MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Thanksgiving is right around the corner. And if you are like most Americans, your shopping list will include the cranberries for your sauce, bread for your stuffing and, of course, a big, fat turkey. But if you are African-American, that meal - or, for that matter, any holiday meal - will not be complete without a big platter of mac and cheese, collard greens and maybe a big, tall glass of sweet tea or, dare we say it, Kool-Aid, which is then followed - if you follow the health writers and your relatives - with a big side dish of recrimination as they chastise you for eating food they may consider unhealthful reminders of the slave era.
But now we're going to hear from somebody who says enough of that in his carefully researched new book "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." Writer Adrian Miller aims to give soul food a very public makeover. And in the process, we hope he will add some soul to our holiday table. Adrian Miller, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us.
ADRIAN MILLER: Thank you. Glad to break cornbread with you.
MARTIN: Well, before we literally dig into this cornbread - which smells amazing - you - I have to talk about you. You were a practicing lawyer. You were a special assistant to President Bill Clinton. You are not a chef. You are a cook, but you are not a chef. How did you become so interested in this topic?
MILLER: So it was related to President Clinton. So once his term ended, I was in-between jobs, watching way too much daytime television. And so I decided I needed to read a book. And so I bought a book called "Southern Food" by John Egerton. And in that book, he said the tribute to black cooks has yet to be written. So with the only qualifications of eating the food a lot and cooking it some, I dove in.
MARTIN: Why did you feel - or why do you feel - that soul food requires a makeover?
MILLER: Well, I just think it has such a horrible reputation. You know, it's just viewed as unhealthy. Like, soul food's going to kill you if you eat a lot of it. And I think the second thing is this idea that it's slave food. And that's the sum of African-American cooking. And I think it's more complex than that. And I just see other ethnic cuisines getting great treatment and being celebrated. I wanted the same for soul food.
MARTIN: Is soul food the same as Southern food?
MILLER: I don't think so. There's a lot of overlap, hence the confusion because there are a lot of common ingredients. But I think of soul food as the limited repertoire of Southern food. And it's really about the food that black migrants from the South took with them to other parts of the country. And they did what other migrants do when they got to a new place - they tried to re-create home, often through food. And if they couldn't get the same ingredient, they found substitutes. And so it becomes this national cuisine over time.
MARTIN: So in the same way that the food that we consume as Italian food - or pizza, or something like that - is really a minor part of the cuisine of Italy. It's a big part of the cuisine of the Italian diaspora. You're saying that soul food is really about the diaspora?
MILLER: Exactly. So in America, the things we think of as ethnic foods are usually the celebration foods of the old country. And I'm saying soul food is a celebration food of the rural South. So in this case, the old country is the rural South, not necessarily West Africa.
MARTIN: You actually devoted an entire chapter to how macaroni and cheese got so black.
MILLER: Mac and cheese used to be royalty food. So it goes back to the 1300s. So it wasn't the goopy thing that we love today. The earliest iteration of it was pasta with some parmesan cheese on it. And so it was royalty food, and then it becomes elite food. And so it crosses the Atlantic as a rich person's dish. And so, when it made its way to the South, it was enslaved African-Americans who are cooking this dish, often in the big houses. And so that's how it starts to get in the cuisine. It becomes something that gets incorporated into our food as a celebration food. So you really only had it on weekends and special occasions 'cause there's just not a lot of dairy in the soul food diet for a lot of reasons, but yeah.
MARTIN: You talk about the fact that as you were researching the book, that you visited over, like, 150 restaurants, for example. And that you would post pictures on your Facebook page. And that people started sending you messages worrying about your health.
MARTIN: You know, saying you're going to die.
MILLER: But why is it that people, as you say, attach such negative connotations to this cuisine now?
MILLER: I think part of it is - reflexively they're looking at the African-American community and they're seeing all of the health problems. You know, obesity, chronic disease like diabetes, heart attack, cancer, and all these other things - and just linking the two. So I think there needs to be more critical thinking about this because I don't think soul food is the main culprit. I think it's the rise of consumption in fast food and processed foods that adds a lot to that story. But I'm not a nutritionist, so I say this with fear and trembling, but I think that's - we just have to rethink this.
MARTIN: Well, you also said that there's politics around it because there are people who see it as - you said that, you know, in the '60s it became seen as kind of a heritage cuisine. Embracing it was part of the black power movement. But you're saying that, at one point, it just - the reclamation of self-esteem, let's put it that way. But you say that subsequently, it's been - there's some politics around it where people diminish it as being the remnants of the slave master's table. And so some people say - you're saying for political reasons - like to dismiss it. And you're saying that that's not true, either. It's not really actually accurate.
