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Soul Food, An Edible Identity

I was raised in the South, by Yankees who had relocated to my hometown on the Texas coast from Michigan and Wisconsin. It was an odd upbringing, experiencing bland dishes (common where snow stayed on the ground from December to June) at home, while experiencing bright, flavorful dishes that fully earned their moniker “soul food” at my friends’ houses. Southern food always meant sunshine and laughter to my child’s palate, and Yankee food as colorless as the winter snow.

Not that “Yankee” food is bad, but, many of the dishes I grew up with were mild. Rice and milk. Meatloaf. Oatmeal. Cheerios. Cream of Wheat. Potato soup. Potatoes and sauerbraten. Ok, sauerbraten isn’t mild, it’s… well… sour, and German. My upbringing had a lot of German influences, because that’s who settled in the Northern States. Like the English, German traditions often involve growing root vegetables that keep all winter long, and then cooking the snot out of them. Heavy, bland, stick-to-your-ribs food, accompanied by pickled vegetables of one form or another. It wasn’t exactly exciting.

Cheerios, the usual fare at my house in my childhood
Cheerios, the usual fare at my house in my childhood

No, exciting were the flavors of soul food. We had a family of color that lived across the street from us when I was growing up in the seventies. Their kids and my brother and sister and I hit it off almost immediately. We loved them desperately, and spent almost all our time together. During the school year, I am rumored to have turned up my nose at the oatmeal or Cheerios I was getting at home, and run across the street before I had to get the school bus, just to see what kind of delicious food they were having for breakfast. I’d plead that my mother hadn’t made me any breakfast in the hopes of tagging along for their culinary ride.

Instead of turning away the waifish child, I was welcomed in to eat. Their mother, Edwina, knew the score, of that I am certain. She knew I was not eating my food at home so I could eat her cooking. I do not think she minded, because she greeted me at the door with a wide smile and open arms. In her kitchen, warm with activity and kisses and shouts of “where’s my shoes!?” I was introduced to hominy, and home fries, sausage and bacon, to the idea of putting hot sauce on eggs, and shrimp on grits. Or cheese on grits. Or red eye gravy.. or ham hocks.. the flavors would really wake me up and I’d ride the bus with a full belly and a smile, thinking about that food until lunch.

Southern Comfort Breakfast
Southern Comfort Breakfast

Their family was generations deep in East Texas. Their culinary traditions hailed back generations, and they were the very definition of soul food. A couple of times, they invited me to their family reunions, held in dappled shade and the warm bemusement of long relationships. It was an adventure to me, because they were a few hours away, which meant I’d get to spend an entire day playing with dozens of other children, eating big plates of soul food, getting my cheeks pinched and my hair tousled. I learned those summers that soul food isn’t collard greens and cornbread. Soul food is food that feeds the soul.

That isn't me, but I'm pretty sure we looked a lot like that.
That isn’t me, but I’m pretty sure we looked a lot like that. Photo Credit: Nisa & Ulli Maier, of cookiesound.com

I remember piling my plate high with spicy cornbread, brown and crusty from the cast iron pan, butter beans with sausage, cabbage and collard greens cooked until just tender, and feeling their love for their family envelop and flow over and around me. Although i was a lone, tiny little tow-headed lightbulb in an ocean of warm chocolate skin, feeling very much out of place, I was brought in as family. Soul food tastes like love to me.

Southern cornbread made in a cast iron skillet, also known as The Right Way To Make Cornbread
Southern cornbread made in a cast iron skillet, also known as The Right Way To Make Cornbread

I have grown up to appreciate all the forms of Southern cooking, and understand now how my German heritage actually has brought some southern classics to the table, but that’s another article. I’ll fry up some juicy, tender fried chicken and mash some country potatoes and cream gravy. I always enjoy a good bowl of Cajun gumbo, while not typically thought of as southern, Cajun and Creole food has its influences on food of the south, too. Po boys, banana and mayo sandwiches, barbequed crabs and fried shrimp are all on the menu en mi casa, but nothing will ever say love to me like the soul food of the deep south.

Together, we can all appreciate soul food and love.
Together, we can all appreciate soul food and love.

Read more of my topical blogs here at AshevilleBlog.com and at ashevillewineandfood.com/blog all summer during the Asheville Wine & Food Festival.

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