Soul Food Wisdom

Great cookbooks are smudged. Stained, dogeared, spine cracked. One of mine is Soul Food, Classic Cuisine From the Deep South by Sheila Ferguson. I bought it when it was published in 1989 and, by now, have cooked most of the dishes in it, including pig’s feet which were always on prominent display in the meat store when I lived in a mostly Hispanic Brooklyn neighborhood. I made them for my dad who had come up to inspect the seriously dilapidated house the husband and I bought and somehow missed the ceiling holes and former chicken pen in the dirt basement (with a sick chicken left behind by the previous owners). He walked around the neighborhood, saw the feet in the window and, with his urging, we took a bunch home. None of my books except Ferguson’s helped me figure out what to do with them. Four hours later, my parents, three-year-old son and unsuspecting husband sat down in the yard under the dead apple tree and feasted. My dad loved that house.

Southern food was something of a rage in New York City restaurants then and, because I was working as a restaurant reviewer at the time, I ate in a lot of them. The famous one in Harlem, a short lived new one in midtown and a rather fancy one in the theater district. Red-eye gravy, chit’lin’s, macaroni casserole, fried fish, ham hocks and collard greens, most of it so wonderful I still retain flavor memories of them. Just like I did with every assignment given for other cuisines, I researched and cooked to understand what I was eating. In the end, I thought I did a pretty good job. The editor did, too. A few months later I found Ferguson’s book and realized what a close-to-hatchet job I had done.

Ferguson was the lead singer for The Three Degrees and her book is in great part a memoir to impart to her daughters the vastness of their heritage. One family, rooted in the history of America, generations braided together in surviving horrible pain and adversity, all the while playing a part in one of the world’s great cuisines.

Ferguson writes,

For the basic framework of this style of cooking [soul food] was carved out in the deep South by the black slaves, in part for their white masters and in part for their own survival in the slaves quarters. As such, it is, like the blues or jazz, an inextricable part of the African-Americans’ struggle to survive and express themselves. In this sense it is a true American cuisine, because it wasn’t imported into America by immigrants like so many other ethnic offerings. It is the cuisine of the American dream, if you like. Because what can’t be cured must be endured.

Food is not often given its indispensable due in forming the character and history of a people. Ferguson’s book is the one I sifted through to try to comprehend this moment in our country. Her unsparing story–pointed, funny, warm, erudite–gives me hope we will find our way to a common table.

This is why my copy is so tattered and why I took it down again to write this piece.

A Word About Why These Recipes

There’s a whole lot of dishes I could have chosen that may not be so well identified with soul food but I had already use my quota of out-of-isolation trips to the market and the ingredients were on hand.

A More Important Word about Cooking with Sheila Ferguson Before You Start These Recipes

Pay strict attention to her hard-nosed specific directions about cooking methods, all of which should be taken as foundational to cooking in general:

To cook soul food you must use all your senses. You cook by instinct but you also use smell, taste, touch, sight, and, particularly, sound. You learn to hear by the crackling sound when it’s time to turn over the fried chicken, to smell when a pan of biscuits is just about to finish baking, and to feel when a pastry’s just right to the touch. You taste rather than measure, the seasonings you treasure; and you use your eyes, not a clock, to judge when the cherry pie has bubbled sweet and nice. These skills are hard to teach quickly. They must be felt, loving, and come straight from the heart and soul.

Before each recipe, I’ll highlight in italic what she says you better do to cook real soul food.

Barbecue Spare Ribs

Nothin’, but nothin’, replaces the down-home flavor of an outdoor grill or pit. And this exceptional sauce stands up just fine on its own. So I don’t advise that you risk soiling it with the artificial flavor of liquid smoke or the like.

