Society has to be crowded with the truth. The truth must kneel on football fields and spill onto our dinner plates. Chefs, writers, bartenders, bakers, farmers, and the lot of us food people are keepers of social space—and we have a responsibility to introduce racial equity as a necessary non sequitur.
Tunde Wey writes in his Civil Eats article, Dining in the Era of Kaepernick about how current American dining suffers from a failure of imagination to be responsible and relevant at our civic table, in our civic discourse. Only 1/4 of the population voted for the new president who actively seeks racial division and the support of white supremacy groups. Through the rhetoric of conservative republicans, right-wing talk shows, and an irresponsible media, the country has separated into angry factions–all in the name of truth and American Exceptionalism. Yet, for many of the above individuals and groups, they eat in a region of the country whose cuisine proves false their basic assumptions of culture and race. In other words, you might think you’re so white, but you’re not.
Look at the featured image at the top of the post again. Sally Mann‘s photograph “Deep South” conjures a haunted landscape which tree, grass and swamp seek to reclaim. This revelation of light and shadow may be found in the work of William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Colson Whitehead and many others. Who walks with the ghosts? Who can find all the voices? Putting a pot of water onto boil is a way.
The above photograph taken by the famed Southern writer Eudora Welty features in an exhibit of her photographic work art at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in 2001. Here is the essence of Southern cooking–a pot of water boiling for meat and vegetable, a cooking born of hardship and survival. In the introduction of his cook book Heritage, chef Sean Brock of Husk restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina exhorts his readers to,
Do your own research and find the foods that make your region unique. The mix of culinary influences may turn into a revelation and change the way you cook and eat. The Lowcountry dishes that you find throughout this book are themselves a confluence of African, European and American Indian influence, thrown together long ago in the mixing bowl of history and refined by generations of grandmothers. (19)
Brock’s directive captures the journey I’ve been on for the last three years as I’ve sought the heritage of my adopted-city Houston and region–the Piney Woods, Southeast Texas, and the Gulf Coast. This journey includes many ethnicities, races, religions and any other category used to separate and box. My friend and Culinary Institute of America chef Adán Medrano has shared his wisdom with me on this quest through conversations and also through his book Truly Texas Mexican where he writes about his boyhood summers in the fields picking cotton, hoeing sugar beets and soybeans, picking tomatoes, watermelons, corn, okra, cherries and apples (3-4). He also writes of a deep history that includes not only Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and Brownsvile, but a vast stretch of northeastern Mexico as well.
Historians assert that by 1500 there were 50,000 to several hundred thousand to even a million inhabitants in Texas living in communities with diverse languages and customs (La Very, 2004). Hundreds of names ascribed to the communities survive in Spanish documents, including Coahuiltecan, Caddo, Atakapa, and Karankawa. Their cuisine is characterized by the types of Native American ingredients shared with sister regions in Mexico such as Nuevo Leon, Baja California, Oaxaca, Yucatan and Jalisco. Some of these ingredients are chilies, maize, beans, tomato, potato, squash, cactus and maguey. (1)
No dividing line, no Rio Grande as a border, no fences, no wall–just a shared region of cuisine and taste. If we want to talk about immigration and security we might want to first admit that those attempting to come to this country are already here in our individual identity, culture and food.
Isatu Barrie (center) takes the oath of citizenship in New York City last year (photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters), amongst people from many cultures around the world. This could also be a gathering of citizens anywhere between New York City and Los Angeles. In his article in Sugar and Rice entitled Collard Greens and Ham Hocks, If You Please, David Leftwich walks into Food Hut Caribbean Cuisine in New York City, walks home with styrofoam containers full of jerk chicken, oxtails, collard greens, and rice, then maps a Caribbean and Southern Cuisine collectively moving through space and time: 5,000 BCE Turkey, Imperial Rome, medieval Britain, 17th century colonies in America, pre-colonial Jamaica and other islands of the Greater Antilles, southern China 9,000 thousand years ago, Japan and India about 8,000 years later, Madagascar, East Africa, West Africa by the 1500’s, 21st century Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and of course, back up to New York City.
Pit Master Rodney Scott and Sean Brock share a barbecued hog from the PBS show The Mind of a Chef–the Carolinas meets Appalachia–and share a metamorphosis that once it’s in your mouth, you’ve transformed, you’re not who you were before. Many more chefs and food historians point out the same conclusion, the food we put in our mouth, cooked according to a number of culinary traditions has altered who we are physically and spiritually. You already are and have been for your entire life, the very Other you think to keep away and out. Truth is, when you sit down to dinner, so does the rest of the world. This should be a basis for a civic discourse and politics.
First up, a smoked ham hock stock with bundles of parsley, collard and mustard green stems, onion, garlic, peppercorns, cloves, and bay leaves. This will serve as a bath for the greens and as a rich broth for the oxtails.
Butter, onions and oxtail bones go into the pan to be browned; carrots, turnips and garlic added a bit later into the cooking. Stovetop and broiler combine for that perfect color.
Time passes and now collard and mustard green leaves swim in the stock for about fifteen minutes.
Drained and allowed to cool, they go back into the pot for a turn in butter and garlic.
I’ve added field peas and snaps along with some meat from the smoked ham hock to the stew which bubbles and ripples to the finish line. Time to combine.
And now into a bowl.
What music should we play while we eat? Let’s listen to some Southern Music, which yes means musical traiditons from around the world as Bill C. Malone writes,
The deep waters of Southern folk music flowed principally from the confluence of two mighty cultural streams, the British and the West African. This mighty river was enriched by the periodic infusion of German, Spanish, French, Caribbean, and other melodic and stylistic elements. The African admixture has contributed much to the distinctiveness and appeal of Southern music: syncopation, anti-phony (call and response), improvisation, and blue notes. But other ethnic groups have also added to the musical mix. Scotch-Irish balladry and fiddle music, German accordion rhythms and hymn tunes, the infectious Cajun dance style, and the soulful cry of Mexican conjunto singers have all shaped the Southern sound. Listen to Rhiannon Giddens, Aaron Neville and Maria Muldar. Bon Appétit!