Soul food, Afro-American cuisine beyond fried chicken – Jeune Afrique

African-American Stephen Satterfield, author of the documentary series High on the pigThe Lion’s Share, How African American Cuisine Transformed America, 2021), broadcast on Netflix, left his native Georgia for Ganvié, a lake town located in the south of Benin and north of Cotonou, to discover its gastronomic treasures. Accompanied by a resident of the village, whose economy is mainly based on fishing, he crosses Lake Noukoué in a canoe, heading for one of the maquis bordering the waters populated by tilapias.

Once at the table, the telegenic food critic does not hide his emotion at the sight of the dish consisting of fried fish, spices and spicy tomato sauce. “When I was little, my father would cook fish every Sunday to feed the whole church. In my home state of Georgia it is very common to eat fried fish with tomato spaghetti. Today is Sunday and this dish looks very familiar to me’, he confides to his host, moved.

Generous dishes, African atmosphere

While many black Americans multiply DNA tests in hopes of figuring out the family tree of their African ancestors, others find their roots on the board. “The story of our kitchen is the story of who we are,” Satterfield sums up. And this story is that of food for the soul, food for the soul. A formula that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, when strong expressions linked to black identity emerged, from Black is Beautiful to Black Power, in the southern states of slavery, from Alabama to Texas, through Louisiana or Georgia. And which takes its name directly from soul music, music that whites could not appropriate.

Unsurprisingly, it’s first considered a festive cuisine, which African Americans love to enjoy in the form of hearty post-Mass banquets, or cozy barbecues during Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19. , Slave Liberation Day, proclaimed in Texas in 1865.

Lionel Chauvel-Maga knew these gatherings around large Sunday tables well. Born to a Beninese mother and French father, this well-built 37-year-old founded Gumbo Yaya — “brouhaha” in New Orleans Creole — in 2015, a soul food restaurant camped in Paris’ 10th arrondissement. It was with his expatriate aunts in Macon, Georgia that he discovered the essence of African American cuisine in the 1990s.

This link between Africa, the United States and Europe is the essence of soul food, the foundation of the Afro-descendant community.

“I had a really family approach to soul food and discovered this culture of generous dishes that we shared on Sundays around large tables, he recalls. I also liked the African atmosphere, my Beninese grandmother’s yam dishes were replaced by sweet ones in the United States. potatoes, the pasta gratins I ate in France were made up by my aunts, macaroni and cheese versions,” says the manager.

This great classic of African American cuisine, especially served on Thanksgiving, was borrowed from Europeans when President Jefferson sent his slave chef to train in pasta preparation on the old continent. “This link between Africa, the United States and Europe is the essence of soul food, it is the foundation of the Afro-descendant community,” recalls Lionel Chauvel-Maga.

Strengthen your identity

This already mixed cuisine was eventually exported beyond the rural areas of the south to reach the cities, also based on the West African terroir. “African Americans used food to cement their identities by growing African products such as crows, millet, okra, rice and sorghum in their gardens,” said culinary historian Adrian Miller, former advisor to Bill Clinton and former master of soul food. They found substitutes for foods from Africa they loved, such as tropical yams, which they replaced with sweet potatoes, which are better grown in the North American climate. †

The slaves could only prepare one meal on Sunday, they took what they had on hand

In the middle of Lionel Chauvel-Maga’s restaurant is a large wooden table, flanked by two benches. In his “southern cuisine”, as can be read in capital letters on the red-turquoise facade, American rap beats roar and attract a cosmopolitan clientele. The chef, still in the kitchen, has managed to “deghettoize” a cuisine hitherto associated with blacks, not without stigmatization. The bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup, stripped of the racially-ticked logo (that of an African American recalling the slavery and segregationist past of the South) and the Louisiana hot sauce are ready to recreate the house’s great classic. coating, the gospel bird (roast chicken).

At Gumbo Yaya, fried chicken is king and served between two wafers of cornmeal, in a biscuit, or accompanied by sweet potatoes, coleslaw, cornbread, the cornbread inherited from the Native Americans, or mac and cheese. “Whether before or after the emancipation of the black community, the slaves who worked on the large properties of Virginia or Carolina could only cook one real meal on Sunday. They took what they had on hand, the leftovers that the masters did not want, such as the wings, the thigh and the top of the chicken thigh, which they sublimated by baking them “explains the enthusiast, who above all wants to pay tribute to a culture “African American customers really feel respected when they walk into Gumbo Yaya, even though I only offer 5% of what soul food currently has to offer.”

It would indeed be a mistake to reduce soul food to a piece of poultry dipped in boiling oil. Long before waffle and chicken fashions invaded the capital against a backdrop of hype and hip-hop, an institution was exporting the soul of Southern cuisine to Paris under the name Gabby and Haynes. Founded in Pigalle in the 1950s and 1960s, this shop was run by African-American Leroy Haynes, a former soldier with a romantic career.

The Hideout of Soldiers and Louis Armstrong

After attending the prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King and Spike Lee paraded, the young graduate embarked on a career with GI in Europe before joining La Sorbonne to prepare for a PhD there. In this Parisian institution he met his future wife, the Frenchwoman Gabrielle Lecarbonnier. Together they open what will soon become the haunt of African-American soldiers and jazzmen, such as Louis Armstrong. The trumpeter swears by black eyed tendon (cornille beans) and rice from Haynes, which he tastes after his concerts in the cabarets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “I only knew how to cook: leafy greens, chicken, chitterlings (pork tripe), soul food, foods the French couldn’t understand,” Leroy Haynes confided shortly before his death in 1986.

In the early 2000s, there was a real resists soul food, the African American was said to have committed suicide with fried chicken

A few years after the closure of this emblematic place, soul food has bad press. Dietitians and politicians are taking advantage of the phenomenon. Soul food is said to be responsible for the growing obesity of poor black American families. “In the early 2000s, there was a real resists soul food. The African-American was said to have committed suicide with fried chicken. There was a real decline in specialty restaurants at that time,” recalls Lionel Chauvel-Maga.

A finding that makes Adrian Miller jump. the author of Soul Food, the surprising story of an American kitchen, one plate at a time (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) views this criticism as social and political hypocrisy. “We now know that soul food is not the only culprit. Studies have shown that African Americans also eat a lot of ready meals and frequent fast food chains. However, we are well aware that soul food also consists of peas, cabbage, carrots… This criticism also does not take into account social factors such as systemic racism, which affects the mental and physical health of this layer of society. ‘ he insists.

Poor relative of American gastronomy, soul food struggles to be recognized. The much-discussed African-American chef Carla Hall, who judged the American version of top chef, tries to restore his image. In his book Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Party (Harper Wave, 2018), she strives to ennoble the great classics of the repertoire by offering refined recipes: seasonal tomato stock and roasted okra, sweet potato and clementine pudding, fresh shrimp and grits (cornmeal).

Ditto for Adrian Miller who offers three variations of recipes in his soul food bible: a traditional one, a diet one, by swapping fried fish and chicken for fresh fillets, and a more elaborate one. “Today’s African-American chefs are cutting back on fat, salt and sugar and are finding spectacularly creative ways to use vegetables,” boasts Miller, who hopes to create a label for true recognition of this gastronomy.

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