The Importance of Soul Food

A Black History Month Celebration of Southern Cooking

Cover of  'Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family.'

Norma Jean Darden's book 'Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family' features family recipes. hide caption

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Cover of 'Vertamae Cooks in The Americas' Family Kitchen'

Vertamae Grosvenor's book of Afro-Atlantic recipes, 'Vertamae Cooks in The Americas' Family Kitchen'. hide caption

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Black-eyed peas, rice, yams, greens, okra and cornbread. To commemorate Black History Month, Talk of the Nation looks at the story of African Americans through the lens of southern cooking, often known as soul food.

The very fact that certain foods are even on the menu in most American restaurants today tells a story of how Africans came to this country and what happened when they got here. The discussion also covers how Southern cooking has come to be known by some as soul food, what that means and what it doesn't, and how the term "soul food" has come to mean more than just food.

Discussing the importance of soul food and family cooking are NPR's Vertamae Grosvenor, author of Vertamae Cooks in the Americas' Family Kitchen, and Norma Jean Darden, co-author of Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences from a Black Family and the owner of the Harlem eateries Spoonbread Too: Miss Mamie's and Miss Maude's.

Below are recipes from Grosvenor and Darden.

Southern Fried Chicken

(From Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine by Norma Jean and Carole Darden)

One 2 ½- to 3-pound chicken, cut into serving pieces.

Salt and pepper to suit taste

One 3-pound can solid vegetable shortening

In a brown paper or plastic bag place:

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon dry mustard

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon garlic powder

Wash the chicken pieces in cold water, leaving some moisture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place a few pieces of chicken at a time in bag and shake until evenly coated. Melt the vegetable shortening in a Dutch oven or large skillet. If the fat sizzles when a drop of water hits it, drop in the coated chicken pieces. Fry until golden brown, then drain on paper towels.

Make 4 servings

Spoonbread

(From Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine by Norma Jean and Carole Darden)

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 cups boiling water

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, well beaten

1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375°. Slowly add cornmeal to the boiling water, stirring constantly until thick and smooth. Add butter and salt and cool to lukewarm. Then add eggs and milk. Beat for 2 minutes, then pour into greased casserole dish and bake for 35 minutes or until golden brown. Spoon out while piping hot and pass the butter!

Makes 8 servings

South Carolina Shrimp Perlou

(From Vertamae Cooks in the Americas' Family Kitchen by Vertamae Grosvenor)

1 pound medium-sized shrimp

2 ½ cups water

2 tablespoons favorite crab boil

1 small yellow onion

3 cloves garlic

2 tomatoes

3 thick slices bacon

1 cup long-grain white rice

Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Peel the shrimp, reserving the shells. Make a shallow incision along the back of each shrimp and lift out and discard the vein-like tract. Cover and refrigerate the shrimp.

Place the shrimp shells in a saucepan and add the water and the crab boil seasoning. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, uncovered for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain the stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a measuring pitcher; you should have 2 cups. Set the stock aside.

Meanwhile, chop the onion and mince the garlic. Peel and chop the tomatoes. In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the paper towels to drain. Add the onion, garlic, and rice to the bacon drippings remaining in the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until all the ingredients are coated with the oil and rice kernels are beginning to turn opaque, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, and the reserved 2 cups stock. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the liquid is nearly absorbed, 20 to 30 minutes.

Stir in the shrimp, re-cover, and cook until the shrimp turn pink and the liquid is fully absorbed, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, crumble the bacon over the top, and serve.

Makes 6 servings

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