Soul food, African-American cuisine beyond fried chicken – Jeune Afrique

African-American Stephen Satterfield, author of the documentary series High on the Hog (The Lion’s Share, how African-American cuisine transformed America, 2021), broadcast on Netflix, left his native Georgia for Ganvié, a lakeside city, located in the south of Benin and north of Cotonou, to discover its gastronomic treasures. Accompanied by an inhabitant of the village, whose economy is essentially based on fishing, he crosses Lake Noukoué in a canoe, heading for one of the maquis bordering the waters populated by tilapias.

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Once at the table, the telegenic food critic does not hide his emotion at the sight of the dish composed of fried fish, condiments and spicy tomato sauce. “When I was little, my father used to fry fish every Sunday to feed the whole church. It’s very common in my home state of Georgia to eat fried fish with tomato spaghetti. Today is Sunday, and this dish is therefore very familiar to me, ”he confides, touched, to his host.

Generous dishes, African atmosphere

While many black Americans multiply DNA tests in the hope of tracing the family tree of their African ancestors, others find their roots on the plate. “The story of our kitchen is the story of who we are,” summarizes Satterfield. And this story is that of soul food, the food of the soul. A formula that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, when strong expressions linked to black identity emerged, from Black is Beautiful to Black Power, in the southern states of slavery, from Alabama to Texas, in going through Louisiana or Georgia. And which draws its name directly from soul music, music that whites could not appropriate.

It is not surprising that it is first considered a celebratory cuisine, which African-Americans gladly taste in the form of hearty banquets after mass, or convivial barbecues during Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, the day of the liberation of slaves, proclaimed in Texas in 1865.

These gatherings around large Sunday tables, Lionel Chauvel-Maga knew them well. This well-built 37-year-old, born to a Beninese mother and a French father, founded Gumbo Yaya – “brouhaha” in New Orleans Creole – in 2015, a soul food restaurant camped in the 10th arrondissement. from Paris. It was with his expatriate aunts in Macon, Georgia, that he discovered the essence of African-American cuisine in the 1990s.

This link between Africa, the United States and Europe is the very essence of soul food, the bedrock of the Afro-descendant community.

“I really had a family approach to soul food, discovering this culture of generous dishes that we shared on Sundays around large tables, he recalls. I also found the African atmosphere, the yam dishes of my Beninese grandmother were replaced by sweet potatoes in the United States, the pasta gratins that I ate in France were concocted, at my aunts, macaroni and cheese version “, details the manager.

This great classic of African-American cuisine served especially at Thanksgiving, was borrowed from Europeans, when President Jefferson sent his chef, a slave, to train in the preparation of pasta in the Old Continent. “This link between Africa, the United States and Europe is the very essence of soul food, it is the basis of the Afro-descendant community”, recalls Lionel Chauvel-Maga.

Strengthen your identity

This already mixed cuisine ended up being exported outside the rural areas of the South to reach the cities, also drawing on the West African terroir. “African-Americans used food to reinforce their identity by growing African products such as crows, millet, okra, rice, sorghum in their gardens,” says culinary historian Adrian Miller, former adviser to Bill Clinton, past master of soul food. They found substitutes for foods from Africa that they loved, such as tropical yams, which they replaced with sweet potatoes, which are grown better in the North American climate. »

The slaves could only prepare one meal on Sunday, they took what they had on hand

A large wooden table, flanked by two benches, stands in the middle of Lionel Chauvel-Maga’s restaurant. In his “southern kitchen”, as can be read in capital letters on the red and turquoise facade, American rap beats roar and attract a cosmopolitan clientele. The chef, still in the kitchen, has succeeded in “deghettoizing” a cuisine hitherto associated with blacks, not without stigmatization. The bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup, stripped of the logo with racist hints (that of an African-American recalling the slavery and segregationist past of the South) and the hot sauce from Louisiana are out and ready to coat the great classic of the house, the gospel bird (fried chicken).

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At Gumbo Yaya, fried chicken is king and served between two corn flour waffles, in a biscuit, or accompanied by sweet potatoes, coleslaw, corn bread, the corn bread inherited from the Amerindians, or mac and cheese . “Whether before or after the emancipation of the black community, the slaves who worked in the large properties of Virginia or Carolina, could prepare only one real meal, on Sunday. They took what they had on hand, the leftovers that the masters did not want, such as the wings, the thigh and the top of the chicken thigh, which they sublimated by frying them, “explains the enthusiast, who wishes above all to pay homage to a culture. “African-American customers feel really respected when they come into Gumbo Yaya, even though I don’t offer that 5% of what soul food has to offer right now. »

It would indeed be a mistake to reduce soul food to a piece of poultry immersed in boiling oil. Long before the fashion for waffle and chicken invaded the capital against a backdrop of hype and hip-hop, an institution was already exporting the soul of Southern cuisine to Paris under the name of Gabby and Haynes. This shop set up in Pigalle in the 1950s and 1960s was run by the African-American Leroy Haynes, a former soldier with a romantic career.

The hideout of soldiers and Louis Armstrong

After studying at the prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, which saw Martin Luther King and Spike Lee parade, the young graduate embarked on a career in GI in Europe before joining La Sorbonne to prepare a doctorate there. In this Parisian institution, he met his future wife, the Frenchwoman Gabrielle Lecarbonnier. Together, they open what will soon become the haunt of African-American soldiers and jazzmen, like Louis Armstrong. The trumpeter swears by black eyed pees (cornille beans) and rice from Haynes, which he tastes after his concerts in the cabarets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “All I knew how to cook was leafy greens, chicken, chitterlings (pork tripe), soul food, food that the French couldn’t understand,” Leroy Haynes confided shortly before his death. , in 1986.

In the early 2000s, there was a real backlash soul food, it was said that the African-American killed himself with fried chicken

A few years after the closure of this emblematic place, soul food has bad press. Dieticians and politicians are seizing the phenomenon. Soul food would be responsible for the growing obesity of poor black American families. “In the early 2000s, there was a real backlash soul food. It was said that the African-American killed himself with fried chicken. There was a real decline in specialized restaurants at that time, ”recalls Lionel Chauvel-Maga.

A finding that makes Adrian Miller jump. The author of Soul Food, The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at the Time (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) sees this criticism as social and political hypocrisy. “We now know that soul food is not the only culprit. Studies have shown that African-Americans also eat a lot of ready meals and frequent fast food chains. However, we know very well that soul food is also made up of peas, cabbage, roots… This criticism also does not take into account social factors such as systemic racism, which affects the mental and physical health of this layer of society. people,” he insists.

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Poor relative of American gastronomy, soul food struggles to be recognized. The highly publicized African-American chef Carla Hall, who participated as a jury on the American version of Top chef, tries to restore his image. In his book Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration (Harper Wave, 2018), she strives to ennoble the great classics of the repertoire by offering sophisticated recipes: seasonal tomato broth and roasted okra, sweet potato and clementine pudding, fresh shrimp and grits (cornmeal) .

Ditto for Adrian Miller who offers three variations of recipes in his soul food bible: a traditional one, a dietary one, by swapping fried fish and chicken for fresh fillets, and a more elaborate one. “Today’s African-American chefs are reducing the use of fat, salt and sugar and finding spectacularly creative ways to use vegetables,” boasts Miller, who hopes to create a label for real recognition of this gastronomy.

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