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Omnivore - Why cultural appropriation could be the best (and worst) thing for soul food's survival

Soul food scholar Adrian Miller explains how the cuisine became synonymous with black America - and why that tradition is dying

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Most people don’t ruminate about soul food half as much as they salivate over it. Adrian Miller is the rare exception. The self-proclaimed soul food scholar stopped through Atlanta during his national eating tour as research for his 2014 James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time. Naturally, he was the perfect person to help me parse out the state of soul food for CL's May 5 cover story on chef Kenneth Willhoite. Like Willhoite's grand mission to build a $100 million World Soul Food Museum in Atlanta, the future of soul food cuisine is equally dubious.

We talked about why that is and what Miller, for one, is doing about it. "People are hating on soul food far too much, and it's not fair," he told me. Along with most things rooted in the American South, the history of the cuisine and the story behind its relatively slow decline in recent decades has as much to do with shifting identity politics as it does with who makes the best fried chicken (it ain’t David Chang, btw). This excerpt of our conversation begins with Miller explaining how the distinction between soul food and Southern cuisine became so heavily racialized. 

Adrian Miller: Basically, in the 1940s you have a group of disgruntled jazz musicians that were disgruntled because the white jazz musicians were the ones getting the best gigs, the best pay, and notoriety. So they said, "We’re gonna take this musical genre that we created to a place that we don’t think white musicians can mimic the sound." And that was the sound of the black church and the rural South. That sound, that gospel sound, they started calling ‘soul’ and ‘funky’ in the late ’40s. So those terms were floating around in black culture, and then because of their popularity, they started getting slapped onto other aspects of black culture. So originally it was about the music. Then it becomes ‘soul man,’ ‘soul sister,’ ‘soul food.’

In the ’60s, you have a group of black power advocates trying to figure out how to unite a very diverse black population across the country. So they used culture — the hairstyles, the clothing, the way we speak, the way we express ourselves, and food. Food was one of the most powerful cultural connectors. It was being called ‘soul food’ as early as 1960. This is well before the Civil Rights movement. But what happens in the mid-60s when soul food goes mainstream is basically the real culture-conscious people said white people can’t understand soul food. So it became a black-owned enterprise, which is interesting because when you look at the history of Southern food, it’s a shared cuisine — it’s West Africa plus western European plus what the indigenous people were already eating here.

With this conscious ownership of soul food — you’re talking about food that overlaps Southern, right — soul became black and Southern became white. And we’re living with the legacy of that today.

But isn’t that distinction kind of thin? Couldn’t you argue that Paula Deen cooks soul food?
Very good point. Here’s how I parse that. It’s really about the performance of the cuisine. Because there is a lot of overlap, right. Soul food tends to be spicier, more intense flavor, and more use of the variety meats and funky ingredients. Now that’s changing because now with the rise of whole animal cooking you’re finding more people using the variety meats — but for the longest time that was not the case.

There’s just some stuff that you’re gonna find on a soul food menu that you’re not gonna find on a Southern menu. Like chitlins, that’s probably the clearest example. Here’s another classic example: pig feet. You go to a soul food joint, they’re called pig feet, and they’re $7 dollars or whatever. Now you go to a white Southern food restaurant, pig feet are called trotters, and you pay $24 dollars for them. They’re prepared a little different but not that much.

What drew you to soul food scholarship?
I think that people are hating on soul food far too much, and it’s not fair. There’s really two main criticisms of soul food — one is that it needs a warning label cause the belief is that if you eat this food on a consistent basis it’s gonna kill you. And the other — this is more prevalent in the black community — is that it’s slave food and not worthy of celebration. Yet we’re in a moment where all of these other cuisines — not much more healthy, or probably less healthy than soul food — are being celebrated. And elements of soul food are being put in mainstream restaurants and being sold at a premium and everybody’s going crazy for it.

There was a time if you thought about great fried chicken you usually thought about an African-American cook. But today, if I were to say name a chef known for their fried chicken, you’re gonna probably name a white dude in California — and I think you probably know who we’re talking about — and a Korean dude in New York: Thomas Keller and David Chang. People are going crazy for their fried chicken, and they’re making a ton of money.

So the fact that our cuisine has not been celebrated and the fact that I think these critiques — and parts of them are fair — but I just don’t think people understand what soul food is.

So how do you define soul food?
My book is about clarifying that soul food as we understand it is really the celebration food of the South.

