NOEL KING, HOST:
Celebrity chef Carla Hall grew up in Nashville where she was raised on soul food. She celebrates the food of her childhood in her latest cookbook. It's called "Carla Hall's Soul Food: Everyday And Celebration." Hall spoke to our co-host David Greene. And she shared a few recipes with him, starting with a classic seared okra.
CARLA HALL: You can just take this okra and slice it in half and salt and pepper it and place it on the griddle. And it gets this smokiness that is so wonderful. And then you don't have to worry about the slime, which I think a lot of people - okra is misunderstood.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It can get slimy.
HALL: Right. I think a lot of people don't like it because they think, oh, it's slimy. And it's true. You use those pods to thicken gumbo and soups and everything. So that is one use for it. But you can also roast it. You can sear it. You can grill it. And it becomes this other textured thing.
GREENE: So am I right? I mean, when I think of soul food, I often think of stuff that might not be that healthy - like fried chicken, maybe fried okra. Are you giving us like a healthier version of soul food? Or is soul food misunderstood? I mean, I know there's fried chicken in your book. We should make that clear.
HALL: Oh, my God. There's fried chicken.
GREENE: But there are more vegetables than fried chicken. So what does that tell us about soul food?
HALL: I think that it is misunderstood. I think there is a small piece that people know of soul food. When you go to a soul food restaurant, the people who own that restaurant are going to give you those celebration dishes that are gonna bring you in. When you are around the table, and people from the outside come into your home, you're celebrating. So of course, you're going to have mac 'n' cheese and smothered pork chops and fried chicken and ribs and all of these things because that's what you do. Even in other cultures, that's what you do. So I think that soul food got stuck there because this is what people are eating because they're celebrating and going to restaurants. But people weren't having fried chicken every day because they couldn't kill their chickens. They needed the eggs.
GREENE: One of the real smile moments reading the book was you distinguishing between soul food and Southern food.
GREENE: Can you remind us what that difference is in your mind?
HALL: Black people.
GREENE: OK. Some more?
HALL: Black people - I think it's also the difference between a hymn and a Negro spiritual.
HALL: You know, you can sing the same song. But even if you're doing a note like (singing) ah, and then you have something like (singing) mmm hmm, those other notes that are being sung are not on the paper. But it is something about feeling that song and where that emotion came from. So that is like our food. It is - and I don't want to say it's a stank on it, but it's a stank on it. You know, you putting that heart, and it is coming from some place deep in your soul that you are getting out - and just wanting to pull somebody in and say, I see you. I feel the pain that you have been through. That's a Negro spiritual.
GREENE: Well, speaking of pain that people have been through, I know you took a journey through the South for this book. And one of the stops you made was at Mother Emanuel, one of the oldest black congregations in the South. It was the church's 199th birthday. But this was also, as so many of us know, where a gunman opened fire on worshipers just over three years ago in just an immense tragedy for our whole country. What was that experience like?
HALL: We had second thoughts about going there because it was - there was so much pain. But then because we were in town, we decided to go...
GREENE: In Charleston, S.C.
HALL: In Charleston, S.C. - and they were having this celebration. And it was so beautiful. And we went into the kitchen, and we're in the way (laughter).
GREENE: In the way because you're like a famous celebrity chef?
HALL: I know, right? They're like - she didn't care. The matron of that kitchen was like, I'm trying to get this repast food done, and you all are in the way. But they had all of these pots going, and it was just this huge kitchen. And there's a hierarchy that happens in the kitchen, especially at these churches, where these women are getting this food out. And there is this one woman who's the best cook who is doling out tasks to other people. And it is serious. It was really beautiful. It was about the congregation coming together. And there was a tragedy, but there was also - you knew that they had each other and that anybody who came into that church that day was part of that family. And it was just a beautiful thing.
GREENE: One more recipe from the book I wanted to ask you about - hot water cornbread. This is not your average cornbread, Carla. This is something different, right?
HALL: It is not your average cornbread if you're not from the South.
GREENE: People in the South would know exactly what you're talking about. I've certainly had my share of cornbread and loved it. But hot water cornbread, I think I haven't had it. So what would I be dealing with here if I tried to make this?
HALL: Hot water cornbread, you start with white corn meal. You boil water. In the corn meal, there is salt, and there is a little bit of baking powder. And the hot water actually cooks the corn meal, and then you make it into little patties. And I always remember my grandmother's fingers being in those patties. So she would make little oval ones. My mother makes round ones - whatever - it's whatever shape and size you want. And then you fry it in fat.
GREENE: But, I mean, seriously, it sounds like this recipe really carries a lot of the larger things that you were learning about yourself through this project.
HALL: I must say that this was a personal journey with this book. I set out to tell this story so that African-Americans could appreciate the food more, and people outside of the community could understand what it is and and sort of maybe be inspired to not only cook this food but also to look at what their personal terroir is and what their food from their culture looks like. But I got more from it - I think I appreciate other cuisines more. I realized I was carrying a chip on my shoulder about my food and wanting it to be special and having this moment - not just a moment but to be realized in what it is. But I had a chip on my shoulder, so it would come out sideways, you know. And now it is just a love for this food and a deeper appreciation for other cuisines.
GREENE: Carla Hall, I love talking to you. Thank you for coming back on, and best of luck with the book.
HALL: Thank you so much. This has been been such a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES BRADLEY SONG "HEARTACHES AND PAIN")
KING: The book is called "Carla Hall's Soul Food: Everyday And Celebration."
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