MILLER: No, so...
MARTIN: What is?
MILLER: Yeah so if you look at what the enslaved were actually eating and look at slavery food ways, what you find is a lot of times master and slave were eating out of the same pot. So it was really only on the really large plantations, like the Tara plantation that we saw in "Gone With the Wind," that you had this bifurcated feeding system where the enslaved got some set of foods and the big house got different cuisines. But for the most part, the economics and the realities of such meant that people were often eating the same food. I mean, there's some truth to it in some sense - instances, but just not in the whole sum of the picture.
MARTIN: You do tell some very funny stories about just how seriously some people take this. You talk about how once while speaking on a panel, I casually listed several foods I thought belong on a representative soul food plate. And you said another author on the panel, who's an elderly African-American woman, interjected, how dare you not mention neck bones?
MILLER: I was like, man. I didn't know this was going to get that hectic.
MARTIN: People take it very seriously.
MARTIN: If you wanted to enjoy the heritage and add that heritage to the Thanksgiving meal, what would you pick?
MILLER: So I would definitely ask people to try greens because that's such a staple of soul food and Southern cooking. And it's good for you depending on how you prepare it. I mean, I don't mind having some ham mock on my greens, but a lot of times when I'm cooking at home, I'm using smoked turkey. But there are a lot of wonderful recipes without using meat at all. And they're pretty tasty. And also, candied yams and black-eyed peas - I think those are just staples of soul food that need a broader audience. And switch out the pumpkin pie for sweet potato pie.
MARTIN: I don't think if I had a pumpkin pie at my table anybody would come to my house. I really don't. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Adrian Miller. He's author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine." He's doing some soul food myth busting, and he's about to tell us how to add some soul to our holiday tables. You know, people - I used to think of - you said greens as a healthful addition to any table. People seem to be getting into greens these days. Kale is big...
MARTIN: ...In a lot of restaurants these days, which is amazing to those of us who were force-fed it as children.
MARTIN: I mean, yeah.
MILLER: Well, you know, when I'm on the book circuit talking about my greens, I just say, hey, welcome to the party. We've been doing kale for three centuries so glad you're enjoying it now.
MARTIN: But you talked about sweet potato greens. This is something I confess is new to me.
MARTIN: What are sweet potato greens? So that's literally the green top of the potato, right?
MILLER: Yes, which we don't really eat in this country, not so much. But they're very popular in West Africa. And sweet potatoes are a New World plant, so they're from the Americas. And it goes across the Atlantic and starts to thrive in West Africa. So sweet potato greens are becoming more popular here because of Asian and African immigrants.
MARTIN: And you were nice enough to bring some dishes, which were actually prepared by the D.C. Central Kitchen. And you brought us some sweet potato greens spoon bread.
MARTIN: OK, and what's the difference between spoon bread and cornbread?
MILLER: So, spoon bread is a cornbread souffle. That shows the French influence 'cause in a lot of cases the master would send their enslaved cook to get tutored by a French chef. And so you see this French cuisine influence. So we've got a soft kind of cornbread. And a lot of people, if they don't know what spoon bread is, they'll think that this is not done. I've served it at places and didn't explain what spoon bread was and they were just like, oh, this is not cooked. And I say, no, that's how it's supposed to be. So it's a very soft texture...
MARTIN: It's soft.
MILLER: ...Almost kind of eggy.
MARTIN: There's lots of greens in it. I'll just help myself, I'm sure you don't mind.
MILLER: All right. I want to see you dive in.
MARTIN: Since this is my studio.
MILLER: All right, my fingers are crossed.
MARTIN: OK, well, you get some.
MILLER: I'm so glad you asked.
MARTIN: Oh my goodness, this is delicious. This is, in fact, sweet potato greens because it tastes like collards to me.
MILLER: Well, if you can't find sweet potato greens because you probably have to go to an Asian market to find these - or a West African market - you can substitute baby spinach. But it's got a little bit of that bitterness, but I think it's played off with the other ingredients. So...
MARTIN: This is awesome. What else have you got over there? Is that mac and cheese?
MILLER: That is mac and cheese. And this is a mac and cheese - the recipe is from Nyesha Arrington. All right, let me see...
MARTIN: Hand it over.
MILLER: And she's a chef in Santa Monica, California. She's been on the Food Network a couple times in "Top Chef."
