Roundtable: Holiday Feasts

Guests: Joe Randall, head of the Chef Joe Randall Cooking School in Savannah, Ga.; Patty Pinner, author of Sweets: A Collection of Soul Food Desserts and Memoirs; and Vertamae Grosvenor, an NPR contributor, author and culinary anthropologist.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, millions of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with family and food, lots of food. We're talking turkey and stuffing, collards and sweet potato pie. Joining me now to talk about the legacy of Thanksgiving and soul food are, from Cumulus Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, Chef Joe Randall. He runs the Chef Joe Randall Cooking School in Savannah. At Just Studios(ph) in Royal Oak, Michigan, Patty Pinner. She's the author of "Sweets: A Collection of Soul Food, Desserts and Memoirs." And with me at NPR headquarters in Washington, DC, is Vertamae Grosvenor. She's an NPR contributor and culinary anthropologist. She's the author of three cookbooks, including the groundbreaking "Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl."

Thank you all for joining me. Appreciate...

Ms. PATTY PINNER (Author, "Sweets: A collection of Soul Food Desserts and Memoirs): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Appreciate it. Well, let me just jump right into this. If you had to bring one of your favorite dishes to a communal Thanksgiving table, Vertamae, what would you bring to a communal dinner?

VERTAMAE GROSVENOR (Cookbook Author and Culinary Anthropologist): I'd bring probably a fish dish. Maybe I might bring shrimp perloo or like a large fish, maybe, like what in Senegali make it--call it yassa. It's marinated in lemon and onions and things like that. But it would bring--it would be rice. Now that's a little country thing. South Carolina, Georgia, you're talking rice. In fact, if you didn't bring a rice dish, people would be talking about you.

CHIDEYA: And then, you know, when it comes to stuffing the turkey, some people stuff with rice, some people stuff with corn bread, some people stuff with white bread...

GROSVENOR: Oyster stuffing.

CHIDEYA: Oyster stuffing, absolutely. I'm from Maryland, and there's--oyster stuffing is popular there. Chef Joe, what would you bring?

Mr. JOE RANDALL (Head, Chef Joe Randall Cooking School): Oh, it's--you know, holidays were a great tradition at my house. My mother's from Virginia, and I was very fortunate to go into her kitchen. She told me once, she said, `You're supposed to be some kind of chef.' So that--meaning that from then on I could cook in her kitchen, but it meant under her supervision. So I was very fortunate that I was able to get in my mother's kitchen and learn from her hand to cook her candied yams, her green beans, you know, with the little fatback that had been cooked for two or three hours so that the green beans would have that distinct flavor and taste, and pour a little bacon grease on top just to finish. Candied yams, as I mentioned, and my mother made them distinctly. She baked her sweet potatoes all first, then cooled them, peeled them, sliced them, sauted them and buttered, sprinkled sugar, then covered them with maple syrup--no orange juice, no lemon, no marshmallows, none of that stuff to camouflage the taste of the sweet potatoes. So I probably would bring a big bowl of sweet potatoes to make a contribution so that people would remember the sweetness.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, I do have to say that I have had sweet potatoes every which way. There's the simple ones like you're talking about. There's one that my sister made, which was delicious, that had cumin in it and sage, so it was a little more savory. And then there's the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink--coconut, chocolate, marshmallows, until you can't taste the sweet potatoes at all. But that leads us to dessert. So, Patty, what would you bring to a communal feast?

Ms. PINNER: Well, I'd just like to preface that with, of course, the holidays were a time in my family to come together and to fellowship, you know, with food being the highlight of that dinner, but it was also a time for the women in my family to show off their culinary skills in keeping with that wanting-to-show-off kind of thing. I do my best when it comes to what my family called egg pie, and the other thing would be pineapple pie. Just some...

CHIDEYA: OK.

Ms. PINNER: ...crushed pineapple, eggs, butter, sugar.

GROSVENOR: Poundcake, too...

