Healthier, revitalized soul food
There’s no pork at The Rotisserie, a soul food restaurant in Dorchester. And where collard greens might typically be sauteed with ham or bacon fat at another soul food establishment, here they’re cooked with turkey. Paprika-seasoned chicken is slow-cooked on a rotisserie, rather than fried. And if you choose two starch sides, like mashed potatoes and candied yams, instead of one non-starchy vegetable and one starchy, you’ll be charged $1 extra.
Welcome to the emerging trend of healthier soul food. Often maligned as unhealthy, soul food is undergoing revitalization.
“People were shocked when we opened in 2013 and there was no pork,” recalls Letecia Huntley-Connally, an employee. “Then, after tasting, some say ‘That’s just how grandma made it.’ They’re not missing anything.”
Soul food restaurants around the country are reducing fat and pork, some even going so far as to serve only vegan dishes. At the forefront is Soul Vegetarian in Chicago, which is more than 30 years old. The Seasoned Vegan in Harlem, in New York City, opened a year ago and prides itself on serving what it calls “gourmet vegan soul food.” The Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, D.C., a 71-year-old institution, offers vegan collards and vegan lasagna alongside classic fried chicken and fried catfish, chitterlings and pigs’ feet.
“There’s a new energy in soul food. It’s undergoing innovation,” says Adrian Miller, a food historian and the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches in Denver. “These days you can find more greens, vegan mac and cheese, fried tofu. In a way, it’s a homecoming because slaves from West Africa ate a lot of greens and legumes. These foods were the building blocks of soul food.”
Miller, a former lawyer and Washington, D.C. policy wonk, spoke about soul food during a recent visit to Boston. His book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time” won a 2014 James Beard Foundation award. For research, Miller read 3,000 African slave narratives, 500 cookbooks, and checked out 150 soul food restaurants in 35 states.
The term “soul food” was popularized during the 1950s in lieu of “down-home cooking,” says Miller. Activists in the 1960s said the cuisine harkened back to the true black experience; the Nation of Islam denounces it as “slave food,” he says. In the 1960s, soul food also became distinguished from Southern cuisine. “Soul food became black and Southern food became white,” Miller told a crowd at the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Jamaica Plain. He defines soul food as “more intense than Southern food with higher spice seasoning, more fat, and sweeter. Soul food definitely comes from Southern food, the mother cuisine.”
Miller’s research draws attention to the historic role of blacks in American kitchens, says Joanne Hyppolite of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which will open in 2016. “African-Americans had a presence in everyone’s kitchen since slavery, in private homes and on plantations. I see other scholars try to get away from the term ‘soul food’ as being something invented as part of the black power movement.’’ But she sees this as causing problems; the general public doesn’t see the regional variety and diversity of the food.
Hyppolite, who was raised in Dorchester and attended Boston Latin School, is curating a piece of the 2016 exhibit on African-American food, which will highlight observations Miller recounts in his book, including the evolution of soul food over 400 years, blending African, European, and Native American influences. “Our exhibit will talk about several types of regional [soul] food, like oysters, red beans, rice, and collard greens,” Hyppolite says. “We’ll also have an update of what’s going on now with soul food, vegan versions.”
The Bethel AME crowd urged Miller to try food at Blue Ribbon Barbecue locations in Arlington and West Newton, and at Sweet Cheeks Q in the Fenway, two local restaurants that are reducing fats and sodium. “We offer vegetarian soups and side dishes, like black-eyed peas mixed with tomatoes and dried herbs, along with our Texas brisket and Memphis ribs,” says Blue Ribbon general manager Scott Gubitose. “We believe moderation is everything.”
At Sweet Cheeks Q, the menu includes pulled chicken and Brussels sprout salad. Sensitive to perceptions of appropriating a cultural cuisine, chef and owner Tiffani Faison notes: “Our collard greens and black-eyed peas are made in a really traditional style, not a chef-y version, though we have not been smart enough to figure out vegan versions of it.”
The Rotisserie doesn’t have the upscale chicness of Blue Ribbon or Sweet Cheeks Q. There are four small tables; it’s more take-out than dine-in. Huntley-Connally says “the king and queen’’ of customer preferences are the chicken, and mac and cheese. A whole chicken plus three sides costs $24.99. The chicken is flavorful, not too salty, and almost fall-off-the bone tender. The mac and cheese is a creamy delight.
In Miller’s book, there are three mac and cheese recipes, two traditional and one heart-healthy, among 20 other recipes. He’s now working on “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Hidden History of African American Presidential Chefs,” a second book in a series of five.
“So many African American contributions have been ignored,” he says, “and there are so many stories to be told.”
Adrian Miller, adrianemiller.com
The Rotisserie, 651 Warren St., Dorchester, 617-442-3300, www.therotisseriedorchester.com
Blue Ribbon Barbecue, 908 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 781-648-7427, and 1375 Washington St., West Newton, 617-332-2583, www.blueribbonbbq.com
Sweet Cheeks Q, 1381 Boylston St., Boston, 617-266-1300, www.sweetcheeksq.com