I grew up with a love for soul food. Most of my family’s social gatherings, Sunday’s and holidays especially, were centered on soul food. Much like other African Americans, this love comes primarily from cultural influences. Sunday dinners were a cornucopia of delights, fried chicken, fried catfish, chicken and dumplings, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, peach cobbler and banana pudding. The bigger the pig, the better, because we all know, ham on Sunday, will taste even better on Monday. It was a family tradition that I still value. I often tell my nieces that Soul Food takes me back someplace special.
The kitchen was the gathering room for 3- 4 generations of soul food cookers, with me being the weakest link. I hated cooking but I loved having an opinion about the taste, add more cheese to the mac and cheese, more sage to the chicken and dressing, and take it easy on the bananas in the pudding. The preparation for Sunday dinners would start on Saturday mornings, the cutting, chopping, marinating and early conversation of who is cooking which portion of the meal. Watching my grandmother and aunts chatter and laugh in the kitchen. Watching my father send the children in the kitchen to steal a piece of chicken would have my aunts yelling at and chasing out the confused child.
While soul food tastes amazing and carries a wealth of memories and tradition, the love for this cuisine has resulted in various health problems for the African American community. Soul food is all about the fried foods and fatty meats prepared with heavy sauces and high in salt and sugar. African Americans have some of the highest rates of obesity and heart disease which are directly related to this type of eating.
Many cookbooks and restaurants have started to modify traditional soul food recipes so they are healthier. When my mother substituted boiled, smoked turkey for the traditional ham hocks and salt pork in the collard greens, my father and two of my aunts were disgruntled. It wasn’t until the oldest sister made the acclamation, “this smoked turkey has added a great flavor to the greens??? that everyone accepted the new tradition. That was easily 20 years ago. Over time, my mother decreased the fat content in our meals. Sweet potatoes no longer were basking in sugar and butter, opting for cinnamon and marshmallows (not a huge hit at first). Pot roast became the family staple, not fried chicken.
We are no longer all together for Sunday dinners, but we are always together on the holidays and we offer healthier options as well as the traditional soul food fare. As my family has aged, we’ve created new traditions, but the gatherings are the same, lots of laughter, cooking and celebrating of family.
One of my favorite recipes is my Aunt Betty’s Oven “Fried” Chicken. Even though it is baked, it still has this amazing fried chicken taste.
Oven “Fried” Chicken
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup nonfat buttermilk,
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce (I’m sure she really used a few tablespoons)
- 2 -3 pounds whole chicken legs, skin removed, trimmed and cut into thighs and drumsticks
- 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Olive oil cooking spray
- Mix buttermilk, mustard, garlic and hot sauce in a shallow glass dish until well blended. Add chicken and turn to coat. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or for up to 8 hours. (my mother marinated it overnight)
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Line foil in baking sheet.
- Whisk flour, sesame seeds, paprika, thyme, baking powder, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Place the flour mixture in a paper bag or large sealable plastic bag. Shake off excess marinade, place 1 or 2 chicken pieces at a time in the bag and shake to coat. Shake off excess flour and place chicken on the prepared rack. (Discard leftover flour mixture and marinade.) Spray the chicken with cooking spray.
- Bake the chicken until golden brown and no longer pink in the center, 40 to 50 minutes