Southern Comfort: A Chat with Hill Country’s Ash Fulk

You may remember Ash Fulk from his days as the bow tie wearing contestant on Top Chef Las Vegas. Or perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of devouring some of his culinary handiwork at Hill Country Barbecue in New York’s Flatiron district, where customers often clamor for a taste of their famed ribs and moist brisket. A Californian by birth, the vibrant Chef de Cuisine oozes passion about his craft and proclaims he was actually raised a Southerner; fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy was his requested meal every single birthday. He also harbors fond memories of eating fresh corn from his mother’s garden. These simple and nostalgic food experiences would inevitably shape his culinary approach and zeal for feeding others.

As his technique advanced, he made his way from one coast to the other in his pursuit of doing what he loved most: cooking comfort food with elegant flair. A mac n’ cheese aficionado, Texas-style BBQ lover and a banana pudding fiend, Fulk spent a great deal of time in Georgia visiting his father where he witnessed (or tasted, rather) the fusion of comfort food and fine dining. “I ate at some great restaurants like Watershed and Wisteria and that was when I realized there was some cuisine behind comfort food, but it didn’t lose the heart. The heart of all American food there is the idea of feeding people and that’s where the joy comes of it, of a big family sitting around a table.”

Dixie Cuisine, as Fulk calls it, is making a revival, and he attributes a return to simplicity to the hard economic times. Similar to the revival of the 1920s speakeasy and even reflected in cinematic themes found in The Artist and Midnight in Paris, Fulk believes that while the U.S. has always been obsessed with innovation, dining is returning to minimalist roots.

He keeps his finger on the pulse of how cuisine is in constant flux and offers this introspective musing: “Food reflects the cultural awareness at the time and right now people are looking for comfort and looking for home.”

It is food for the soul, indeed.

Soul Food Series, Part III: Dooky Chase's and Creole

By: Ashley Bode

There are several restaurants throughout the country that serve as cultural landmarks and sources of inspiration for all restauranteurs.  Alice Waters' Chez Panisse is the icon for California Cuisine and Farm to Table dining, Daniel and Le Cirque are the cornerstones of the French American culinary adventure and Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans owns the category of Soul food.

Soul food has its roots in the South, so it would be fitting that the center of the movement is located in the heart of the Bayou.  In the 1950s, Leah Chase worked her way into her husband's family restaurant, Dooky Chase, using her experience working in restaurants situated in the white dominant French Quarter. Gradually, Leah introduced both her take on Creole Soul Food and European style-dining etiquette into the segregated 5th Ward. Over the years, Dooky Chase's not only grew in popularity but played an important role in African American culture. Important Civil Rights leaders, musicians, actors, politicians and locals dined side by side at the white lined tables eating Jambalaya, Sweet Potato Pie and Shrimp Etoufee.

After integration, Dooky Chase's remained the same, but served to all citizens of New Orleans, proving that Soul Food crosses the boundaries of race, with its true definition speaking more to the heart of the cuisine. The acknowledgement that Soul Food represents a time, place and tradition, as well as a history of food culture keeps people coming back for second helpings.  In her Oral History given for the Southern Foodways Alliance, Chase said, "They come [and say] Well, do you have Soul Food? Well, tell me where your soul is. If your soul is in China, I can't help you a bit; if your soul is in Mississippi I can help you."

Dooky Chase suffered immensely with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, devastating the family inside and out, forcing the business to close temporarily and Leah and her family to live in trailers provided by FEMA. In 2007, Leah reopened the doors and continues to cook for hungry New Orleans residents and tourists that travel specifically to dine at her eatery. Even at 89, she shows little signs of slowing down, realizing her important role in a community broken and still, six years later, rebuilding.

When dining at Dooky Chase or flipping through Leah's cookbook, a feat for someone who never measures ingredient, its noticeable that there is a difference in her cuisine's style than that of more Northern Soul Food restaurants. Leah is known as "the Queen of Creole," so it could be inferred that her staples might not be the same as those at the now-closed Edna's in Chicago.  Like Soul Food expert Donna Pierce points out, "Southern and Soul Food aren't exactly the same, but there are overlapping ingredients, preparations and flavors."

Most people associate spiciness with Creole and often mistake it for Cajun, an entirely different cuisine that just happens to share geography.  Creole cuisine has more European influence than most other soul food, mostly credited to the history of colonization in Louisiana, specifically New Orleans which is rich in French and Spanish traditions that were lacking in the plantations of Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Fried Chicken, yams and Mac 'n' Cheese can be found on the Dooky Chase menu but the stars are the true Creole selections. One of the most noticeable identifiers of Creole food is a perfect roux, a slurry of flour and butter, lard or drippings, that is added to many dishes, including Gumbo and Etoufee; it is the source of the rich dark color found in Creole cuisine that is difficult for a novice to achieve and indicative of that European influence.

