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Carla Hall corrects the record with “Soul Food”


Carla Hall is that variety of celebrity whose efforts to put one at ease don’t come across as a learned expectation management technique. Disarming quasi-candid banter is not really her thing. She feels no pressure to flood the zone. All the same, Hall is very excited about a gift from her husband, Michael, a necklace, a costume piece that cascades like a living breastplate of red and black coins, but, always the professional, as soon as she spots Salon associate producer, Matt Smith preparing the microphones for our interview Hall removes the necklace. “This will definitely screw up the sound,” she says.

A businesswoman, chef and television personality, Hall appeared in the fifth and eighth seasons of “Top Chef,” was a co-host on “The Chew” for seven seasons and has just published her second cookbook, “Soul Food.”

Hall describes “Soul Food” as a cookbook with a mission to reclaim black American cuisine from the stereotype of delicious but rich and caloric (verging on deadly) celebration food like fried chicken, mac and cheese and smothered pork chops. That’s in there, of course, but the headliners appear alongside recipes for dishes prepared with the fruits, grains, vegetables and legumes that make soul food a legitimate living cuisine. In this book, unlike many efforts by other authors that have come before, Hall uses the stories of people she has met who share her zeal as a way to trace the path that soul food took as it morphed in order to reclaim the complete narrative of African American foodways. “I think that when you think about it, and not to romanticize slavery, but when you are in a place and you are static, you can have gardens, you’re eating this food, you’re living off the land and the sea,” Hall explains. “Then when you start to move and you’re leaving the plantation and going north for the first great migration, now you’re transient and you don’t have a garden. I think that’s when food started to change and there was more fried foods and there was more foods that were thought to be unhealthy but there were also slaves who were trained chefs.”

Hi, I’m Manny Howard. This is Salon Talks. We’re here today with Carla Hall, who’s written a new cookbook called Soul Food. Welcome, Carla.

Thank you.

This is a fantastic book. I’ve read it. It’s not just about soul food, it’s about reclaiming soul food which is a fascinating project I want to hear all about.

Interestingly enough when I thought about doing this book and I was thinking about how am I going to approach it and I started with revolutionizing soul food. Then I was like wait, there’s nothing that needs to be revolutionized. It has to be reclaimed and then sort of go back and bring it back from the past and take the past into the future. That’s what I wanted to do.

When I read ‘reclaimed’ my first thought was from who, or from what?

I think that I feel that soul food is a cuisine but people think of it as this very narrow box and I think that it is so entrenched and enmeshed in American food or southern food that soul food itself doesn’t really get its proper place or due or platform. You can say reclaim it from southern cuisine and maybe make that distinction which is really hard because I think slaves kind of started this food, those were the people who were cooking. It’s reclaiming it in the sense that I think even for African Americans even in my generation if I say what’s soul food, they’re like mac and cheese and yams and smothered pork chops and fried chicken and it’s more than that.

Right, all stuff that sounds like it will kill you on contact.

Right, exactly and that’s the thing. If I’m connected to this food through my culture, through the African diaspora and you’re telling me that my culture, my food will kill me what does that say about who I am. I can’t be proud of that.

Right and the move, as I understand it, from soul food meaning everything that you can eat that’s because at first food that black folk cooked was food that was found or was allowed to be eaten, right. That was a great tradition of broad ingredients.

Right.

That changed when, during the great migration?

Correct.

Can you talk a bit?

I think that when you think about and not to romanticize slavery but when you are in a place and you are static, you can have gardens, you’re eating this food, you’re living off the land and the sea. You can fish for your food, you can have a garden. Then when you start to move and you’re leaving the plantation and going north for the first great migration now you’re transient and you don’t have a garden. I think that’s when food started to change and there was more fried foods and there was more foods that were thought to be unhealthy but there were also slaves who were trained chefs. Everything wasn’t just let me eat off the land and let me just cobble together something and I can only have this because in the kitchen were people like shoot …

I know Jefferson’s cook went to France.

Yes, Hemmings, James Hemmings, he went to France and he was trained. When he came back he is influenced by the French. That changed food. He was actually the one, I just found this out last night, he was the one who decided to, once he was in France he came back and he built this hearth which was the great, great, great, great grandfather of what the stove is now. Now you have the live fire and now on top you have this stove with these places to put pots.

