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Southern Diaspora


wcmckinney
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Had my New Year's Day lunch of collards and black eyed peas (well BEP in spirit as they were no longer carrying them) at Amy Ruth's in Harlem this year. Interestingly I thought the food (very satisfying, though my palate, like the rest of me, was having a hard time getting back into the game) seemed different in a few ways. Got me to thinking:

Chicken in waffles is discussed as an iconic soul food, yet it is hard to find on menus in the South.

Chicken Fried steak was served with green peppers and tossed in a dark gravy, whereas I've always had it in the South stand alone and with saw mill gravy.

Fried Okra was served whole, something seen in the South but something that seems rather rare to me.

Granted, there is no right way to serve any of these dishes. Granted no. 2, these dishes as I noted were quite tasty, but do you think that these classic southern dishes which has been transported to different parts of the nation have taken on different characteristics or flavors once they are out of the South?

William McKinney aka "wcmckinney"
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Wow, young William. Soul food terroir.

Recipes get handed down through the generations, one branch of the family moves to another place. They try to make the food they knew with what's available, all the while telling the next generation, "This is what we used to live on." Then that generation starts making something that tastes like home. Just not the original home.

Chop suey bares a pretty distant -- almost negligible -- resemblance to real Chinese cooking. But somewhere, in some distant past, some cook probably started out to make something that resembled what he ate in the mother country using these strange, foreign ingredients.

Pretty wonderful, I say. Food evolves, which keeps it endlessly interesting.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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Interesting point Kathleen, though in SC a terroir is what my cousins called their dog...I liked your point about Choped Suey though I had always associated that and other post-War boomlet dishes that appreared in newly minted Chinese Restaurants to the returning troops from Asia more than an immigrant experience.

Am in total and absolute agreement that the evolution of these dishes is what makes them so special (and almost better, like a natural nouvelle couisine), but it's equally interesting to me that Soul Food is at once the same thing and different than Southern Cooking.

William McKinney aka "wcmckinney"
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Had my New Year's Day lunch of collards and black eyed peas (well BEP in spirit as they were no longer carrying them) at Amy Ruth's in Harlem this year.  Interestingly I thought the food (very satisfying, though my palate, like the rest of me, was having a hard time getting back into the game) seemed different in a few ways.  Got me to thinking:

Chicken in waffles is discussed as an iconic soul food, yet it is hard to find on menus in the South.

Chicken Fried steak was served with green peppers and tossed in a dark gravy, whereas I've always had it in the South stand alone and with saw mill gravy.

Fried Okra was served whole, something seen in the South but something that seems rather rare to me.

Granted, there is no right way to serve any of these dishes.  Granted no. 2, these dishes as I noted were quite tasty, but do you think that these classic southern dishes which has been transported to different parts of the nation have taken on different characteristics or flavors once they are out of the South?

I've lived in the south for over 30 years. Have never heard of chicken in waffles. Never saw chicken fried steak with dark gravy or green peppers. Never saw fried okra served whole.

I did however cook up a huge pot of collards and another of black eyed peas for New Year's. Enough for seconds - and thirds. Enjoyed some leftovers tonight with corn bread. Robyn

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I liked your point about Choped Suey though I had always associated that and other post-War boomlet dishes that appreared in newly minted Chinese Restaurants to the returning troops from Asia more than an immigrant experience.

I'm home for a few days and don't have my food reference books at hand. But chop suey, I believe, long predates the post-war era. I think it dates to the early 20th century.

Sorry, we've wandered far afield of your lunch in Harlem!

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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A good point by kpurvis about using the ingredients at hand. Another thing I have found is that a restaurant opens in a region not used to what ever ethnic food they advertise and in order to stay in business same restaurant starts changing its food to match the hoped for clientele. Instead of having traditional Southern food they have Southern food that yankees will eat. Of course the same thing happens to any ethnic food which explains the multitude of chains whose food bears little actual resemblance to that ethnic or regional source which it tries oh so hard to "emulate".

btw, chicken and waffles are, I believe, a rather new "traditional" dish. I was not familiar w/ it at all until some one fr/ out side of the South mentioned it to me as a "soul food" favorite. I know Gladys Knight has (or had) a chain of chicken and waffle restaurants but I really think it was a west coast invention that has its "roots" in soul food but is not actually Southern (kind of like chop suey which is not only a great analogy but, if memory serves, was invented by an American cook w/ limited resources trying to please his employer who wanted some thing "Chinese".)

in loving memory of Mr. Squirt (1998-2004)--

the best cat ever.

