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"The Kool-Aid flavor of the day is grape.” At Amy Ruth’s, serving Kool-Aid with dinner seems as natural as eating fried chicken piled over waffles, an admittedly strange prospect for my Midwestern parents. After all, in Missouri, one eats waffles doused in syrup at breakfast and fried chicken considerably later in the day. The two do not normally bump into each other at the neighborhood bar and then return home for dinner. When chicken meets waffle, though, Kool-Aid is the refreshment of choice—the perfect chemical concoction to accompany a sugar-fat-salt rush. Following a moment of hesitation, I order the Rev. Al Sharpton, all white meat. For my father, Americana aficionado and road food devotee, a plate of fried catfish. And a glass of grape Kool-Aid, please.
Amy Ruth’s, established in 1998, serves soul food. More specifically, Amy Ruth’s serves “Home-Style Southern Cuisine” inspired by the owner’s grandmother, Amy Ruth Moore Bass. The dishes, named after prominent members of the black community, tend towards the fried and smothered side: The President Barack Obama (fried, smothered, baked, or bar-b-q chicken), the Ludacris (fried chicken wings), the Honorable Keith Wright (fried or smothered pork chops), and the Phillis McCoy Jouber (tender smothered steak). Here, the food not only remains within the borders of the soul genre, but dwells at its very heart. Along West 116th Street, barber shops and electronics stores and new apartment buildings inevitably cascade toward Amy Ruth’s. From Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to Malcolm X Boulevard, all energy feels concentrated on this critically acclaimed bastion of soul cuisine. For hungry customers walking to Amy Ruth’s table, that last block proves the most agonizing, the anticipation of dinner nearly unbearable.
Despite the allure of the Rev. Al Sharpton, other soul food options now exist for those with cravings for chicken and waffles. Over the past 10 years, the number of soul food restaurants in New York City has increased dramatically. “There’s some new places opening, there are some places that have been around since the ’60s that have gone out of business, and there are some places that have been around since the ’60s that are renovating and creating larger venues that cater to what I would call a cross-over audience,” according to Dr. Frederick Douglass Opie, author of Hogs and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. “Kind of like what Berry Gordy did with music, trying to get mainstream white America,” Dr. Opie says.
“The new surge that you see is a second wave that’s happening now, and Red Rooster by Marcus Samuelsson is a great example right there in Harlem,” Dr. Opie explains. Red Rooster, which opened at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue this winter to a flurry of media attention, brings second-wave soul food close to home for Columbia students. From Mama’s Food Shop, Melba’s, and Raw Soul to Traif and Red Rooster, soul food restaurants have obtained unprecedented prominence over the last decade. Evaluating the evolution of soul food and the challenges it faces from new food trends is crucial to understanding its future—both in Columbia’s neighborhood and New York City at large.
As an intern at the Marcus Samuelsson Group, a frequent restaurant-goer and food consumer in Harlem, and a member of the Columbia community, I possess a unique perspective on soul food’s current trajectory. (Although I attempted to coordinate an interview with Marcus Samuelsson for this piece, scheduling conflicts prevented him from commenting.) Unfortunately, I am young, white, and male, and am as accidentally guilty of otherizing and essentializing as every other member of my demographic. But I actively resist the impulse to mythologize and the tendency to homogenize—my understanding of soul food, while contaminated by my unavoidable identities, has no intentional political agenda or ideological schematic. This brief history and analysis of soul food both attempts to evade a stereotype and to return its gaze, to recursively stare back into the eyes of the interrogator.
Beginning with slavery in North America, soul food emerged in Southern black communities. The fundamental ingredients that define soul food today—collard greens, pork, hominy—constituted the products available to slave communities. Similarly, soul food’s predominate techniques, like slow cooking, were adopted in response to demanding lifestyles and harsh living conditions.
Since Reconstruction, migrations to urban areas promoted even greater diversity and regionalization of cooking styles. During the 1960s and ’70s, all things soul were transformed into emblems of black culture. “It was a celebrated term,” Dr. Opie says. “It came out of the Black Power movement where black folks were celebrating all things black and things that they considered to be of African-American and African heritage, and soul and soul music were, what I argue in my own work, the cultural arm of the black power movement.”
As individuals from different parts of the South came to New York City, soul food in Manhattan became incredibly diverse. Since migrants mainly hailed from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Alabama, New York City’s soul food tends to reflect the cooking of those states. “If you’re from the part of Virginia where there are lots of lakes and rivers, you’re going to eat more things associated with seafood; if you’re from upper country, you’re going to eat a lot of pork,” Dr. Opie says. Still, most soul food involves pork and corn. “Pork is one of the things consistent throughout the diet, and that’s why I call my book Hog and Hominy,” Dr. Opie says, “because things that you see just about anybody eating is something with pork or they’re seasoning with pork, and then corn, whether it’s cornbread, or just a variety [of] things made with corn.”
