RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now to something uniquely American, the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and the meal that goes with it. There are the must-haves; potatoes of some kind, cranberries, stuffing, and of course a turkey. But today, we're going to explore a style of preparing the Thanksgiving meal that's as steeped in American history as the holiday itself.
We're talking about soul food, which conjures up thoughts of rich dishes full of butter or gravy - comfort foods. But soul food comes out of America's darkest chapters.
MELBA WILSON: It was food that the slave owners gave to the slaves.
MARTIN: That's Chef Melba Wilson. She's the owner of Melba's Restaurant and Melba's 125 in Harlem.
WILSON: And what our ancestors tried to do was they had to take the collard greens, which were very bitter, they had to take the hog's intestines, which were considered garbage, the pig ears, the pig feet, and they had to turn those into staples and delicacies for their family. So its food that was originally intended to be garbage food and our ancestors took it and made into a desirable cuisine.
MARTIN: Tanya Holland, executive chef and owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ in Oakland, California, is known for her inventive twists on modern soul food.
TANYA HOLLAND: Well, at the restaurants we have smokers, and so we do smoked yams. And we smoke them and roast them, and then we mash them with some butter and cream. And they're just delicious. I mean, the smoke and the sweet together is a really nice combination.
MARTIN: Holland cherishes the symbolism of this holiday almost as much she does the food.
HOLLAND: I mean, what I love about Thanksgiving is its inclusive and it non-denominational, open no matter what ethnicity if you were raised in this country. And, you know, for us it's just kind of celebrating being together and being all here in this one country with all our diversity.
MARTIN: Soul food favorites have been reinterpreted by many of the country's big name chefs. Art Smith is among them. He's won some of the culinary profession's highest awards and is the executive chef and co-owner of Washington, D.C.'s Art and Soul Restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
MARTIN: Smith's cooking style comes from out of his own family traditions in Northern Florida.
ART SMITH: It's famous for the Suwannee River, Lynyrd Skynyrd...
MARTIN: And you now, probably.
SMITH: Me now, yes. Yes. Yes. I'm the only the only chef from that area. And, you know, Sunday suppers - God and fried chicken go hand-in-hand down there. So, you know, lots of church and lots of fried chicken and on weekends. And so, and food is a very important part of that whole social element.
MARTIN: We met Art Smith at his restaurant this past week, and I asked him: what two dishes are a-must when cooking a Southern-inspired Thanksgiving meal.
SMITH: You got to have sweet potatoes, whatever way you prepare them. And you have greens of some sort. And those are the two biggest components of a soulful Thanksgiving.
MARTIN: What were some of the staples at your Thanksgiving table when you were growing up?
SMITH: Well, it's interesting. You know, for me, Thanksgiving was that time when before hand - I don't know if it was just to shoo the men out of the kitchen, because the women did most of the cooking - we would go out early. During this time you could go quail hunting or squirrel hunting. And I would go with my grandfather and he loved to hunt with his bird dog. We'd bring the game back and we'd have that, too, for Thanksgiving. We're just...
MARTIN: You had squirrels for Thanksgiving.
SMITH: Yeah, we would have the turkey but we'd have some smothered squirrel or quail and then, of course, dove and things of that sort. But turkey was, of course, the turkey always a part of it, you know, from the farm.
MARTIN: What about side dishes?
SMITH: Uh, you know, much of the food culture that is now very much part of my family, my great-grandmother created that. You know, one of my favorite side dishes, her cornbread dressing. You know, in the South, we don't stuff a bird - we dress a bird. And so, she has her cornbread dressing, which is a crumbled corn meal, the holy trinity. You know, when you think about what is the holy trinity. Well, the holy trinity is what gives dishes the flavor in the South. It's the foundation; it's the onions, celery, the garlic, the bell pepper.
And so, you've got this wonderful...
MARTIN: So the hol - just to be clear, the holy trinity is not just three ingredients.
MARTIN: It can be whatever is the soul of the dish...
SMITH: Right, it's a soul. It's the onions, the celery, garlic and the peppers. Now, you know, interestingly enough, my family wasn't so big on pumpkin pie. It was more they would do great sweet potato and they would do great bean pies, and butternut squash which was actually quite delicious.
MARTIN: What's in a bean pie?
SMITH: It's actually, they would take beans and puree them in...
MARTIN: Kidney beans?
SMITH: Like, white beans.
MARTIN: White beans.
SMITH: Yeah. But they would actually sweeten it up. And you wonder, well, where did that come from. You know, and - but there's always, always some kind of cake.
MARTIN: Well, why don't we go into the kitchen?
SMITH: OK. Great to.
OK, we have a lot going on back here by...
MARTIN: Smith's kitchen was buzzing with Thanksgiving preparations. His staff was already brining and prepping 80 turkeys. And we found a small space where Art Smith could whip up a dish he likes to serve alongside the main event.
SMITH: We're making a cranberry-pear chutney. Or relish, as you would call it.
MARTIN: It's a good dish for a soul food Thanksgiving but really anything Thanksgiving.
SMITH: Exactly. So, very simple. What we're going to do is we're going to start with about two cups of cranberries. And you can use fresh or frozen, either one is great.
MARTIN: OK, into the saucepan they go.
SMITH: And then what we're going to do, we're going to add about a cup of orange juice. This is some...
MARTIN: Smith adds white sugar, star anise and pears. He says you can use apples, cherries or even dried fruit.
SMITH: Now, this is the soul of it. Cinnamon is very big in Southern soulful cooking and we need a little cinnamon stick, 'cause it imparts a flavor but doesn't give that harsh cinnamon flavor. So have two sticks in there.
SMITH: So what were going to do is we're going to add a little orange zest. And what it does is you get that wonderful citrus oil. And then we're going to do - you can use candy ginger or you can use a ground ginger. The ginger adds a nice flavor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIXING)
SMITH: So, as we do this, if you notice I'm not stirring it. I don't want to stir it because it...
MARTIN: Chef Smith never actually uses a spoon when he cooks this dish. Instead, he says it's best just to swirl the pot to keep the cranberries from breaking apart. The result is a lusciously red, aromatic dish which he tops with slivers of toasted almonds.
SMITH: Wonderful, there you have it. Really quick - you don't want to overcook it - one delicious cranberry chutney for that soulful Southern holiday.
MARTIN: Beautiful. OK, give me a fork. Mmm, and you taste the cinnamon. I feel more soulful already.
MARTIN: Chef, thank you so much for letting us into your kitchen.
SMITH: You're very welcome. Happy soulful Thanksgiving. Wonderful.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT FUNKY")
JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Neck bones, candy yams, turnips. It's for the snake...
MARTIN: And you can find more soulful recipes from Art Smith, as well as Chef Tanya Holland, on our website, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE IT FUNKY")
BROWN: (Singing) Ha-ha-ha, see you're up on your leg, brother. Snap beans, Mobile gumbo, a hunk of cornbread, buttermilk...
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