazing year to do that,” he said, “and come around the table and share and learn about someone else’s traditions.”