Soul food and the history of American cuisine redefined

You’ve probably never eaten pork and beans with edamame and tomatoes. And how’s that for a centerpiece: “That big mama, that’s our Berkshire pork knuckle,” said chef Chris Williams.

Correspondent Maurice DuBois asked, “When you said pork and beans, we literally weren’t imagining it.”

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Pork & Beans by Chef Chris Williams with Berkshire rump and three bean stew.

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“When we first opened, we kind of knew what expectations people would have of what we were going to do,” Williams said. “Black-owned restaurant, you expect pork and beans, you expect this, and so we let them come in the doors with it and then show them this type of stuff.”

At Williams’ Houston restaurant, Lucille’s, everything from shrimp and grits to braised oxtail has an unexpected twist — an approach he calls “refined Southern cooking.”

DuBois asked, “Are you changing the perception of soul food?”

“The goal here is to change the limited image of African American chefs while paying homage to our roots,” he replied.

Williams said the idea of ​​redefining what it means to be a Black chef was ingrained in his DNA thanks to his great-grandmother, legendary chef, educator and entrepreneur Lucille B. Smith.

Williams said: “She created the country’s first instant mix for hot buns. Iterations of this hot bun dough, like these chili cookies here, were served to American Airlines, their first-class passengers. She broke the color lines with the brilliance of her product.”

Smith is one of more than 400 black culinary influencers featured in a new Museum of Food and Drink exhibit entitled African/American: Making the Nation’s Table. It recently opened in New York City at the Africa Center.

Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris is the lead curator. “We are beginning, and unfortunately only just beginning, to understand the tremendous, extraordinary hand that African Americans have had in the cooking pots of America,” she said.

DuBois asked, “You say it’s more American than apple pie, this African American cuisine?”

“It is,” Harris replied. “It was here. It was the backbeat. It was the roar, the buzz and the heartbeat of surely much of this country.”

Harris said enslaved Africans brought to America helped fuel an agricultural revolution: “They grew the crops. They tended the harvest. You have reaped the harvest. They then cooked it and served it. They are doing all this for the country’s elite, who are beginning to establish what the food and eating habits of this country are.”

Harris noted that the young American colony’s wealth was created by African hands. DuBois asked, “Do you think that was acknowledged?”

“That’s what’s hard to admit,” she replied.

Correspondent Maurice DuBois and curator Jessica B. Harris examine a quilt at the center of the exhibition African/American: Making the Nation’s Table.

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At the heart of the exhibit hangs a giant legacy quilt, each block handcrafted to tell a story, including that of inventor Frederick McKinley Jones, who provided fresh food to millions. “He had an invention that allowed us to have refrigerated trucks,” Harris said.

And James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved cook, who apprenticed in Paris and brought home copper pots, among other things. “That’s how we get this mac ‘n’ cheese,” Harris said.

And there’s Nearest Green, the formerly enslaved man behind Jack Daniels whiskey: “We thought Jack Daniels was Jack Daniels when we discovered he was being taught to distill by Nearest Green.”

Also on display: the famous ebony test kitchen. For almost half a century it was at the center of black American food culture. It was often featured in Ebony Magazine’s cooking column as they tried new recipes.

Touring the exhibit, DuBois remarked, “The colors just catch your eye. You’re a bit noisy!”

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Charla Draper, former editor-in-chief of Ebony Food, shows Maurice DuBois a replica of the Ebony test kitchen.

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“It’s vibrant and shows the diversity of the African-American audience,” said Charla Draper, who was the magazine’s food editor and worked in the kitchen in the 1980s. “Ebony was created as an ambitious magazine, to show, ‘You can do these things. You can go to law school, you can be a remarkable entertainer, and you can certainly be a good cook.’”

Breaking bread has a way of breaking down barriers. It’s a fitting reminder that chef Chris Williams hopes to bring us together

“Everyone has great childhood memories of those smells and sensations,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. We can just have a great experience in the most unexpected places and find common ground.”

Customers at Lucille in Houston.

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Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Publisher: Carol Ross.

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