The Intersectionality of American Soul Food
This is first article of a three part series on American Soul Food featuring Corey McCathern of Corey’s Soul Food here in Milan. Though soul food originated in the South, Soul Food restaurants can be found in every African-American community in the U.S. especially in cities with large ethnic populations, such as Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. But, recently Soul Food has started to make an appearance on the International food scene.
There is an intersectionality to Soul Food…..
Soul Food originated in the US during the era of enslavement of Africans; enslaved Africans in America were given food that was considered inedible or scraps from their ‘masters’. The only vegetables that could be used in cooking Soul Food were those grown by those enslaved. After slavery was officially abolished due to the unchanged circumstances a lot of the traditional cooking methods went unchanged. Hunting became a big part of providing food for the newly freed families. Possum, rabbit, wild game and squirrel would make up a lot of the meat used in their cooking. There is an intersectionality to Soul Food rooted in its preparations whose history is intertwined with social-economical class status, laws that prevented equal access to resources bringing about innovation, creativity and the will to prevailed over the most adverse conditions.
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with the founder and owner of Corey’s Soul Chicken here in Milan, Italy. Corey McCathern who is passionate about putting Soul Food on the global map and he is doing a fantastic job.
He makes a strong case for the interlinks between Soul Food and ‘food for the soul’.
Talking with Corey about his earliest memory of Soul Food brought back memories of eating at the homes friends during my childhood. My parent’s being from Jamaica, connected me to my cultural heritage through food and there are some memories I’ll carry with me forever. Corey’s story is heart-warming and shows a link between American families and Soul food. His first memory of Soul Food can be traced to the kitchen of his grandmother, “I was her baby and around her all the time”, says Corey.
This time spent with his Grandmother built the foundation of Corey’s understanding of role of Soul Food in the African American household. He learned a lot about Soul food preparation during Sunday meals after church when his grandmother would whip up a spread. There was turkey, ham, and scalloped potatoes, giblet gravy with mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. Corey takes great pride in explaining how everything his grandmother prepared, was made from scratch. There were no premixes at the time, “My grandmother could make an incredible cornbread from scratch”.
For Corey as with many African Americans the church played a big part in his upbringing. His entire family sang in the church choir and church was attended every Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. We were all baptized and attended bible study. Corey doesn’t attend church as much as he did growing up, but the foundation of faith never lifted. “I was so happy that my grandmother and mother took me to church”.
Corey strongest memories of Sunday meals after church revolve around hosting dinners where everyone in the church brings a dish. Everyone would be judges deciding on who made the best fried chicken, meatloaf, smoked turkey leg and the union of eating together gave him a strong understanding of what Soul Food is. He makes a strong case for the interlinks between Soul Food and ‘food for the soul’.
One who eats alone cannot discuss the taste of the food with others.
Corey only started eating other cuisines when he moved from Kentucky to Boston to attend college. This is when he was introduced to clam chowder, mussels, scallops and all kinds of seafood. This was not something he ate back home in Kentucky. Seafood was an expensive ingredient in Kentucky. His mom would at times cook up some shrimp, but Corey just could not get used to like the taste.
This brought up a strong connection between Soul Food and resources. Soul Food consists of humble ingredients. His family would use ingredients like shoulder bones or neck bones as the base for their meals. Wednesdays were the day for neck bones in Corey’s house and it usually was on the stove for the entire day. It is understandable why Soul Food takes so long to prepare. First, everything is made from scratch and the cuts of meats used needs ample time to cook. It is also important to remember that a lot of the food slaves were given could have been spoilt. The habit of ‘overcooking’ meat comes from trying to avoid any possible illnesses from spoilt meat. This is one of the motivations behind Corey modernizing classic Soul Food recipes. A lot of his friends and family members still won’t eat a steak with any redness present. Corey’s mission is, “…trying to make Soul Food more of a healthy situation for everybody to enjoy”.
When Corey was growing up in Kentucky, he remembers the importance of healthy food in his diet. He has fond memories of going cherry picking with his grandmother. He does not remember eating pineapple or mango growing up. It was mostly strawberries, bananas, grapes and he puts a strong emphasis on eating a lot of watermelons. I guess one could say that this was a reflection of the earth providing good produce during difficult times. Soul food is about sharing and this is evident in some of the memories Corey has. One of his aunts would cook up a ton of food and feed the less fortunate and the homeless. “Doing Soul Food”, is also about giving back to your community, it is “giving to people who are not as fortunate as you are”.
Corey is working hard to put Soul Food on the international map. This is the main reason behind opening a Soul Food restaurant in Milan. With extensive travels, he realized that Soul Food wasn’t recognized worldwide as a cuisine on its own. Italian, Chinese and even some Jamaican dishes is known worldwide. Soul Food is popular amongst African American people, but not the rest of the world. Corey’s mission is to change that and put Soul Food on the global map as an official cuisine.
Check out Corey’s family recipe for scalloped potatoes!