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OK, I'm back in the office, where I have Mariani's "Dictionary of American Food & Drink" handy. According to him, "Chop Suey first appeared in print in 1888 but most be older. Chop suey was a mixture of vegetables and meat concocted by the Chinese cooks who fed the workers on the Pacific railroad lines in the middle the last (meaning 19th) century. Although there is no such dish in China, the Mandarin words for chopped up odds and ends, tsa sui, would approximate the sound of 'chop suey' as spoken by Western Americans."

On the fried chicken and waffles, I've heard it was started by musicians who would go out to eat after the clubs closed, when it was too early for breakfast but too late for dinner, but John T. Edge would be the authority, from his fried chicken research.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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  • 2 weeks later...

Very interesting point on the chop suey, I would still argue that the spread of chinese food in general is a postwar phenomenon which is different from the soul food diaspora which I would assume began with the Great Migration in the early part of the 20th century.

So you could identify this as two different types of food diffusion (as opposed to fusion, right? That was a lame joke, and I'm sorry for it):

There is food that spreads because of people moving (soul food) and perhaps the new wave of taquerias/parillas.

Then there is food that spreads because people return home (often from wars): Chinese, Vietnamese, and perhaps one day Mediterranean/Iraqi?

I think Southern cooking is somewhat different than other regional cuisines (like Tex-Mex) that have spread because of the diversity of ingredients that moved with it. Additionally Tex-Mex exists as more of a restaurant cuisine where Soul Food may have greater conotations with the hearth itself...

William McKinney aka "wcmckinney"
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Very interesting point on the chop suey, I would still argue that the spread of chinese food in general is a postwar phenomenon which is different from the soul food diaspora which I would assume began with the Great Migration in the early part of the 20th century. 

So you could identify this as two different types of food diffusion  (as opposed to fusion, right?  That was a lame joke, and I'm sorry for it):

There is food that spreads because of people moving (soul food) and perhaps the new wave of taquerias/parillas.

Then there is food that spreads because people return home (often from wars):  Chinese, Vietnamese, and perhaps one day Mediterranean/Iraqi?

I think Southern cooking is somewhat different than other regional cuisines (like Tex-Mex) that have spread because of the diversity of ingredients that moved with it.  Additionally Tex-Mex exists as more of a restaurant cuisine where Soul Food may have greater conotations with the hearth itself...

Wow, somewhere, someone is scribbling down this idea for a doctoral thesis: "The Movement of Foodways in the 20th Century." (Hmmm, maybe it's time to apply for that post-grad program myself . . . )

I'd agree with you on all points (even the need for that joke to have crutches), except the final sentence. Can you really make a case that Tex-Mex is restaurant-based and soul food isn't?

If soul food is an outgrowth of the Great Migration, wasn't it most likely to be found in small restaurants that served workers living in a strange city who hadn't yet established neighborhoods or moved their families to join them?

I see the same thing happening here in Charlotte, N.C., with small restaurants that serve the Mexican and Central American communities. Historian Donna Gabbacia, author of the book "We Are What We Eat," an excellent study of immigration and food patterns, pointed out about five years ago that Charlotte was getting more authentic Mexican food than you would find in Chicago. Because the population base was smaller, the restaurants and food stores were there to serve only people within the community -- many of them young men without families here yet. Since the businesses didn't have much competition, they hadn't yet had to change to attract non-Mexican customers.

And wouldn't Tex-Mex have been just as likely to be home-based cuisine being made on remote, rural locations like ranches, where people were cooking for themselves using local ingredients and influences from Mexican workers and cooks?

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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