In the late 1990s, new soul food restaurants began appearing in Manhattan after a period of relative stagnation. This first wave of soul food revival followed the reinvigoration of neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. For example, in 1995, Mama’s Food Shop opened as a tiny catering company with an Alphabet City storefront. When Mama’s started, however, the owners did not intend to take advantage of any particular trend. “As trends come and go—because they do come and go, especially in food—I don’t think we look at friends and say, ‘This is what we have to do because this is what’s hot,’” Brendan Clancy, Mama’s head chef, says. “People come back here; the business we get from regulars is huge, because we aren’t changing it. It’s been the same since 1995. There’ve been some changes, cooking techniques and everything, but the idea has pretty much stayed the same.” Amy Ruth’s opened just three years later. Both restaurants seem to have emerged at an opportune moment, as investors considered previously fallow areas prime for development. “We definitely haven’t had any inspiration from any other restaurant, or any other movement in the food culture,” Clancy says. Mama’s Food Shop began out of a heartfelt belief in soul food’s intrinsic power, not adherence to any cultural prescriptions.
Over Mama’s 15-year history, one of its only changes has been to use more seasonal products. Nutrition never reared its ugly head. “Vegetables are the main thing we serve here, and we’re not serving them because they’re healthy. We’re serving them because they’re good to eat,” Clancy says. “When you eat a vegetable that’s in season and that’s prepared the right way, healthy or not, it’s delicious. I don’t think we put any emphasis on being a healthy restaurant or not, we have both.” In Clancy’s opinion, diners know what type of meals Mama’s serves and all of their potential options. “We don’t get pressure to change any of it because it’s been around so long, everyone knows what we’re doing here,” he says. “You don’t have to come in here and eat an unhealthy meal. The options are here: to eat a very healthy meal, or an unhealthy, full of cream and cheese and butter meal.” Since soul food includes healthy alternatives to its stereotypically heart-clogging dishes, Mama’s saw no need to adapt to the nutritionism trend. “With all the movements that have come about lately, we just kind of slid right into them, because we didn’t have to change anything, because those were the practices we were using.”
Mama’s attracts customers yearning for comfort food, “people from all over who just kind of crave that meal that they always got at home—every city and every state in this country has their own type of comfort food, and I think we hit a lot of them,” Clancy says. “People come from all over, a lot of people who come from the South come here to give us a try to see if it stands up to what they think of as soul food.”
Nonetheless, soul food’s latest incarnations move beyond the strict pork and corn tradition to embrace global cuisines and a hip customer base. “Second-wave soul food,” the renewed interest in soul food beginning in the late 2000s and continuing to the present, has faced a complicated network of trends and pressures.
One driving force behind second-wave soul food came with the 2008 financial crisis. “A lot of folks, and particularly big time chefs, the new thing I hear them talking about is simple food instead of the haute cuisine and this very expensive and French-type of template,” Dr. Opie says. “A lot of them are turning back to simple foods and soul food fits that, and also there’s been a revival of all things Southern too.” Soul food fits in nicely with trends like stoner food, comfort food, and downsized fine dining. Focusing on visceral gastronomic pleasure and low price point, these trends emerged when New York City faced economic difficulties, a decline that threatened fine dining in particular. As a response to excess and luxury, “simple food” championed “cutting back” and adapting to a “recession mind-set.”
Inevitably, however, simple food trends transformed into pleasures beyond blue collar means. “[Some new soul food restaurants are] taking what used to be a working-class type of restaurant and menu and just revving it up,” Dr. Opie says. “Same food but revving it up, making it a white tablecloth, and charging a lot more money for it.” While Manhattan’s new soul food restaurants remain affordable, they cost substantially more than their venerable peers.
Although many young, affluent customers gravitate towards soul and comfort food because of their wanton disregard for nutrition, nutritionism represents one of soul food’s most formidable challengers. Obstacles in the way of soul food’s accelerating expansion include “the emphasis on health and nutrition that have happened in the last 20 years, as well that people are responding, particularly in a city like New York—where one of the more progressive things Mayor Bloomberg has done has been cutting down on trans fats and having menus that count calories,” Dr. Opie says. “So soul food has to evolve. If you’re going to market yourself as a restaurant, it has to evolve with these greater pressures going on in America.” While new regulations mainly apply to large-scale restaurant operations, the scrutinizing gaze of nutritionism has exerted pressure on soul food restaurants. When attitudes towards nutrition begin to shift, restaurants no longer conforming to norms must either adapt or target alternative demographics. As an appendage of the comfort and stoner food persuasions—read: a complete disregard for moderation in all things sodium, fat, and carbohydrate—soul food actually appeals to individuals looking for relief from nutritionism. Therefore, diametrically opposed movements influence soul food’s direction, informing its response to a peculiar, politicized question: to go healthy, or to stick to tradition?
