Black chefs and the soul food that connects SA & USA

Mzansi seven colours meet the USA’s soul food, two global award-winning chefs, Adrian Miller and Mogau Seshoene unpack racial politics in the kitchen and food as a vehicle of comfort and change

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Ask anybody on the street and they will tell you that “soul food” is the pinnacle of African American culture. They even made a movie about it in 1997!

Chef and historian Adrian Miller believes it is so much bigger.

Chefs Adrian Miller and Mzansi’s Mogau Seshoene explored American and South African food culture similarities at a dialogue hosted by the United States Embassy of South Africa. Photo: Facebook/US Embassy South Africa

Soul Food is history on a plate, he told the Lazy Makoti, Mogau Seshoene, who joined him live for a Black History Month celebration hosted by the United States Embassy in Pretoria.

An award-winning chef and self-proclaimed “Soul Food scholar,” Miller said Soul Food was born out of desperate times in an era where disposed slaves were forced to survive on the bare minimum in a foreign country.

“Every week they got about five pounds of some starch, it would be corn meal, rice and sweet potatoes. Then they would get a couple pounds of meat, usually pork that was smoked, salted, or pickled, and a jug of molasses.

“Slaves had to survive by supplementing their diet, through gardening, foraging, hunting, fishing. All these things were strategies to survive.”

‘I love the combination with cornbread and greens and black-eyed peas, I think that rounds out a nice meal.’

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Seshoene went on to explain that in Mzansi, we called soul food “seven colours”.  

“It’s so fascinating to me just how similar our traditions and the way we do things are. Every Sunday we make every vegetable that there is, the table will be colourful with vegetables, meats and starches, it is like a tradition,” she said.

The Lazy Makoti picked his brain, and Miller detailed his journey from politico to James Beard award-winning chef.

From the Clinton administration to award winning food writer. How did you become a chef?

The short answer is unemployment. The long answer is I was working for Pres. Clinton in the White House, and I wanted to be the Senator for Colorado.

I went to the bookstore and saw this book on the history of Southern food written by a guy named John Edgerton. He said the achievement of Black American cooking had yet to be written about, that is what launched me on this journey of self-studying my food traditions and cuisine.  

My grandfather was a chef on the rail roads, my mother’s father and mother were great cooks, they’re deceased but I think they would be very proud of me taking this culinary journey.

Celebrity chefs Mogau Seshoene (known as The Lazy Makoti (left) and Zanele van Zyl (right) pictured with iconic food editor Sitole (middle). Photo: Supplied
Celebrity chefs Mogau Seshoene (known as The Lazy Makoti) (left) and Zanele van Zyl (right) pictured with the late, iconic food editor Dorah Sitole (middle). Photo: Supplied/ Food For Mzansi
What is the anatomy of ‘Soul Food’?

Soul Food brings together culinary techniques, ingredients and traditions of West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. Enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to this part of the world and forced to recreate home in an alien environment.

If they could bring stuff from Africa with them, they would plant them in gardens, that is how things like okra, hibiscus, watermelon, all come to the Americas.

But is it Southern Food, though?

Soul food made by African Americans tastes better. They both have common ingredients and techniques; I think it is more in the way the cuisine is performed.

Soul food tends to have more seasoning, relies on a variety meats for flavour, and the lines between savoury and sweet are blurred. There is sugar in our cornbread, White Southerners will tell you this is like heresy. They will say adding sugar to cornbread is like baking a cake.

What is a good dish to enjoy cornbread with?

Cornbread is usually the standard choice for any soul food cooking.

Right after emancipation, poor African Americans in the rural South often used cornbread with vegetable preparations, because they were so poor. They did not have utensils; they would have cornbread and greens and black-eyed peas together so they could mix it all up and eat it with their fingers.

‘Enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to this part of the world a forced to recreate home in an alien environment.’

I love the combination with cornbread and greens and black-eyed peas, I think that rounds out a nice meal.

Why do Black Lives Matter so much?

George Floyd’s murder was videotaped, and everybody could see that and there was just no way to deny that.

American chef Adrian Miller’s third book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, details the history and recipes cooked by black presidential staffers. Photo: Adrian Miller

We have had other incidents in the United States where I thought this awakening would happen.

One of the things that has been really heartening to see is so many different people not only in the United States but around the world rallying for racial justice. We now have an outpouring of support of people trying to learn more of the condition of black people.

Speaking of Black Lives, what is the experience of being a Black chef in America?

100 years ago, we were not celebrated. Food service was not thought of the way it is now, it was not something that was glamourous. A lot of African Americans were cooks and chefs, because that was one of the few things that they could do without generating any white resentment.

Now that being a chef is more glamourous we’re finding more and more African Americans being pushed to the side-lines in terms of being spotlighted.

There is still a lot of progress that must be made.

Now there is much more emphasis in trying to get black chefs the attention they deserve. The struggle continues in getting the resources they need to start restaurants or have television shows.

Here is your official guide to good soul food with Chef Adrian

Fried or smothered chicken: Smothering goes though the same process as fried chicken, but is fried in shallow grease, after it is seared and sealed it is then braised in gravy, until it falls off the bone.

Black-eyed peas: A tradition in the USA is to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day as they are believed to bring good luck and good fortune for the year. Miller explains that a lot of soul food vegetables are prepared the same. The pea isn’t actually a pea either, it is really a bean native to West Africa.

Fried fish: West African roots have tied African Americans to their coastal ancestors love of fish. Miller however explains that catfish, the most popular option, has become too expensive and consumers have now turned to the cheaper option of whiting and tilapia, among others. Fried fish is seasoned with corn meal and fried in grease until it is nice and crispy.

Variety meats: Miller describes variety meats or the “funky cuts” as the hallmark of soul food. These include oxtail, pigs’ feet, ham hocks and chitlins or chitterlings, which are pig intestines. Chitlins are usually stewed or fried.

Greens: These include turnips, cabbage, kale and collard, staples of the West African diet. Miller says greens are usually cooked and stewed over a long period of time with meat in the pot to season greens.

Candied Yams: These are a dark-skinned sweet potato and not actual yams and are boiled or baked and braised in gravy of melted butter, sugar, cinnamon and more spices.

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