How I Learned to Cook Soul Food

As a “Northerner,” I have always been intrigued about (and drawn to) the food of the South – Creole cooking in particular. I acquired a taste for “pot likker” (the residual broth leftover from making greens) years before I knew what it was called. Perhaps this was because my body needed nutrients from the mineral-rich broth, and I instinctively sought it out. Or, perhaps it was the deep spiritual connection that I felt with the poverty-based “cuisine of survival” that drew me in – as I had been a child who suffered from hunger.

I studied the art of soul food cooking via books, primarily. I somehow acquired enough information over the years, to pass muster at an audition to cook for the artist Prince, where I prepared a huge spread of what I called “Minnesota Soul.” And years later, I was called upon to surprise the entourage of Eddie Murphy with a soul food banquet. I observed several of the guests scratching their heads in disbelief; they weren’t expecting a white woman – especially a Jewish woman – to serve up the kind of cooking one would expect from a real Southern mama.

To be honest, however, my study of soul food cook books only took me so far. It wasn’t until I met my mentor (and partner-in-catering), Mabel , that I began to develop a true understanding of this style of cooking. Mabel, the daughter of a sharecropper family from Arkansas, migrated to Los Angeles at the age of 17 – on her own – to pursue a better life. Meeting Mabel was a life-changing experience for me in so many ways. She not only taught me the complex subtleties of soul food cooking – she also taught me the meaning and philosophy behind it, in ways that no book could hope to do.

I came to know Mable through a series of unlikely circumstances. Early in my career as a private chef/caterer I was given the opportunity to cater a casual birthday dinner for a billionaire’s wife. Since it was a simple casual dinner party for ten guests I bid low in an effort to “get in the door.”

When I arrived at the site, I learned that the party of ten had grown to fifteen. I next discovered that all of the guests were going to be dressed in formal attire. Then, I was informed that I would be working with the house manager along with two women – the house manager’s girlfriend (who had never worked in a kitchen before) and Mable Wittemore . I noticed that Mable was quietly observing me while giving me the much needed space as I was confronted with the new circumstances. I immediately realized that I would need to convert my casual menu “on the fly” – to a more formal presentation – without being able to shop for added provisions.

As I was struggling to adjust to the sudden change, I could feel the hostile stares of the house manager and his girlfriend behind me; I could sense that they seemed to enjoy seeing me squirm. There was little time to plan, as dinner was to commence in one hour. My original “casual” menu consisted of a “Country Tomato” salad, a main course of grilled baby lamb chops served with Gnocchi a la Romana and grilled vegetables, and a simple chocolate soufflé. The entire menu needed to be upgraded – and quickly!

So…how was I going to accomplish this effectively, with so little time available? Creating something flavorful and satiating from scant ingredients is at the heart of soul food cooking. I took a few lamb chops off the racks that I was roasting, to render into a beautiful sauce, adding a gourmet touch to the simple roasted entrée. I also “stretched” the meal by baking a fresh made bread to accommodate the quantity of food needed to meet the larger guest count.

As I was in the process of re-designing the dinner, the client strolled into the kitchen and exclaimed in a condescending tone, “I will be pouring a very expensive Bordeaux this evening…do you think that your food will match up to its quality?” After recovering from the shock of being spoken to in such a manner, I managed to blurt out, “Yes – if you leave a bottle for me in the kitchen so that I can taste it while I am cooking!” To my surprise, the client returned to the kitchen with a rare vintage of Cheval Blanc! The mean-spirited house manager and his girlfriend looked on in disbelief, jaws dropping, as I added the expensive wine to the sauce pot, reserving a portion for my own consumption at the end of the night.

By this point in time, my blood had climbed to near boiling point – the client increased the size of the party without contacting me; I had quoted a price below the going rate; the meal was changed without notice to a formal setting (contrary to what I had initially been told); and he had just made a condescending remark before tasting any of the food.

The first course went out and was well received. All of the plates came back clean. It was just about time to serve the entrée which was resting in a low oven, ready to plate. As the house manager his girlfriend hovered over me, trays-in-hand, I was startled by the sound of a loud buzzer. The house manager informed me that the client was buzzing for the next course – he had a button installed underneath the dining table! It felt as though I was being treated like a servant – not a chef. I looked over at Mable, who had a knowing look in her eyes. The buzzer kept on sounding, over and over again, for what seemed like an eternity. I decided – right then and there – that I was not about to respond to a buzzer. In fact, I was just about ready to walk off the job!

Eventually, the client entered the kitchen. “What’s the problem? Are you ready to serve the food?” I reluctantly decided to stay the course, knowing that I wouldn’t want to gain a reputation as an “uppity” chef.

I somehow made it through the rest of the night. The only bright spot that evening was the sight of Mable standing away from the action, observing and smiling in a knowing way, as I handled the situation. By the end of the night, Mable and I had developed a friendship – and wound up working together for more than twenty years, until the day she retired. As we worked together in the kitchen, Mable shared her wisdom with me, along with many moving and instructive stories about the adventurous chapters in her life. She was a sharecropper’s daughter – one of fifteen children. Every day, her mother would bake dozens of biscuits or spoon bread , starting her day at 4:00 a.m. The family would then begin a long day of work in the fields. Mabel remembered the family pig (named “Scraps”), who was fed table scraps, grew to a gigantic size, and was eventually stolen for food. Mabel described her first job in a “house” and how she learned to be “transparent” at all times. Mabel learned to deal with racism early on in her career. She taught me to count the silverware at the end of the night and to place it in view, all counted and accounted for. She explained to me that I must never enter any area of the house outside of the kitchen. Mabel showed me how to practice frugality in the kitchen, utilizing safe food preservation techniques, as well as re-purposing ingredients and equipment.

I remember one particular episode that epitomized Mable’s thoughtfulness and penchant for careful planning. It was the morning after a huge catering job that we had worked on together. I began to despair as I realized that I had depleted my entire supply of coffee at home. Something caused me to check my tool kit from the night before – to this day I have no idea why I did so. I was happily surprised to discover a little wrapped container of fresh coffee beans – which had obviously been placed there lovingly by Mable.

Mabel taught me how to avoid any waste of resources – especially food – something that she had been doing her entire life. She invited me, regularly, to her home for a dinner of catfish, greens and cornbread – often after she had finished catering brunch for bridge-playing ladies in Bel Air. I remember the two of us standing over a steaming pot of turnip greens (my favorite choice) and discussing the art of cooking greens. Mabel told me to never add sugar to the greens and to use turnip greens over collard greens. A ham hock, vinegar and a scotch bonnet pepper that you carefully remove before serving with a stove top spoon bread .

Mable was the first person to teach me about folk medicine. She lovingly cooked up a concoction of onions, lemons, honey, and bourbon to clear a nasty cold one day and taught me the meaning of cooking food for the less fortunate and the grieving. I stayed up many a night with her, cooking for a family in grief.

Soul food as a cuisine comes from a place of poverty, strife and struggle, of reaping nourishment from the earth, to preserve survival. It requires careful preparation of edibles that are generally discarded by thoughtless over consumers. These low edibles are transformed by the power of love to provide nourishment for the body and soul, hence the name “soul food”

Above and beyond all of the lessons in the kitchen, the most important lessons that she taught me is tolerance in the face of intolerance and grace (extending kindness to one who doesn’t deserve it) Whenever she was verbally assaulted or treated poorly by a client or guest my first instincts were to defend her. As a dignified and noble woman, she would pull me aside and tell me to “let it go” She would always take the higher road.

To this day, I aspire to emulate her.

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