The Southern-style cooking of Black Americans, labeled as “Soul Food” in the ‘70s, has its roots in American slavery. Most African slaves came from the countries along the coast of West Africa and were taken to North America, South America and the South Sea Islands. They arrived in America stripped of everything but their memories.
Meals put together by the women were often made from food the slave owners had thrown away—pig feet, ham hocks, and intestines (chit’lins). Wild greens, fruits, wild game and produce from small gardens were also used in meals. Using their cooking methods from Africa, the women put together savory dishes, which today are still traditional foods for many African-American families.
Slaves used large amounts of fat, salt and sugar to season their food because it was available. Salt was used as a preservative since they had no refrigeration. Unlike us today, slaves spent long hours in the hot sun working hard and burning off the calories of the foods they ate. Our lives have changed since then. While Soul Food is nutritious, it is often heavy in salt and fat. Too much fat and salt in meals can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer. The challenge is to keep the traditional flavor and “soul” of the meal while reducing the fat and salt.
Until recently African-American recipes, like folktales, were handed down by word of mouth. Traditional cooks did not use measuring cups, measuring spoons, timers or written recipes. They cooked by using their senses, using a pinch of this and a dash of that. They knew food was finished cooking by how it sounded or how it looked. Fried chicken was turned based on the sound it made in the frying pan and corn bread was cooked until golden brown.
African-American cooking varies from state to state depending on the African nation from which their ancestors came and the region of the US they settled. After the Civil War, freed slaves migrated to the north bringing their traditional cooking with them. Meals had ingredients based on the local availability of food as well as some ingredients that came from other cultures.
Savory Triple Corn Grits
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion , diced
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 cloves garlic , minced
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup stone-ground grits
Freshly ground white pepper
Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil. Turn off heat, add corn kernels, and let sit for 1 minute. Drain and set aside.
In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, warm the oil; add onion, cumin, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook until softened, about 2 minutes more. Set aside half of onion mixture in a small bowl. Add reserved corn to pan and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Set aside.
In a bowl, mix cornmeal and grits well. In a medium saucepan, combine 3 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in cornmeal and grits until no lumps remain, return to a boil, then quickly reduce heat to low. Simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent grits from sticking to bottom of pan, until grits have absorbed most of the liquid and are thickening, about 3 minutes. Stir in 1 cup water and simmer 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in corn-onion mixture. Cover and simmer, stirring frequently, until grits are soft and fluffy, about 30 minutes.
Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Garnish with onion mixture.
Southern Collard Greens and Ham Hock
Traditionally wild greens or greens from small gardens were seasoned with smoked meat such as ham hocks, fatback or a ham bone. Sometimes greens and vegetables with different flavors were mixed. Pot likker, the highly seasoned liquid that remains after greens are cooked, is rich in vitamins and minerals. When greens were served, the leftover pot likker and cornbread were often served the next day.
In slave kitchens, meat was often scarce. In the song “Ham Bone”. . .
"Ham bone, ham bone, where you been?
Around the world and back again”
. . .refers to the practice of sharing a ham bone to season greens. The ham bone was shared with different slave families and then returned to the owner. Even today many African American cooks would not think of cooking greens without ham hocks or fatback, but smoked turkey parts can be substituted producing the same flavor with less salt and fat.
This recipe is for the beginner that may have never cooked or even eaten collard greens. It is a basic southern soul food method of cooking collard greens.
4 pounds collard greens
2 ham hocks
1 teaspoon sugar
1 hot pepper pod
1 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
Cookware and Utensils:
1 Dutch Oven
1 cutting board
1 sharp knife
As always the key to great cooking is to be prepared and use quality ingredients.
Selection of collard greens is very important. Go to your local grocery store or farmer's market and select 5 pounds of young leafy collard greens. You will select more than the recipe calls for because some leaves will be unusable and the large stems will be cut off and discarded. Also, remember that the greens shrink at least by half in the cooking process. So it's more than you think.
Start off by cooking your ham hocks. You can find ham hocks in most grocery stores near the ham section in the meat department. If you don't see them, ring for the meat dept and ask for them. Place ham hocks in a Dutch oven. Add water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover meat and simmer until tender. This should take about 1 hour. Don't allow the water to cook out.
While the ham hocks are cooking, go ahead and prepare your greens for cooking. Rinse your greens several times under cold water to remove dirt or sand. After greens are clean, stack several leaves on top of each other. Using a cutting board and knife, roll the leaves together and cut leaves into 1 inch thick strips.
When your ham hocks become tender go ahead and add more water, the collards, sugar, hot peppers and garlic powder to the Dutch oven. Add greens to the pot until the pot is full. Most likely all of the greens will not fit. Just allow the greens to cook down and continue adding until all of your greens fit in the Dutch oven. Cover greens and continue to simmer for about 1 hour, until greens are tender. Stir your greens often and keep sufficient water level so all the collards simmer. About halfway through cooking, add salt and pepper to taste.