Make no mistake, while the cuisine at Dooky Chase's and other restaurants throughout the Bayou focuses on Creole traditions, this is still soul food. These are the dishes that leave diners with a soul satisfying feeling once they are finished. They are the dishes that those native of New Orleans cherish and hold as a high standard. They are the dishes Leah Chase learned not in a culinary school, but through the words of her peers and predecessors. She too passes on these techniques and recipes by cooking from the soul and sharing nearly a century's worth of true Southern African American experience, both struggles and celebrations.

Stay tuned to rest of our series as we further discuss the history of soul food and share the experiences of regional innovators and soul food experts throughout the United States.

Photo: gwen

For more details from our series, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Jewish Comfort Food: The Latke and its Alternatives

Chanukah is almost here, giving Jews and their gentile friends an excuse to start their holiday noshing now! Jewish holidays tend to revolve around food, as the running theme among the chosen people's festivities goes, "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat!"

The most customary Chanukah dish here in the United States would of course be the latke, also known as the potato pancake. But did you know that various Jewish traditions offer lots of alternatives?

For Sephardic Jews, fried pastries dipped in honey are popular. Among the Hasidic community in New York, a delicacy for the holiday is a cheese Danish named delkelekh. Italian Jews make a garlicky artichoke recipe that derives from the Roman Jewish ghetto. There are other varieties of pancakes besides the typical potato - cheese, curried sweet potato latkes, purple potato, zucchini, celery root, leek, and parsnip latkes (which are my personal favorite). If you are anything like me and have a hankering for sweets on the regular, there are sufganiyots. Sufganiyot are citrus-scented jelly doughnuts. Apple fritters are also quite tasty and easy to prepare.

Many Chanukah recipes involve the use of oil because this is, after all, the holiday that celebrates the famous miracle of Judah Maccabee and his brothers only having enough olive oil to light the candelabra in the Temple of Jerusalem for one night but miracle upon miracles- the oil ended up lasting for eight whole nights. The custom of celebrating the olive is a tradition in Israel since Chanukah is so intricately connected with olive oil. Therefore, munching on olives or dipping bread in a green grassy-flavored olive oil with roasted garlic would also be keeping with tradition this holiday season.

It is around this time of year that I am constantly complaining about my jeans being too tight. Even though latkes are typically deep fried, there are low-fat alternatives to the latke as well. Try baking your latkes instead of frying them or making a hearty vegetable soup as a first course option so that you are fuller by the time you get to the latkes. Also, homemade applesauce on the side as a dipping sauce is a nutritious option.

Jewish meals are typically made with love, and latkes are a dish that will satisfy any bubbie or shiksa alike. This year if you are lighting a menorah or sinking your teeth into a crispy golden brown salty or sweet latke, remember that we say "Happy Chanukah" because it is a celebration of happiness and the miracle of light.

 

Soul Food Series, Part II: Chicago and Its Southern Roots

This week in our Soul Food Series, we discuss soul food in Chicago and its traditional approach to this historic cuisine. Chicago is a city that is rich in food culture. This Midwestern mecca has so many flavors to offer that if may be hard to decide which one best represents the city. Perhaps the most important of these food traditions is soul food, a part of the city's DNA that is irreplaceable, but recently has begun to evolve.

The emergence of soul food in Chicago came during a time many know as The Great Migration. From 1910 to 1930 more than 1.5 million African Americans migrated from Southern roots to Midwest, West and Northern cities. Then again between 1940 and 1970 another 5 million left the South and continued a route of urbanization. Chicago gained 75,000 new citizens just between the years of 1917 and 1919 as the city's popularity grew because of the distribution of the black owned newspaper The Chicago Defender along the Northern bound railroad.

One of the few things the city's new residents brought with them were food traditions. Former Chicago Tribune Food Editor, soul food expert and Chicago resident Donna Pierce says, "When enslaved Africans were scattered in the diaspora, religion and culture were taken away. Later, a small collection of common dishes were not called soul food until the 1960s. But there was no argument. Soul Food recipes were among the treasured uniting traditions brought from the South." But what about soul food in Chicago is different? Little has changed. "These are the same recipes and flavors brought North in the 1920s and 1930s" says Pierce. Instead of focusing time on evolving the cuisine, Chicagoans instead tend to embrace the history, remembering those recipes that make each family's connection with the South unique.