CHIDEYA: Mmm.

GROSVENOR: ...was very--is something that goes over very, very fast...

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. PINNER: Actually, it's a staple...

GROSVENOR: ...for me, too.

Ms. PINNER: ...I think, in the--you know, with soul food desserts. It is the staple, or a staple, I think.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's talk a little bit about sweet potato pie. Wasn't the sweet potato something that was really brought into American cooking by former slaves?

GROSVENOR: You were talking about the yams?

Ms. PINNER: Yeah, they were...

CHIDEYA: The yams were brought by Africans, but not sweet potatoes.

GROSVENOR: But that Africans didn't bring them. This is a--culinary historians make me crazy with that, talking about they brought benne seeds and things and watermelon seeds in their ear. Butt-naked people shackled? No. The trade did. The slave trade in the--came--that's what brought these things. But sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, and they look like--in fact, there's a legend that the reason we call them--these sweet potatoes `yams' is because the Africans--they so resembled the yams that they had known in their mother land.

CHIDEYA: So how much did the African tradition influence soul food cooking, Vertamae?

GROSVENOR: Well, I don't use the term soul food. I try to concentrate on what I call the African flavor in the Americas, throughout the Americas. And that's why so many things are similar, because of the climate, where these things only grow in a certain climate. So the South was ripe and ready, fertile soil for the gumbos and the jambalayas. A jambalaya is kin to jollof rice in Africa. And in South Carolina, where I'm from, we do what we call a perloo. And then you just find that throughout the Americas it's fascinating. When I went to Brazil for the first time, our hosts when we got there, they said, `When you freshen up and come down, we're going to prepare a feast for you of foods that you have never tasted.' And so we came--you know, came down and there's table with, you know, what they call the groaning table. It was laid out. So what did they fix? First of all, collard greens. Then we had, like, those perloos. There's shrimp and rice, okra. But they had no way of knowing that we were not just McDonald's children. You see what I'm saying?

CHIDEYA: Right.

GROSVENOR: Nothing at that time--nothing was written about the connection.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me go to Joe. Chef Joe, what about this whole sense of connection, that the African diaspora shares elements of foods? You run a cooking school in Savannah, which has a rich culinary history. What do you teach your students about where the foods that they're cooking come from?

Mr. RANDALL: Well, the early Africans that came to this country played a very important part in the development of the food of the South. I also take issue with this word `soul food' because we know--those of us who've studied food and history know that soul food came along with "Soul Train" and soul music in the '60s...

Ms. PINNER: Exactly.

Mr. RANDALL: ...and Africans and African-Americans have been cooking for 200 or 300 years. Surely soul food is a part of the African-American experience, but it's not the totality.

CHIDEYA: So let's forget about the word soul food. I hear a...

Mr. RANDALL: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: ...three-person down-vote on the language, but what about this African-American food or African diaspora food? What kind of traditions from Savannah, Chef Joe, do you try to transmit to your students, for example?

Mr. RANDALL: Well, Savannah here is in the bottom of the low country, so we do things like Savannah red rice. We do shrimp smothered with okra and tomatoes that we serve over rice. We prepare dishes that reflect that African-American table; surely candied yams, collard greens, mustard greens. So there's many similarities. There's a group here who went from South Carolina at St. Helen's Island to Senegal. And when they got there, they found that the food they ate was food that they had been familiar with all their lives. So it's not that much different. It's just a larger portion of meat that we have grown to eat today because of our ability to purchase and our buying power. It's something that always wasn't there. It was dishes with small bits of meat, lots of rice, and then gravies and a variety of different things in it. We ate what we hunted, we ate what we caught when we went fishing, and we ate, you know, whatever we grew in our garden or on our little farm and what we raised, be it hogs, be it chickens or cattle.

