Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Soul Feast


Photo courtesy Flickr

After a hard week’s week, the go-fer headed up the street for well-earned take-out. His destination was a soul food place we hadn’t tried before. My partner is a good old boy at heart, and he went into a feeding frenzy at the restaurant, returning home with a double armload of grits, fried chicken, and everything else one could think of as a side dish, excluding pecan pie.

He was famished and desperate for that kind of cooking, which also happens to be my favorite kind of cooking. The soul food pica can sneak up on one, particularly in warm weather.

Paul Prudhomme’s first cookbook is a good guide. I was surprised to find any number of Great Aunt Beth’s standard dishes in Prudhomme’s collection. Her branch of the family settled in Rock Island, Illinois, which the good old boy tells me is the upper limit of the delta. There may be an indigenous cuisine of Highway 61, since Beth was Northern European. Dooky Chase taught me the true meaning of fried chicken [and I added a little water chestnut flour to the breading].

Soul classics cost the least, require little skill to execute, and are relaxing to consume. When reheated, they taste like the first time. The limiting factor in producing soul food is its long back of the stove cooking. Tech has changed all that: an electronic pressure cooker makes short work of greens and “soup beans”, a crock pot will carry a side dish as long as one wishes. Small appliances automate food preparation and presentation.

With luck, I may simply cook one soul food meal from now on until I can cook no more. One dish leads to another, and another. The go-fer brought home a second double armload the next day-that time of collards. It’s the peak of the season, and the greens were so fragrant the kitchen smelled like a florist’s shop. This time of year, we like a side dish of cold greens seasoned with hot sauce.

Soul food is easily vegetarian. Substitute smoke seasoning and a pinch of sweet baking spice for cured pork, adding a slug of olive oil for richness and a dab of butter if that suits your political agenda.

The great asset of soul cooking is that the ingredients keep without refrigeration. The cuisine predates electricity, so my emergency pantry is lined with traditional country staples. American country cooking is one of the great cuisines of the world. It’s gratifying that it is also such a good deal. Any mid or earlier twentieth century cookbook will have secondary chapters full of low-tech relics.

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