Before that there was more than one location where food was prepared but he innovated this …

Exactly.

Proto stove.

Right.

Amazing. The first cookbook I ever bought was Craig Claiborne’s “Southern Cooking” book and I remember reading that book and thinking there’s something wrong with this picture because all the recipes that are in this book were not cooked by Craig Claiborne’s descendants. They were cooked by somebody else. Even as a young man I thought that there was, that there had, something had to happen. We missed a step.

Right, in that book there was no mention of other people.

Right, no, no none of the stories were, it was all about aunts and grandmothers.

I think that is the, a really good example of appropriations. I think now people use that term really loosely and they’re not sure what to call appropriations but when you take someone’s culture and you don’t mention the people that it came from that is appropriations. When you go to a restaurant and you, the only way you can work in that restaurant is to give up your recipes so that the owners can use them, that’s appropriations. A lot of times when blacks, especially older and they don’t want to give you their recipes or they leave out a step or an ingredient, historically the reason why is because they don’t trust people.

Right and it’s a way of holding onto the legacy.

Even in your family you’re like, I’m your family. You’re like can I get the whole recipe.

This doesn’t taste like what you make.

Exactly, I don’t know why.

One of the great elements in the book are all the characters that you introduced, all of the people, some people who left and came back with the mission of reintroducing the healthy food for instance into the place that they had left years before, great people …

Yeah, Matthew Raiford who is in Georgia and he has a farm and he’s a sixth generation farmer. He has a restaurant I forget the name of his restaurant, John Hall. I think that when I looked at all these people and this was definitely my story where you run, you get educated with French food, right at a French culinary school and then because you’re educated in culinary arts you run totally away from your culture. Then when you’re working you sort of hit, if you matriculate through the restaurant, you hit this cultural glass ceiling and you are not satisfied. You’re not moving up, you’re not satisfied and it’s like what do I do, I know for me I eventually came back to this food but it was because of Top Chef. When I was on “Top Chef” and just being stressed I in order to feel good I’d make the foods that comforted me. Then afterwards people were saying you do comfort food. They never said soul food, you do comfort food. I said I guess I do but I didn’t think of it.

Comfort food is also appropriation of some kind.

Yeah.

Comfort food always meant something else to me whenever I saw it. Can we wind it back a little bit because we just started sort of in the middle of your biography. You didn’t learn to cook at home, right?

No.

Can you give us that arc?

Yeah, I wasn’t cooking. People assume because you’re a chef you’ve been growing up next to your mama, your grandmother and cooking. I didn’t start cooking until I was 24, 25. I wanted to do theater. Then I ended up majoring in accounting so I was in accounting, got my CPA, worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers but it was Pricewaterhouse at the time and then hated it, left, went to Paris started modeling. There was stories in there how I got to modeling, it was from Howard and then hated my job …

School at Howard.

Yeah, Howard University and I met these girls who were going to France and I’m like I’m going to do that because I have no idea what I want to do. It wasn’t a dream of mine but modeling was a bridge between what I knew I didn’t want to do and what I eventually wanted to do. It was actually in France that I fell in love with food and I started hanging out in the kitchen. When I was a kid I was like I’m going to be outside, when the food’s ready just call me or I would cook for a girl scout badge, that was it.

Right, ‘what’s in it for me.’

I know, do I get a badge, can I get something for this? Then I learned how everybody was telling these stories and all of the fun and people were saying well my mother makes macaroni and cheese like this when I was in France or my mother makes it like this. I was like wow, I have no idea. I actually have no idea. I started buying cookbooks.

Do you remember what the first one was?

The first one and I was in France and I went to WHSmith, the English bookstore, right the English Borders, I had it was this book of soups and sandwiches. I can’t remember the name but on the cover was this rustic bread. I remember getting that, I don’t even know why I got that, I was like let me just have an English book, a book with English in it. I started making dishes for my friends. Then I got the next book I got was a textbook that they were using at a culinary school in California. That’s when I found chicken pot pit. I think it took, it felt like it took me two weeks to make that chicken pot pie. I swear it was like …

Right.