Fried chicken was not something eaten everyday; neither were the fabulous cakes, cobblers. All that stuff was celebration food and you’re not supposed to eat celebration food day in and day out. Secondly, if you look at the true reach of soul food, it’s a vegetarian-based cuisine. And if you look at what enslaved people were eating during slavery and free African-Americans right after emancipation, it’s very close to what we call vegan today: It’s seasonal vegetables. Meat was not the entrée; meat was the seasoning element. And there was not a lot of access to processed ingredients because in the racist culture of the times those ingredients were not things that black people should be able to eat because they’re on the bottom of the social ladder.

The only time that African-American cooks got access on a regular basis to white flour and white sugar, and all of the things that make the glorious soul food we think of today was on the weekends and on special occasions.

If you think about other immigrant cuisine — Indian food, Chinese food, Mexican food, Italian food, whatever culture it is — what we Americans call their food is usually the celebration food of the old country. What immigrants do when they get to a new place is they try to recreate home. And if they open up a restaurant, they’re not going to show off the day-to-day dishes from their culture, they’re going to show off the celebration food. So that’s what we get used to, and soul food is the same thing.

Why do you think it is that soul food hasn’t been celebrated to the degree that other aspects of African-American culture have been?
A hundred years ago, whenever culinary experts in the United States wanted to talk about the epitome of American cooking, they often pointed to African Americans. And over time, African-American women would be put up against French chefs. And experts would be taught Negro cooking. So that’s an incredible source of pride given the stature the French chef had internationally.

I think there’s more of a sense of stigma and shame on food and cooking now because we were forced to do that. So people look down on it. Once you get to the 1960s, with civil rights laws changing, when people could go work someplace besides the kitchen, a lot of us left the kitchen in droves. We didn’t want to return to that work.

Now I think that’s changing because of the rise of celebrity chefs, but it still remains in this sense: There are quite a number of African-American chefs, very accomplished, who want no identification with soul food. They don’t want to be pigeonholed. They find being called a soul food chef limiting.

What’s your response to that?
One is to cook whatever you want, but if soul food is part of your heritage, it should be part of your repertoire. How many French chefs do you know that say, "Don’t associate me with rustic French-country cooking?" They may not do it but they’re gonna know about it because they’re proud of it. And I’m trying to get soul food on that level. Plus, the other thing is, you may stiff-arm soul food, but you’ve got people outside your culture taking elements of soul food and doing it — and not even doing it well most of the time — and making a ton of money. And then you’re gonna get mad at them for appropriating some foods from your culture when you won’t even embrace them?

Is there a real danger of soul food being totally appropriated?
Oh, absolutely. It’s already happening now. I’ll give you just three examples: Look at kale and collards; look at fried chicken. Look at Nashville Hot Chicken.

Now I’m going to say something that may sound contradictory, and I hope it doesn’t — I’m trying to be nuanced — but for soul food to survive there actually has to be some appropriation, because most successful cuisines outside the mainstream have had people that are comfortable going to eat it at a restaurant and cook it at home. And I’m thinking about Mexican food, Italian food, Chinese food. So other people need to feel comfortable making this cuisine. My only thing is, just like you locally source ingredients, just culturally source what you’re doing. If you’re making Nashville Hot Chicken, give a shout out to Prince’s in Nashville where it was born. And then do a good job of making it. Don’t do this sorry non-spicy version. That defeats the whole purpose.

I think that the danger of the chance of appropriation is stronger outside the South. There’s more cultural momentum in the South, so I think soul food-slash-Southern will live on for a long time, definitely Southern will. But outside the South, that’s where you see the soul food joints starting to disappear.

Do you see gentrification having an impact on the decline of inner-city soul food restaurants?
Oh yeah, it’s huge. Because once the neighborhood starts gentrifying, not only are you losing a customer base, but the rent for your establishment starts going up. Unfortunately, for a lot of structural reasons, a lot of African-American entrepreneurs don’t have access to capital. So they’re often starting restaurants under-capitalized. And the margins for a restaurant are tight already. So if you’ve got a tight margin, you’re in a tricky business with a high failure rate and if one of your costs goes up significantly, you’re in a world of trouble.

Either the entrepreneur has to find another spot in that neighborhood and figure out how to make it work or they move to where the black people are relocating or they close up. Because unfortunately, you don’t find many soul food restaurants that thrive outside of a traditional black neighborhood or an urban center where there are a lot of African-Americans who work in that area.

Find more tidbits from our conversation in the cover story. For more info on Adrian Miller, visit his website or follow him @soulfoodscholar.