6 pounds meaty pork spare ribs

salt and pepper to rub

1 teaspoon paprika

2 tablespoons melted pork fat or bacon grease (or melted butter)

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

2 teaspoons dry mustard or prepared (not too strong though or it will take over the taste)

1 tablespoon celery salt or 1 teaspoon celery seed

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 cup tomato ketchup

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup water or meat stock

1/2 cup beer

1/2 cup dry white wine (optional)

For a real smoky flavor, season the ribs by rubbing them lightly with salt, black pepper, and paprika, and throw them in the pit or on the grill, keeping hem well away from direct heat. You want the smoke to do the cooking, not the flames. Cook ’em long and cook ’em slow, 2 hours or so, until the meat is about to fall off the bones.

In the meantime, make the sauce. Heat the bacon grease or butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Brown the onion, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so. Add in all the remaining ingredients. Bring them to a boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20 minutes, uncovered.

Begin basting with this sauce only during the last 15 or 20 minutes of cooking; otherwise the taste of the spices in the sauce will be altered significantly and will be bitter. Be sure to baste the ribs on both sides.

An alternate way to barbecuing is to make the sauce in advance and marinate your pork ribs in it for a couple of hours before grilling, turning them often. Putting them in a sealed plastic bag makes it easier to get your marinate all over the ribs. When the grill’s ready, wipe off the excess sauce and just throw ’em on and cook ’em slow, turning frequently and basting in the last 20 minutes as above.

Potato Salad

The best part about making potato salad is the tasting. Sometimes I taste so much that by the time I’m finished I’m no longer hungry. And don’t worry if it turns out too mushy. I’ve discovered that as long as it tastes great no one will ever notice.

2 pound firm potatoes

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/4 cups finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons seeded and finely diced green bell pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black or white pepper

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon celery salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 hard-boiled egg

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup salad cream (or use all mayonnaise with extra vinegar and seasonings)

1 tablespoons celery seed

7-8 small sweet pickles (pickled gherkins), or 4 heaping tablespoons sweet (cucmber) relish (see below)


garnishes (optional, see below)

I usually boil my potatoes the night before. Wash them and put into a pot of boiling salted water to cover. Cover tightly and cook for about 20 minutes or until tender. Test them with a fork or knife. They should be soft enough to cube easily but not mushy and falling apart. Drain in a colander and refrigerate until they are cold enough to work with.

Peel the potatoes and cut into coarse chunks or cubes. Throw in your celery, onion, and green pepper, but do not stir yet. Add salt, pepper, dry mustard, celery salt, sugar, and vinegar, still not stirring.

Now take the yolk from the hard boiled egg and mash it up with a fork. Add a bit of mayonnaise to it to make a lumpy paste. Mix this with the rest of your mayonnaise and salad cream, then pour it on the potatoes. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the celery seed on top of this mountain. Using a wooden spoon, toss until well blended. Taste and adjust your seasonings.

Coarsely chop the sweet pickles. (These must be sweet. I use Heinz, and find others too bitter. If you can’t find suitable ones, use relish.) Coarsely chop the egg white, and add both of these and the rest of the celery seed to the salad. Again taste and adjust–you may need a touch more salad cream, seasonings or whatever. When blending, try not to pulverize the potatoes, or the salad will be mushy.

Now turn your potato salad into a serving bowl. Liberally sprinkle paprika over the top until it’s quite red. Cover with clear plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until ready to serve.

Just before serving, if you like you can garnish the salad with green or red pepper rings, slice of tomato with a stuffed olive in the center, or sliced hard-boiled eggs with a dab of caviar on each.

Grandma Maggie’s Pecan Pie

Pat note: To do this pie justice, make your own dough. The one I used for lemon meringue pie is pretty good.

1 unbaked 9 in pie shell

3/4 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup white sugar

3 large eggs, well beaten

1/2 cup dark cane corn syrup

2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon sale

1 cup broken pecans

pecan halves to decorate

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

Cream your butter with both sugars and blend in the beaten eggs. Stir in your syrup, vanilla, salt and pecan pieces. Blend well, then pour into the unbaked pie crust. Decorate with the pecan halves and bake in the oven in 1 hour or until your pie resembles a hot rich custard. Serve warm with a biog scoop of vanilla ice cream on top or with a dousing cream. This is Southern soul food eating at its mightiest.

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