You got to roast a chicken and then it’s got to cool, that was another day. I was like my God, it took me forever.

Chicken pot pie is the final exam. First you got to raise a chicken.

Exactly, you have to like mill the flour, I’m like why is this taking so long. Then I was in France and I decided to make this for a friend and there was no celery and I had to, I found leeks I was like well celery, leeks, it’s the same color.

[inaudible 00:11:20].

Right, I was like this will do. It was crazy.

Fennel, right?

Right, I could’ve chosen anything that was sort of ish.

There’s no celery in France, did I miss …

At the time, well I didn’t see it. Come on, I didn’t know what it was, I barely knew what I was looking for an onion, find an onion, right. It’s amazing how I started there and when I started this lunch delivery service as a fluke my friends were like you’re cooking, wait you the girl who made a tomato soup with four cans of tomato paste, you actually are cooking. Who’s buying it, are they desperate, what’s going on here, I’ve come a long way.

Yeah, I opened the book and I get three recipes for deviled eggs.

Yes.

Talk to me about deviled eggs.

Come on! you can’t have a party without a deviled egg, what’s up? Deviled eggs, those are the quintessential soul food staple because deviled eggs would be in a box. When you were traveling and you didn’t know when you could stop, where you could stop …

When it was safe to stop.

If it was safe to stop. So you would have a shoe box. In that shoe box there would be fried chicken, there would be an orange because you needed something to drink, maybe you didn’t get water so you needed to hydrate. There would be deviled eggs and there would be pound cake, things that traveled well although those deviled eggs don’t sound like they would travel well but this is what I’ve been told by Jessica Harris who is a culinary historian and amazing. Deviled eggs are a thing that show up at every party. Interestingly enough and I will get to the recipes but I’m learning all of this stuff which just fuels me and the interest and the excitement about my ancestors because I didn’t have that. I was like a child who was adopted and then finding out in retrospect all of these people who are in my family or history. I have a regular deviled egg and then I have a short cut deviled egg which do you like soft boiled eggs?

Yes, deeply.

I thought, okay you are going to love this, I can probably just stop with this one right now because I kept thinking deviled eggs are a pain in the ass to make, you have to boil them perfectly so that you don’t get a green egg so perfectly boiled eggs, then you have to peel them, then you have to slice them and then take out the yolks and make the filling. With this shortcut deviled egg you take the soft egg, like six minute egg, soft still runny yolk and then you make the mayonnaise mixture with the mustard and everything that might go into the yolk and then you pipe that onto the soft boiled egg and then you take bread and butter pickles and you sprinkle those on top because you know that relish is inside that egg.

Yeah, yeah stack it on top.

Right, you would be just in hog heaven. I have that one and I have another traditional deviled egg but they represent.

Then a couple pages later you’ve got creamed kale instead of creamed spinach.

Yes.

That was a, I saw that and I thought now there’s an intention in that.

Yes, well now that the rest of the world knows kale because when everyone says kale is a new vegetable it’s amazing. I’m like I’ve been eating that all my life.

T-shirts with kale.

Right, the great thing about that when the whole world or popular culture or your people when you find something the thing is you can find it everywhere. I knew that I would be able to get a raw vegetable somewhere on my journey because before you just didn’t see it.

It’s just kale, it’s not collards everywhere, it’s not dandelion, New York’s a great place for vegetables because you can actually get dandelion greens.

Dandelion greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, turnip greens are still hard to find up here I think. I mean the turnips are here, what happened to the greens.

The beets come with the greens.

Right, beet greens, exactly.

When I, I think it was in the Craig Claiborne “Southern Cooking” (cookbook which I’m going to stop saying his cookbook because your cookbook is actually the thing we’re talking about) …

That’s okay but I get it.

Yeah, he suggested that I use a candy thermometer to make sure that the temperature of the cooking oil was exactly right. In your book, you discuss the conversations that you have with the chicken as it’s cooking because you talk to them like they’re your children as it’s coming along, that to me feels like a significant stylistic change.

