What We’re Reading: Soul Food Love

Guest blogger Nicki Pendleton Wood reviews just-released Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams. Offsquare Books in Oxford, Mississippi will host a release for the book Tuesday, February 24 at 5pm.

If you open Soul Food Love expecting to cook the kind of soul food served on a plate, you’ll be disappointed.

Instead, mother-daughter authors Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams start with a love letter and elegy for the food that nourished their ancestors, then follow through with an up-to-the-minute collection of boldly flavored, nutrient-dense food.

The book’s powerful opening chapters, “Five Kitchens,” are as good a telling as you’ll ever read of the personal-yet-universal saga of so many African American families. The kitchen rapes and mixed race ancestors. The lopsided economic opportunity and backdrop of violence. The move to industrial North and then back. The ambition, faith, and schooling followed (eventually) by entrance to the middle class and beyond. Their history concludes with Williams’s experiences of the black kitchen, at home, away at college, and in her teaching job in the Mississippi Delta.

What came to be called “soul food” fueled these black American lives, and Randall and Williams fill in details from their family (there’s a handy family tree on the book’s inside front cover). Early generations ate greens, oatmeal and sweet potato hash from scarcity. Abandoned infants were fed on sugar tits. Barbecue and “Co-Cola” came along with better times. Chicken salad, layer cakes, pate, pepper jelly and cheese balls swept in with the socialites and academics among Randall’s in-laws, the Bontemps and Williamses. Today’s fast food and food deserts seen by Williams in the Delta.

Randall, who learned to cook from Joy, Julia and Craig Claiborne, famously declared her intention to be her family’s “last fat black woman” in a 2012 New York Times op-ed piece. She even wrote a folksy novel, Ada’s Rules, setting out smart-eating guidelines. Soul Food Love offers a menu based on those guidelines, with recipes for the likes of hummus, kale and salmon.

The recipes also edge into other interesting corners of black culinary history. The black Adventist movement, under-documented in food literature, is represented by the vegan Poet’s Pot Pie and Oakwood Bean Loaf. There are throwbacks to the ‘90s trend of “healthy” soul food: reformulated salmon croquettes and collards simmered with spices instead of meat. And plenty of African and Afro-Caribbean stews foods.

Perhaps Soul Food Love’s brew of heavy emotional sledding, memories of the black kitchen experience, and exuberant food will fuel a seismic shift in eating habits that begins with embracing that food, then kissing it goodbye before moving on.