Soul Survivor
Mark Andresen

Soul Survivor

Sometimes comparisons just don't work.

For example, New Englanders speak with grating accents just like Southerners. They contributed sports, literature, education and rebellion to the annals of American culture--again, just like the Old South.

Of course, New England's literary greats--Thoreau, Emerson and the like--overshadow Faulkner and his Yaknapa-something County or Margaret Mitchell's paean to slavery. Their past includes Paul Revere and the shot heard 'round the world. Against that the South holds up the banners--sorry, the heritage--of Civil War and institutionalized racism.

When Scarlett O'Hara shouts "as God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again" to an off-screen camera crew, the Burning Question team howls at the irony. Not only did devastation save the South, it broadened the market for a particular genre of Southern cooking. Next time you watch Gone With the Wind, look closely at that stirring moment when Scarlett issues her vow. She's clutching what appears to be a bunch of that soul food staple, turnip greens. Either that or collard greens; we can't tell them apart.

Just what is soul food?

"It's Southern cooking with a soulful twist," says Juan Reaves of Smokey John's Bar-B-Q on Mockingbird Lane. On the surface, a soul food menu looks just like any other menu featuring traditional Southern cooking: greens, pork chops, poke sallit, cornbread, black-eyed peas, ham hocks, cabbage, sweet potatoes, peach cobbler and the like. But in the Old South--that is, the South as it existed up through the 1950s--blacks and poor whites often lived on second-rate meats and anything they pulled up out of the ground. "The biggest difference between Southern and soul is seasoning and preparation," Reaves explains.

Most people assume a racial distinction as well. Because blacks in the Old South hacked out a living from the most meager soils, they learned to spice up rib tips or dandelion greens or cabbage, drawing on diverse African, Caribbean and Euro-American influences. But poor whites adopted many of the same methods, using the same basic ingredients. Where New Englanders tossed the tops of a turnip into their garbage disposals, poor Southerners used the whole damn plant. "People didn't eat greens because they were good for you," Reaves explains. "It was something poor Southerners had to use." Poor Southerners even fried up hog intestines by the plateful. The Burning Question crew has been "unable" to locate a restaurant in modern Dallas serving these chitlins.

Poor Southerners faced two culinary challenges that shaped soul food. First, they had to make tart greens and second-rate meats taste good. They solved this by smothering everything in gravy or sauces. They also cooked greens and black-eyed peas with hunks of fatback or ham to add flavor. Second, they needed to stretch their supplies. Hence the ingenious versatility built into Southern recipes. You roll okra in the same cornmeal you later use for cornbread.

According to Gloria Price at the South Dallas Café, soul food "satisfies that deep, innermost appetite." It sounds like a canned answer until you recall that 19th-century minstrels sang the glories of soul food ("boil that cabbage down/turn, turn that hoecake brown"). "You have regular cabbage," says Brent Reaves, also of Smokey John's, "and then you have our cabbage. We season it up, use peppers and onions. It's just right." Rebel soldiers even celebrated soul food in "Dixieland," their most revered song ("there's buckwheat cake and injun batter"). No one ever wrote a catchy song about New England lobster. Just try finding a rhapsody about New York strip steak. Artichoke hearts? Forget it.

Price claims that soul food is a growing business in Dallas. "The food is really wonderful," she says, "and in a different location we'd do outstanding business." Still, people wander into the South Dallas Café from all over the metro area. Smokey John's pulls in 300 to 350 people per day. "You can't get in here at lunch," Juan Reaves says. "What makes it so successful today is that we don't have to use scraps. We buy high-quality cuts and season it in the old way."

So put your misplaced pride in the Confederate flag and the supposed glories of Southern heritage aside. Soul food is the final monument to Dixie, a living memorial to the culinary genius of poor Southerners, black and white.

Soul food is good old Southern cooking, with a side of irony.


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