Exactly, when you go, when you’ve been cooking something for a really long time it’s not intellectual, it’s in your heart. You take the flour, I’ve seen my grandmother do it. You put a little bit of that flour into the oil and it’s going to sizzle, you’re like okay it’s ready. Then you take that chicken and you put it into the pan and then you’re going to start, those little bubbles, you’re going to see those little bubbles around that chicken. Then you’re going to keep turning that chicken. When that gets brown you turn it over. You don’t want that breast which is heavier, if you’re in a cast iron skillet and that breast which is heavier, if you don’t keep turning that chicken it’s going to have a brown spot, you know like sitting out in the sun and a little bald spot right so you have to keep turning it. The thing is you will see through the meat and how it’s crackling if it’s ready. It’s intuitive. It’s intuition and I think that one of the things that I really try to get people to do is to be at one with their food and use all your senses, use your eyes, use your nose, use your ears, your sense of taste. Have you ever been to Sylvia’s?

Yes.

Okay, have you ever been in the kitchen?

I have not, tell me.

Amazing, you go in there and they have some of the same people who are cooking there today, at least two guys who Sylvia hired, and I was there doing a, I was there doing a dinner. There were these guys that were cooking everything and they were looking at the greens and they would pick the greens up and they were looking at them like this, you know what they were looking for, how they fell when you held them up with the tongs, how they glistened if they were ready. It wasn’t this intellectual thing, when you’re frying chicken you’re like is it floating. Is it, are the wing tips sort of crispy and almost translucent. They can tell, if they are whisperers of that food because they’ve been making it for so long, you know from your book that you had that that person didn’t cook because now what they’re doing is getting all of these tools and intellectualizing all of this stuff because they can’t tell when it’s done so they’re going to tell you to get these other things so they can tell when it’s done.

Yeah, that’s right. For the uninitiated can you describe what Sylvia’s is?

Yes, Sylvia’s is a restaurant in Harlem. It has been around for a long time. It’s an institution where a lot of people came through when maybe they couldn’t, a lot of people would go slumming up there from downtown they would go up to Sylvia’s, a lot of African Americans, black activists, everybody would stop in Sylvia’s and she had this restaurant that sort of became this mainstay. It’s still there to this very day, the Woods family, Sylvia Woods.

It’s a great place and I don’t know if I was slumming. I think I was being [inaudible 00:19:40] I was fully committed. The, I have to look at my cards.

That’s fine, please.

Can we talk about meat and three veg?

Yes.

As an organizing principle for reclaimed soul food?

I just love you went ‘can we talk about meat and three veg?’ anybody from Tennessee: ‘meat and three,’ we know that the three is the veg.

English thing, I’m raised English. Raised by English is ‘meat and three veg’ is the way you say that, potatoes count as a veg.

Of course, I mean macaroni does too, macaroni is a vegetable. It is, absolutely it is true. When you go to a soul food restaurant, even a southern restaurant, when you go to a restaurant in the south you go down the line and you choose a meat and you get three sides which are vegetables. Sometimes you’d have that divided plate. I could never choose with the vegetables so I always chose the veggie plate which was four sides.

Right, cause they could have four.

My tray would look overflowing and cause it was like is that all your food. Then you would see the desserts first which is perfect cause you’d see that strawberry cake or a yellow cake with chocolate frosting or the coconut cake, chess pie, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, not pumpkin and coconut cream pie, banana pudding. All those would be first because you’d chose that so that informs how you’re going to order. Then you get to the end and you chose a roll of cornbread, then iced tea, sweet tea.

Which is different than iced tea.

Yes, it is sweetened but up here, thank the baby Jesus that’s there are enough southerners who travel that there’s simple syrup.

You can add it.

You can add it.

You can back out of it.

Yeah.

Well thank you so much for joining us here at Salon. It’s a great pleasure and it’s a fantastic book. It’s so much fun and it’s so informative, I can’t tell you how great it is to meet you.

Well thank you for having me. I think it will start some good conversations and broaden people’s idea of what soul food is.

Yes, that’s exactly right, thank you.

Thanks.

Manny Howard

Manny Howard is executive editor of Salon. @mannyhoward
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