Soul food was on Saturday’s menu at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center where hundreds of people came to honor Isaac Lowe, an 87-year-old Redding civil rights leader.
Soul food. In Redding. If you consider that by some statistics, African Americans represent less than 1 percent of Redding’s predominantly WASP population, it’s no wonder that in the North State, soul food is practically a foreign food.
Not so inside the MLK Center, where soul food encompasses tradition, culture, history, comfort and family. Saturday’s soul-food potluck smorgasbord treated the day’s guests to boiled cabbage with ham, flaky biscuits, enormous metal trays of cornbread, heavy platters of ribs and mounded pans of perfectly browned chicken. Desserts were there, too, such as peach pie, apple pie and assorted cakes, oh my.
Outside, David Duarte of Apple Jacks BBQ Catering watched over his huge new smoker/barbecue as he cooked chicken for 250. (Pat Wallner of Wallner Plumbing donated all the meat.)
Lowe and I recently talked about soul food. When I asked Lowe for help with a soul-food definition, she said the the most simple way to describe soul food is as Southern food. She listed a soul-food sampler of examples: Black-eyed peas, cabbage, collard greens and mustard greens.
“We grew all those things on our farm in Texas,” she said. “Oh yeah, we had chickens and a cow, and we got our own butter. We grew practically all our own food. We picked cotton, but we sold it. We owned our own farm. We weren’t sharecroppers. And mom was a good cook. She never worked in the fields.”
Lowe added that soul food is part of another sub category, one that moves beyond Southern food: Southern, African American food.
“See, if you go way back, the slaves had to eat that food,” she said. “And you know what? It was good food. It’s still good.”
Because the MLK meal was a potluck, I wasn’t able to find the dishes’ makers and request their recipes. So today I bring you my corn bread recipe I’ve had forever. The other two recipes – Collard Greens and Buttermilk Biscuits – are from Maya Angelou’s gorgeous cookbook, Hallelujah! The Welcome Table. It’s a wonderful cookbook, as visually beautiful as it is inspiring to foodies. Of course, because it’s an Angelou cookbook, it’s also a terrific read. (Small-world local trivia regarding the book: You know Celeste White, most recently featured as an ArtHop artist/presenter. White’s brother-in-law Brian Lanker is a Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist whose pictures grace Angelou’s cookbook.)
Collard Greens2 smoked turkey wings 2 bunches tender collards (the greens are better if they’re picked after the frost) 1 sweet onion, chopped 2 hot red peppers Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 1 tablespoon sugar
In large pot, boil turkey wings in water to cover for 1 hour.
Pick and wash greens, and discard large stems. Chop leaves coarsely. Add all ingredients to pot. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours, adding water if needed. When greens are done, they can be served with Crackling Corn Bread.
Buttermilk Biscuits4 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup lard
2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl.
Cut in the lard until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
Add buttermilk, and stir until dough leaves side of bowl.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board, and knead until smooth. Roll out to 1/2-inch thickness, and cut into 2-inch rounds. If there is no biscuit cutter at hand, use a water glass. (Turn glass upside down, dust rim in flour, and cut biscuits.)
Bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 20 to 25 minutes, or until biscuits are golden brown.
Makes about 2 dozen biscuits. Serve hot.
Recipes from Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes, by Maya Angelou (Random House, 2004).
Cornbread2 cups self-rising cornmeal (preferably yellow)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons bacon grease, melted
1 ½ cups milk
3 tablespoons butter (to grease the cast iron pan)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place the butter in an 8-inch cast iron pan and heat it in the oven long enough to melt the butter, but not burn it. Swirl the butter around the pan to coat evenly.
Place the cornmeal and sugar in a bowl and set aside.
In another bowl, beat the eggs slightly, then add the melted (not hot) bacon grease and milk. Blend well.
Add the cornmeal/sugar mixture to the wet ingredients, and stir just well enough to break up the lumps and incorporate all the ingredients.
Spread the batter into the hot cast iron pan. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.
Note: This will also work for muffins and/or bread sticks.