Dinner as Dialogue in the Up South
A meditation and a menu
by Erick Williams
Photos by Sandy Noto
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
Can the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes apply to the contemporary Southern culinary experience?
Confronting bigotry and racism through my practice as a chef, I bring attention to the deep hatred Black people have suffered in America. As a Black citizen, I confront the hypocrisy of our country’s founders, who oppressed Black people while touting standards of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
My goal is to encourage dialogue about decency, integrity, and respect as it relates to the people of the African diaspora. Through my cooking, I aim to ask questions that connect to the questions Mr. Hughes asked.
Each generation is born with a moral and civic responsibility to make America a better place than they received it. I often hear the cry to our government to make the changes we need. I believe it is the responsibility of citizens to use our God-given rights to make those changes. A quote that my father drilled into my head as a young man comes to mind: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
Each generation is born with a moral and civic responsibility to make America a better place than they received it.
My greatest resource is food. Eating is a biological necessity that offers possibilities for building trust. My greatest talent is cooking. Service and hospitality set the table to resolve disputes, tear down generational barriers, and forge lasting bonds.
“Harlem” references questions asked then and now. While the poem’s title, of course, takes its name from New York City’s famous historically Black neighborhood, these questions resonate in the land of the free that has yet to be. “Harlem” speaks to a potential renaissance of equity and empathy and a balancing of the scales of opportunity. Like this imagined menu, “Harlem” reminds us that the American dream is a dream deferred. No matter how delicious food looks in a dream, it only becomes real when we can taste it.
Inspired by the questions posed in the 1951 poem by the late Mr. Hughes, I’ve used some ingredients that speak to the stigmas of being Black in America. And to the joys of being Black in America. The notes that follow speak to those inspirations.
Seeking to answer the question “Or does it explode?” I use Tabasco sauce throughout as a metaphor to catalyze thought and amplify flavors.
Watermelon and Cider Reduction with Tabasco Sea Salt is a bright and refreshing appetizer. I have juxtaposed summer deliciousness with the negative, stereotypical assumption that “Colored folk love watermelon.”
Smoked Turkey Wraps are petite lettuce packages stuffed with pulled turkey, spiced with the heat that Tabasco sauce affords.
A Salad of Cucumbers is a nostalgic take on salted cucumbers, marinated in vinegar, chilled, and shared with my mother on hot summer Chicago days.
Catfish and Chow Chow with Tabasco Mustard Greens and Honey-Poached Turnips is a progressive take on scrap cookery that challenges misconceptions about premium ingredients. (See insert for greens recipe.)
Finally, I reject the insults lobbed at African American food choices and channel the age-old combination of chicken and hot sauce with Tabasco-Brined Cornish Hens
Erick Williams’ Tabasco-Brined Cornish Hens
1/2 gallon water
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup Tabasco sauce
1/2 gallon ice
4 Cornish hens
1. Place water, sugar, and salt in a very large pot and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and when mixture stops boiling, add Tabasco and stir. Add ice to cool the brine.
2. When ice melts, submerge birds in brine.
3. Cover and transfer the entire pot to the refrigerator. Brine overnight or for about 8 hours.
4. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400°F. Remove birds from brine and dry them completely. Allow them to come to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
5. Place the hens in the oven on a roasting pan with a rack. Rotate the pan halfway through cooking.
6. Check hens 40 to 50 minutes into roasting and see if juices between the thigh and leg run clear (absent of blood). If not, cook an additional 10 minutes or until they run clear. If they do, remove from heat and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
Erick Williams’ Tabasco Mustard Greens
5 medium bunches mustard greens
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons seasoned salt
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 teaspoons garlic powder
1/4 teaspoons paprika
2 tablespoons mustard
1 cup finely chopped onion
4 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar
1. Start by pulling and tearing greens away from stems. Working one handful at a time, roll leaves up and cut rolls in half horizontally, resulting in medium-size pieces.
2. Add greens to clean, empty sink and wash them under cold running water. Rinse all grit, sand, and debris thoroughly until water becomes clear.
3. Heat canola oil in a large pot. Once the oil is hot, add onions and cook, stirring, until they are soft. Add greens and about 2 cups water.
4. Add all other ingredients except Tabasco sauce and vinegar to the pot. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for 40 minutes, removing the lid to stir every 10 minutes. After 40 minutes, raise heat to medium-high and cook until greens are completely tender and excess liquid has cooked down (most of liquid should be gone).
5. Add Tabasco sauce and vinegar and stir well to combine. Allow greens to settle for about 10 minutes before serving.
Erick Williams is the Tabasco keynote chef for this year’s virtual Fall Symposium. He is the owner and executive chef at Virtue Restaurant & Bar in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where he combines fine dining, Southern cuisine, and his studies of the Great Migration. Visit poetryfoundation.org to read “Harlem” by Langston Hughes.