In times when so much attention is paid to health and the prevention of communicable diseases seen frequently in the African American community, like diabetes and heart disease, more and more people save real soul food for celebrations. Thanksgiving, birthdays and other holidays host true feasts celebrating that rich and delicious history. Saving these recipes for special occasions keeps them timeless, served artifacts of generations past. Pierce, founder of both BlackAmericaCooks.com and SkilletDiaries.com, has begun to write "skinny" versions of soul food classics for everyday so the same flavors can be kept alive day in and day out. She still uses traditional ingredients like okra, turnips and eggplant, but replaces things like sour cream with Greek yogurt in heavier recipes.

It is fair to say that soul food in Chicago has become more about survival. In the last ten years the city has lost more than 17 percent of its black population and with that numerous soul food institutions have closed their doors. That is not to say that there are not plenty of residents who stay true to their roots. While the famed Edna's Soul Food, a west side spot that played host to civil rights leaders like MLK Jr., closed in 2010 after the passing of owner Edna Stewart, new places are opening constantly, offering Chicagoans new versions of  Grits, Mac 'N' Cheese and of course Fried Chicken.

Restaurants like Wishbone, an Oprah favorite, and the soon-to-be legendary Chuck's Southern Comforts Cafe remind us of the differences between Creole and soul, while filling that homestyle void that Edna's and Army & Lou's have left in the city's makeup. Then there are places like Quench and Soul Vegetarian East that are not only serving familiar dishes but educating customers on healthy living with a more holistic and preventative approach to one's diet.

Whether soul food has taken a stance of survival or the role of tradition, it is undeniable that it still plays an incredible part in Chicago's identity and in the lives of community members. "Some people have amnesia of who was in the kitchen," Pierce says when explaining the origins and differences of Southern, soul and Creole cooking, "but it's all celebration food. Keeping that passion alive is what's most important."

Stay tuned to rest of our series as we further discuss the history of soul food and share the experiences of regional innovators and soul food experts throughout the United States.

Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance

For more details from our series, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Soul Food Series, Part I: What is Soul Food?

By: Ashley Bode

When one thinks of American comfort food, immediately thoughts of traditional dishes like Fried Chicken, Biscuits, and Mac 'n' Cheese, or what we know as soul food, come to mind. But what exactly is soul food? To many people soul food is a tradition. It encompasses more than just the components of a meal and it's more than a style of cooking. It's not just Southern cooking, its not Creole, but it is recipes that have been passed for generations that speak to the experience of African Americans as a whole.

Just as European Americans, Latin Americans or Asian Americans celebrate their culture and heritage through holidays and common experience, African Americans share the one thing that was not taken from them during the time of Slavery: food traditions and recipes. It was the only thing carried from generation to generation, from the plantations of the South to urban hotspots and northern, suburban living.

Soul food is commonly miscategorized as Southern or Creole cuisine. While the three do share similarities, soul food can be identified by a certain flavors and varied levels of spice. Soul food is attributed to dishes from the kitchens of African Americans, consisting of regional vegetables and specific proteins. This cuisine dates back to the days before the Civil War when slaves learned to make do best with what they had. Many were given only corn, flour, molasses and salt. Protein was acquired by what was left over: livers, chitlins and fatback; and the vegetables they ate were those they grew for themselves on smaller plots of land: okra, greens and corn. Oils and butter were also inaccessible, so lard and other animal fats were used for frying, baking and cooking. This diet was not culinary refinement but instead a means of survival.

Just like all emigrant communities before and after, African Americans took their cuisine with them on their Northern flight after Emancipation and soon enough it became incorporated into the culinary heritage of their new communities. Recipes that had become staples, like homemade biscuits with molasses, collard greens, fried catfish and butter beans found their place in cities with large African American communities. These dishes were no longer eaten out of necessity but out of habit and tradition, granted with improvements made along the way.

The name soul food didn't arrive until the 1960s when the African American community, for the first time, was given an opportunity to define their place in a newly-integrated society. It was a time to celebrate all aspects of their heritage that stood out, including their music and food. Both gained the marker "soul" and the name has stuck ever since and has taken a bigger role with more cultural implications than slaves would have ever imagined. Fried Chicken and stone ground grits are served at countless dining establishments, casual and fine, across the country. Soul food classics have been given makeovers using more healthful methods. There's an organization called the Southern Foodways Alliance that holds annual symposiums on anthropological issues that often times discuss not just southern food, but the origins of soul food staples, like fried chicken and barbecue, while also publishing books and recording oral histories from those closest to the topic.

Stay tuned to rest of our series as we further discuss the history of soul food and share the experiences of regional innovators and soul food experts throughout the United States. 

Photo:  hawaii 

For more details from our series, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)