Ms. PINNER: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to ask all of you about something a little bit besides the food part, more the nutrition aspect. African-American cooking traditions--Chef Joe, you mentioned that traditionally there was not a ton of meat in the African-American cooking tradition. Now, of course, we have access to just about everything, including as much fat and sugar as we can cram down our gullets. But how can you follow the African-American tradition and keep it on the healthy side? I'm going to start with you, Chef Joe.

Mr. RANDALL: I think all food is healthy. You have to deal with it in moderation. So, you know, I don't care what cuisine--Italian, French or German--if you eat--or if you overeat, then it's going to be unhealthy for you. I cook with butter. I cook with cream. I make biscuits with lard. My mother lived to be 92 years and put half and half in everything. So I think sometimes it's not what we eat, but how much we eat that causes us to have a problem. And there are--some people tend to want to fix the problem by changing what we eat, but it's--fat is flavor, and you just have to be careful how you use it.

CHIDEYA: Some scientific studies have shown that fat will produce a feeling of fullness for much longer than other, you know, protein or carbohydrates, and so if you take out the fat, people actually eat more. But let me--I heard you chime in, Patty. What do you think about the moderation, the health, all that stuff?

Ms. PINNER: There's a very sensual side of soul food, especially for desserts. The way we like it, the way we cook it. It just calls for a couple more pats of butter, an extra tablespoon of sugar. I think moderation, like the chef said, that's the key. Because I put a poundcake in front of you, you don't have to eat the whole thing.

GROSVENOR: I agree, I agree. Consider collard greens. Now I remember I was on a TV show once and I was in a real dilemma because it was at the time the height of `don't use pork' and `don't use this--use the smoked turkey.' And so I decided not to put any meat in the collard greens, and I just used some garlic and herbs and seasoned it up. And they were very, very good, but I had a lot of flak from my mother because her--all her church people were looking. And then she said, `You know, you wasn't raised like that. I mean, there you are making them naked greens'...

CHIDEYA: That's funny.

GROSVENOR: ...you know?

CHIDEYA: Why, I have to say, my mom's recipe--which I follow for collards--is with tomato and onion and no meat, and it's delicious, you know? The tomato gives it a little sweetness to the base. And when I was growing up in Baltimore, the traditions that we would follow included the German traditions because there were so many Germans in Baltimore and somehow my family picked it up. So we would always have sauerkraut...

GROSVENOR: Mmm.

CHIDEYA: ...and then we also have some of the Indian traditions, corn pudding as well as everything else. So I think that, you know, for many of our African-American families, you just pick things up from where you are, you know, and it's not just a black tradition.

In that vein, let me ask about some of your favorite foods that you cook that are from other traditions. Patty, I heard you chime in.

Ms. PINNER: Tacos.

CHIDEYA: Always a good one.

Ms. PINNER: I'm from Saginaw, Michigan, and it's a small, little town, I guess, with a quite large Hispanic or Mexican population, and we kind of borrow from each other. And I love tacos.

CHIDEYA: Excellent. Vertamae?

GROSVENOR: I'll tell you what I used to do. When my children were coming along, I would take a country for one month, and we would have everything for two or three meals a day from that country.

CHIDEYA: Oh, that's exciting.

GROSVENOR: I found out some interesting things, like, you know, Greeks eat a lot of okra, and they got a collard green dish that they make. And so you find out that, `Hey, wait, it's just a matter of what the climate is, where these things grow.' So it's all the seasonings.

Mr. RANDALL: It's typical of how food evolved from the South throughout the rest of the country. As African-Americans left the South and went west, they took their Southern cooking talent and skill with them the same as when they came North. The chef that trained me, Robert W. Lee, was from Atlanta. I worked St. Simons Island in Georgia in the '30s. But in the '60s--from '39 to '67, he was at one hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and they cooked all Southern food. About 10 or 15 to--cooks from Atlanta all migrated north to work at the Harrisburg; this was pre-American region of cooking. It was just good food and bad food. And most of the good food had some Southern flavor.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's talk, you know, a little bit about what food can teach you before we wrap up here. Obviously when you look at the African-American cooking tradition, you do see the legacy of people who were thrown into a country that was unfamiliar to them, in different climates, you know, depending on where they ended up in the South--there tended to be a climate that could support some of the foods that they were more familiar with--and having to blend their idea of what tasted good with Colonial or Western or American idea of what tasted good. What can we learn historically from taking a look at food? Vertamae, I know that you spent a lot of time on this.

