Some African-Americans have adapted new approaches to cooking, which leads to better health and living longer.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment on the legacy of soul food. Part 1 appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of the Florida Courier.
BY PENNY DICKERSON
Soul food has taken center stage in the millennium as both a Southern indulgence and palate pleaser.
Restaurants boasting the original recipe of elderly relatives have opened throughout the Southeastern region of the country, and the ubiquitous food genre is even the focus of the reality television show, “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.”
According to Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard award-winning book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,’’ “Traditional (soul food) places are having a generational moment. The people who started them are retiring, or dying off, but the kids in the family and other employees are still interested in carrying on the business.”
Soul or Southern?
Originated by the resourcefulness of enslaved African-Americans, soul food remains controversial for its heritage and its high sodium, fried foods and bountiful sugar content, which contributes to debilitating diseases. Included are hypertension, diagnosed arthritis and diabetes, all types of heart disease, and cancer.
“Southern food is the mother cuisine that soul food claims heritage to, but soul food is distinct unto itself,” Miller said. “Part of the confusion surrounding soul food is that it stems from cultural stiff-arming that occurred in the 1960s.
“Around this time, African-Americans start distancing our food from others, claiming it as our own. So you get this gulf between Southern and soul food and we’re still living with that legacy today,” Miller added.
Demonstrating the good sense to cut back on salt and sugar intake while embracing new cooking methodologies [and diets] has proven to be a game changer for elderly African-Americans, many of whom have helped to keep both the soul food legacy and themselves alive.
The Administration on Aging reports that along with general trends for America’s population growth, the Black population is living longer. In 2014, there were 8,582 African-Americans age 100 years and over (1,558 men and 7,024 women). They comprised 12 percent of all centenarians.
“I eat collard or turnip greens at least once a week,” said 82-year-old Lillie May Turner. “I used to cook ‘em slow until all the meat fell off my smoked neckbones.
“After my husband died of heart trouble, I started cooking different. I bought me a pressure cooker that can cook up a bunch of greens with rutabagas in one hour and they taste great, added Taylor, who says she remains in good health save for a set of dentures that alleviates her ability to chew most meat.
Chef Amadeus is best known for winning the title, “Extreme Chef” on the Food Network’s “Mexican Showdown,’’ in 2011. The Jacksonville native outwitted the competition by ultimately preparing skirt steak with Dulce de leche. He seared it to create a textured crust and then served his required “one-bite” to the judges on a spoon spread with a ground mustard base. That single serving won him $10,000.
“Some African-American’s culture consists of cooking the way generations before them have always done. They are accustomed to using salt pork, cooking the nutrients out of veggies, frying food, using seasoning salts, and then eating big portions,” said Chef Amadeus.
“Soul food can be prepared in a healthy manner. I encourage people to never overcook their vegetables, substitute olive oil for butter, and when cooking greens add carrots or yams for sweetness versus sugar. Greens should be green when they are done,” he added.
He also endorses baking chicken on a rack vs. frying. “Baking on a rack will allow the fat to drain away, so your chicken will not be sitting in those oils during the cooking process,” said Chef Amadeus, who further advised to bake or steam fish and prepare gravy using oatmeal flour instead of all-purpose flour.
Heart and healthy souls
The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reports that the rate of heart failure among African-Americans is much higher than among Whites and other races.
Heart failure means that the heart rate declines and the organ becomes unable to pump blood as it should. Before age 50, the heart failure rate for African-Americans is 20 times higher than for Whites, according to the NEJM. This is attributed to several reasons, but a key one is that African-Americans receive less quality health care, such as visiting a primary care physician without seeing a cardiologist.
“I have a few health issues, so cutting down on salt is a very big part of my lifestyle,” stated Chef Amadeus. “I do a lot of cooking at home instead of going out, and when I do go out to eat I go to restaurants that have chefs or restaurants that don’t use processed foods,” he added with the suggestion to learn to make your favorite dish at home, that way you know what you are eating.
NEJM also recommends the following to ensure your heart remains strong:
•Maintain a healthy weight. It will help you avoid risks for heart disease.
•Eat a healthy diet. Choose healthful meals and snacks, including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
•Eat foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber. They can help prevent high blood cholesterol.
•Exercise regularly. Physical activity helps maintain healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
•Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease.
•Limit alcohol use. Too much alcohol causes high blood pressure.
•Get regular checkups.
•Limit salt or sodium in your diet. That can also lower your blood pressure.
The sodium saga
Soul food and salt have survived a complicated relationship for as long as each has existed.
According to a report published by AARP, Americans aren’t even quite sure how to cut back on the salty stuff.
A 2010 survey showed that more than half think that using less salt at the table is an effective way to reduce sodium, even though the salt we add while cooking or eating represents only 10 percent of our daily intake.
AARP notes this is particularly troublesome for people who are salt-sensitive, meaning older Americans, African-Americans and those with high blood pressure.
Chef’s no-salt spice line
An abundance of salt forces the body to excessively retain fluid and additionally causes blood pressure to rise and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Chef Amadeus found a solution by creating his own no-salt, special blend spices:
•Chino 5 (Asian cinnamon flavored. Great for lamb, steak and dessert.)
•Lil’ Bump (All-purpose Cajun blend).
•Dos Maria (Curry powder named for his mother and grandmother).
“When I really got into cooking, I wanted to have my clients taste what food really taste like versus being masked with salt,” said Chef Amadeus. “I use my spices and other herbs, spices, roots and citrus to flavor my cooking which is fusion cooking with emphasis on Japanese, Southern, Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine using traditional spices like scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, and, of course, my own spices,” he added.
Rice is a soul food staple, but Chef Amadeus reminds that it has no flavor so you can add whatever flavor you desire including star anise, Sofrito, ginger and citrus.
“If you insist upon salt, use kosher salt, sea salt or Himalayan salt as a finishing salt. It’s all about the flavor,” said Chef Amadeus. “Also, the more colored veggies you have on the plate the better. Cook the rainbow.”
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and AARP.