(This article was written for and submitted to BlackPower.com)
Three times a year, I wake up before the sun, put pots of various sizes on the stove to boil, spend hours dicing, chopping, cleaning, tearing, baking, frying, broiling and carving up a feast. Collard greens slow cooked for hours with hamhocks, until the meat is falling off the hock and the greens are smooth as silk and melt on your tongue. Macaroni nd cheese that is akin to one of Pele's sacred mountains, cheese bubbling and percolating throughout layers and layers of macaroni masking as sediment, top golden brown and crisp with occassional butter, mozarella, and cheddar magma breaking through the surface. Turkey, slow roasted in the oven, garlic cloves slipped beneath the skin, the skin rubbed with olive oil, seasoning salt, garlic salt, pepper, and pats of butter snuck inside to make sure it stays so moist that the juices bead on the surface and sweat down the sides when you pull it from the oven. Mash potatoes and homemade turkey gravy. Stuffing. Pies. Glorified rice. Gizzards and neckbones. These are the blessings that I lay on the people I love, these are the spells and incantations I work to bring health and strength to my family, these are a holy inheritance that has sustained my people and my family for more than three centuries. This is soul food.
For those that did not grow up in a black family or a Southern family, soul food is viewed as a quaint regional cuisine. Perhaps you have had chicken and waffles at Amy Ruth's or sampled the greens and mac and cheese at Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles. Perhaps you have tried chitterlings on a dare or ate jambalaya while on vacation in New Orleans. For those of us that know better, we know that soul food is the way that our family keeps our history alive. Standing around the kitchen on Easter, watching my Great Aunt Sis cleaning chittlin's and telling me how putting a potato and an onion in the pot kills the smell was always the signal that a story was on its way. She would then turn to me and, in the same breath, tell me how the black community burned down the Negro school when the Supreme Court orderd the end of segregation so the white folks could never make them go back. With a chuckle, she would stir the greens, wink, and say, “But I don't know nothin' 'bout that.”
In my time, I have had to confront rabid vege-naziis that rail at me for eating meat. Having no understanding of what it means to take what was once thrown at you....trash given to trash...and making living, delicious, sustenance out of it. Pigs feet and chitterlings, neck bones and hog maws, tails and tongue. These were the things doled out to the least and from which we made the most. These are the foods that fed Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X (minus the pork). These are the foods that fed Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. These are the foods that fed Assata Shakur and Marcus Garvey and Maya Angelou and all of those black folks that laid the bricks of the road we now travel so much more easily because of their sacrifice and the celebration they made of scraps and ends.
On Thanksgiving morning, Christmas morning, and Easter morning, I wake up with joy in my heart. I turn on the stove, and I look at the bountiful blessing of histoy laid out in front of me. I lose all sense of time as I pour my love, joy, affection, sorrow, pain, and hope into every dish, into every cut and slice, into every pot. This is soul food. Food that sustains the soul, that is a gift, that is to be cherished and treasured and eaten as a way to celebrate family, history, the ones we love, and ourselves.