MARTIN: Now, you know, there's a whole controversy around bread crumbs versus not bread crumbs as a crust. You know, I see - are you a bread crumbs person?
MILLER: Yeah. I don't mind bread crumbs. The only topping I just mind in soul food is marshmallows on sweet potatoes. I'm not with that.
MARTIN: Where did that come from, by the way? Did you ever pin that down?
MILLER: I did not 'cause there's just a lot of people that do it and they just won't really talk about it.
MARTIN: Well, we must talk about red drank.
MARTIN: And, you know, this is one of those, like, some might interpret this as kind of airing dirty laundry.
MARTIN: Airing dirty cultural laundry, but I think people who visit any large African-American family gathering will notice that there has to be some kind of beverage.
MARTIN: And generally it is sweet. And we'll admit now that Kool-Aid is a preferred beverage item for many people.
MILLER: I think red Kool-Aid is the official soul food drink. That's just my own...
MARTIN: You think it's red Kool-Aid?
MILLER: Uh-huh. And red is a flavor.
MARTIN: I thought it might be purple?
MILLER: Ah, see the youngins seem to like purple more and more. So...
MARTIN: What is up with the Kool-Aid? I mean, they did not have Kool-Aid in West Africa.
MILLER: But they do have red drinks. And so there are two traditional red drinks that crossed the Atlantic during the slave trades. So - and most people have had them, but probably didn't even know it. So one is a kola tea because there are white kola nuts and red kola nuts. And so they would use that as a drink of hospitality. And then another drink was called bissap, which is a tea made from the flowers of the hibiscus plant, which we call over here agua del Jamaica, or red zinger tea, or just hibiscus tea 'cause it comes to Jamaica where it's known as Sorrel. And it's kind of a Christmas time drink. And it spreads its way around the Caribbean and Latin America. So if you go to a Mexican restaurant and you have agua de Jamaica, you're drinking a West African drink.
MARTIN: So red zinger tea, or the hibiscus tea, you think that might be why people are so attracted to red Kool-Aid? That there's kind of a cultural memory at work there?
MILLER: Yeah because, like you said, I mean, you're talking about the present day. But as I looked through the historical sources, whenever there was a communal setting, there was some kind of red drink.
MARTIN: So if people are really, really trying to move away from the Kool-Aid and they would like to substitute with something a little bit more - healthful?
MARTIN: Or a little more upscale. Maybe we'll put it that way. You would recommend Hibiscus-Aid. It's out of hibiscus tea. How did you make it?
MILLER: So you get the flowers and, you know, steep it in the tea. But then the thing here that's cool is you add some ginger so it has a little bite to it. So I'm very eager to see how you - if you like it or not, but yeah.
MARTIN: I will have some more.
MILLER: Oh, OK. Cool.
MARTIN: I've been sneaking it on the side here.
MILLER: I didn't even see that, all right. Great. And with the kola nut tea and the hibiscus tea, it's the same...
MARTIN: It's delicious.
MILLER: OK, cool.
MARTIN: It's unbelievable.
MILLER: Yeah. It's the same flavor - formula as Kool-Aid, right? You get some water, color it red and sweeten the taste.
MARTIN: And you add a little sweetener.
MARTIN: So, Adrian Miller, tell me, now that you've gone on this journey of kind of investigating the roots of these traditional dishes, how would you prefer people look at this?
MILLER: So I say honor the past. You know, work on the future and the present with the healthful alternatives. But then, let's be creative and play around with these foods because a lot of the elements of soul food have gone global or are showing up in white table restaurants. For instance, people are paying $20 to have neck bones, ox tails, pig ears and pig feet. But if you talk about it in the soul food context, it's denigrated and it's food that's low-class.
MARTIN: What are you going to be serving this Thanksgiving?
MILLER: So our traditional meals - we do have the turkey. But then we have chitlins, so - which are pig intestines. We have them stewed, I know some people eat them fried. And then we're going to have mixed greens. Now my family is more of a mustard and turnip green kind of family, with some ham hock and we'll have black-eyed peas. We'll have mac and cheese. And then for dessert, we're going to have something called lemon ice box pie. I don't know if you've ever had that. It's like a lemon version of key lime pie. It's awesome.
MARTIN: Sounds terrific. Adrian Miller is author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine." You will find links to some of the recipes that he has in the book on our website at NPR.org. Click on programs and then TELL ME MORE. Adrian Miller is an attorney. He's now executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you for joining us, and happy holidays.
MILLER: All right, happy holidays. Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for having me.