Melba’s, a South Harlem restaurant billing itself as “American comfort food,” opened in 2005. Featured on Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay, Melba’s demonstrates the growing popularity and media exposure of soul food. Yet, increasing scrutiny of nutrition and local ingredients has required Melba’s to balance soul food’s tradition with New York’s liberal food scene. Christopher Faulkner recently became Melba’s head chef, and has witnessed the restaurant “going more local, going organic.” To face off against the nutritionists, Faulkner believes that “the key is to be able to offer options alongside traditional favorites like mac ’n’ cheese or fried chicken. It would be to include prepared meats that are not saturated with fat, that are more healthy, not necessarily focus on the protein, which used to be very common.” To do so, Faulkner builds a meal around fresh vegetables, and then works protein into the entrée.
Still, soul food’s famous pleasures remain critical to a Melba’s meal. “I think that certainly, the core of the food is that someone can walk out feeling healthy and energetic as opposed to sluggish, and that can be done with portion combinations of ingredients, also using ingredients that digest well together, and also making it fun,” Faulkner says. “There is an enjoyment from eating our food.”
As a member of soul food’s second wave, Melba’s hosts a diverse crowd. “You have a very local contingency that is very strong,” Faulkner says. “You have tourists coming in who are interest[ed] in checking out Melba’s. There’s also quite a significant draw from the Harlem community, but Harlem of the old—black Harlem—that’s changing. As Harlem is gentrified, that has changed the neighborhood considerably.” Among those changes, “you have people of all backgrounds and races, people from all kind of backgrounds. You have politicians, families, young ... people from the younger generation hanging out. Melba’s on Tuesday nights is quite the place to be.” On Tuesdays, Melba’s features live R&B.
Before they left Harlem for New Mexico earlier this year, Lillian and Eddie Butler ran Raw Soul, a restaurant offering a radical interpretation of soul food. According to Lillian, “raw food with soul” characterized their cooking, “raw food that satisfies the soul, that is soulfully delicious, so it’s healthy food that also tastes good that is also nutritious and satisfying.”
Despite their departure from soul food’s traditional cooking techniques, Raw Soul was well-received in Harlem. “Ultimately it was all-embracing,” Eddie says. “In the beginning, it was a curiosity—people were wondering ‘What is this place?’ and because our banner said ‘the original soul food,’ everyone associated it with traditional soul food, but that brought them in, and that enabled us to tell them about it. Overall, Harlem really opened its arms to this type of eating—healthier eating—so it was all-embracing in that sense.”
In fact, Raw Soul only adhered to the soul food movement in the most metaphorical sense. Prior to shutting down last month, Raw Soul served raw interpretations of classic American comfort food like a barbecue burgers and pizza. “We haven’t eaten that food [soul food] in 30 years,” Lillian says. “I grew up on that traditional food, but before I got into raw food I was already a vegetarian and so was Eddie. We already had a healthy lifestyle. ... Definitely in the early beginnings of childhood it was fried chicken and mac ’n’ cheese, and we have fond memories of all those traditions. Not to knock soul food, because it’s where we come from.”
Although they followed the tenets of soul food just in spirit, Lillian and Eddie’s restaurant proved a successful re-imagining of the soul food tradition through an alternative lens.
One of New York’s newest additions to the soul food scene, Traif celebrates all things unkosher, specifically pork and shellfish. But Traif prepares these ingredients in a “global soul food style,” resisting the latent nutritionism of both kosher law and New York’s liberal communities. Jason Marcus, head chef and owner of Traif, clarifies that “philosophically: Traif is cooking the food I love, which [is where] soul food come[s] into play.” Marcus says that “it’s about food, it’s about taste, it’s about context, meaning of cultures. It’s food that, when you’re done with it you’re like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to eat that again.’ Not in a complex, deep state-of-mind way. That, to me, is soul food, and that’s an underlying goal of mine, culinarily speaking.”
While Traif outwardly rebels against serving kosher food, it approaches the local foods movement with indifference. “What matters to me is getting the best food I can get. ... oftentimes that results in highly, highly seasonal foods that are local, that can be organic,” Marcus says. “To me, a chef shouldn’t be looking to appease the local trend; you should be trying for something greater than that. Things cost money, so ultimately you have to figure out business, but a chef should be trying to be getting the best possible things they can get, and generally those are the best for you.”