GROSVENOR: I went to Paris. I was 18 years old, I went to Paris. So I tried to reinvent myself. I was not going to be a geechee girl from South Carolina and eat all that old rice and everything. And when I got there and I met people who came from everywhere, places I couldn't find on the map--and they would all say, `Ooh, you know, let's go to this restaurant,' or, `Come to my house. I'll fix this dish that they're making in the north of my country,' or something, `or the south of my country.' And I go to--and you take the lid off the dish, and it's a rice dish. And so that's what I began learning. `Wait a minute. I'm part of the world. There's no need to be ashamed of being a rice eater.'

CHIDEYA: I love that. Patty, what about you? What has loving food and teaching other people about food taught you?

Ms. PINNER: What it's taught me is that I can be creative in the kitchen. I'm not a chef, you know. I'm a writer. And it's also taught me that recipes aren't written in stone; that when I put my heart and soul into what I'm cooking, that it turns out good and reflects who I am and the people that I'm feeding.

CHIDEYA: Chef Joe?

Mr. RANDALL: A reward for any cook is for other people to enjoy what you've prepared with your hands. And so every day I get an opportunity to cook what I want for people, and I'm fortunate enough to have them pay me to do that. But the joy is that they enjoy it. And I try to make sure everybody that leaves my cooking school leaves it with a little South in their mouth, and when I say that, I mean a little flavor.

CHIDEYA: I love that.

Mr. RANDALL: I just put a little cayenne pepper, you know, a little black pepper, a little white pepper or fresh peppers, fresh herbs. But I want them to taste the food. I don't put a salt and pepper shaker out because if I, as a professional, prepared the food, they shouldn't need one 'cause I should have seasoned it so it's ready to eat.

Ms. PINNER: You know...

Mr. RANDALL: And so that's the joy for me.

CHIDEYA: So the word on the street is, `Do not bring that salt and pepper shaker near my delicious food.' We're going to have to end on that note. We've been talking with Georgia Chef Joe Randall. He runs Chef Joe Randall Cooking School in Savannah. At Just Studios in Michigan, we've had Patty Pinner. She's the author of "Sweets: A Collection of Soul Food, Desserts and Memoirs." And with me at NPR headquarters, we've had Vertamae Grosvenor, NPR contributor, author of three cookbooks, including the groundbreaking "Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl." Thank you all so much for joining me.

Mr. RANDALL: Thank you.

Ms. PINNER: Thanks for having me.

GROSVENOR: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Coming up, gospel superstar Donnie McClurkin on psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. DONNIE McCLURKIN: You know, we can't sit by ...(unintelligible) leaning on, I say...

Chorus: (Singing) ...leaning on the Lord.

Mr. McCLURKIN: (Singing) Hey, you know we're trusting...

Chorus: (Singing) Trusting in his holy words.

Mr. McCLURKIN: (Singing) Oh, he never fails.

Chorus: (Singing) He never fails, yeah.

Mr. McCLURKIN: (Singing) Oh, sing it.

Chorus: (Singing) Oh, just turn around. We've come this far again.

Mr. McCLURKIN: (Singing) She ...(unintelligible). Don't you know (unintelligible).

Chorus: (Singing) ...come this far every day.

Mr. McCLURKIN: (Singing) (Singing) Every day, Jesus, and we're leaning...

Chorus: (Singing) ...leaning on the Lord.

Mr. McCLURKIN: (Singing) Oh, don't you know trust...

Chorus: (Singing) Trust in him...

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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