Located in Brooklyn, Traif has brought soul food to an entirely different audience. “We’re trying to attract anyone that wants to come in, we’re trying to attract anyone that wants to have a good meal,” Marcus begins. “In actuality, we’re in Williamsburg, so a lot of young artistic professionals. We have a lot of that. It’s cliché to say they’re hipsters. We have a lot of Jewish people who come in because they like the concept.” Whereas soul food restaurants in Harlem once attracted a primarily working-class, black customer base, Traif draws on a more affluent, white demographic. Ironically, that demographic actively attempts to eschew its bourgeois-ness, affecting poverty or ignoring inherent economic advantages. Consequently, an imagining of soul food seems a necessary aspect of their ironic existence.
The second-wave soul food phenomenon’s main challenge comes from nutrition watchdogs. Sharp criticism regarding food in low-income urban areas, nutrition fads, and the accessibility of health information affected the development of these new soul food restaurants. Even as they attempt to attract a different consumer demographic, many new restaurateurs face attacks regarding their product’s safety.
“If the trend continues to be [towards] simple food, I think soul food will continue to grow in its availability in a lot of restaurants, not only fast food, but kind of high cuisine, white tablecloth environment,” Dr. Opie says. “But it definitely has to respond to what we call convertibility with the health issues. It’s about using different ingredients, healthy ingredients.”
One trend that soul food anticipated—the local foods movement—continues to inform soul cooking according to Dr. Opie. “People talk about this big thing eating locally; I mean that’s what people eating soul food did. Ninety-five percent of what you cooked came out of your own garden, most of it you raised yourself and slaughtered yourself, so that eating local part has always been a part of soul food.”
No longer strictly adhering to a specific, narrowly constrained tradition, second-wave soul food restaurants constantly reinterpret their genre. Initially, organic ingredients, healthy recipes, and global influences seem like responses to external pressures. After all, New York’s food scene seems increasingly radicalized and permeated by left-leaning ideological agendas. Perhaps, changes in soul food restaurants are reflexive to these movements. Nevertheless, an alternative process more thoroughly explains second-wave soul food’s peculiar transformations: second-wave soul food is interested in producing a mythology of soul food, in re-imagining the soul food genre. These new interpretations allow a “cross-over” audience to participate in the soul food culture.
If a set of fundamental ingredients and recipes defines the soul food aesthetic, then second-wave soul food actively imposes a mythology over that aesthetic. Replicating the soul food of a particular historical moment is an obviously impossible project. So instead, these restaurants attempt to reinterpret traditional soul food cuisine. The process of forcing a historical text, “traditional soul food,” into a radically divergent set of contemporary norms alters soul food’s original cultural meaning. Once unique and particularized ingredients and recipes now become part of a fantastical stage play, a theatrical production of soul food intended to appeal to a particular audience: young, urban, and white individuals seeking an “authentic” experience. Not surprisingly, the desire to find “authenticity” usually translates into a desire to find the subconsciously expected, to locate stereotypes and caricatures. The emerging mythology of soul food (to loosely borrow from Roland Barthes, literary theorist and critic extraordinaire) collects the signs of a proletariat cuisine, the food of a working class. Then, that food and its cultural meaning are condensed into new representations: the dishes of second-wave soul food. And finally, those dishes receive a new bourgeois meaning. Consider, for example, a traditional ingredient, collard greens, and its corresponding preparation. The meaning of this dish for a black family evolved during the 20th century, but the dish remained associated with a working-class aesthetic. Second-wave soul food takes the dish and its meaning and collapses them into a monolithic construct that might appear on a menu as “Collard Greens with Pork Belly.” A new meaning attaches to “Collard Greens with Pork Belly,” a bourgeois imagination of soul food.
Of course, “just because you’re white doesn’t mean you can’t make soul food,” Dr. Opie says. “Soul has a lot to do with who you’re raised with or raised around. There’s not that much difference between soul food and Southern food. Potentially, southern food was a variation, but most of the southern food historically, if you were white and you were wealthy enough, who was cooking in your kitchen [was] a black domestic or a black slave.” According to Dr. Opie, “if you were poor you were raised and living around black folks just like any neighborhood, exchanging recipes and cooking ideas and eating together at community events. So I don’t think it’s so much whether the person is black or white in the kitchen, it’s what’s their cultural roots and heritage.”
Finishing my chicken and waffles, I feel satiated, luxurious in my unhealthy indulgences. Glass of grape Kool-Aid gone, my dad looks satisfied, too—Kool-Aid’s nostalgic mystery never fails to induce bliss. Leaving Amy Ruth’s, I turn uptown and gaze into Harlem, noting the commercial behemoths rising from 125th Street, the glossy apartment complexes sprouting form street corners. I am glad that soul food is experiencing a second wave, for in rebirth and re-imagination there is always preservation. Forgetting is worse than leaving the table without eating your fill. Soul food, though constantly evolving, is a staying force in New York, at least in spirit.
Devin Briski contributed reporting.
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