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Feed Your Soul

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Feed Your Soul

What was cooking in your family kitchen?
Jeff  Henderson
Jeff Henderson More by this author
Feb 17, 2011 at 09:00 AM

Maya Angelou once shared with me a childhood memory that highlighted the significant role food played in the lives of African Americans, since the beginning of slavery through today. To this day, I can’t believe I had such a personal interaction with the great poet.

It was a spring morning in 2009 when I was preparing myself for what I knew would be the most spiritually engaging interview of my life. The venue: “Grandmother’s Kitchen.” The topic: what food meant to black folks. Not being a scholar or historian, I didn’t know how I was going to effectively address that topic. I thought I had a good sense of what food meant to my family and me, but I didn’t know enough about the history of soul food to discuss it in a way that I thought would make for an interesting interview with Maya.

We were doing the interview over the phone, but I was still nervous as I awaited her. I had been on TV countless times and met numerous celebrities, but there was something different, something special about doing an interview with Maya Angelou. Finally, the phone rang. I said, “Hello, Chef Jeff.” I hoped she couldn’t hear how nervous I was. Then I heard her voice—her incredibly distinct, powerful voice that was strong and humble at the same time—and somehow I felt at ease.

She started the conversation by telling me about her grandmother. She told me how she loved and admired her grandmother, and how more than anyone in her life she was indebted to her grandmother as the person that helped form her deep connection with food. Dr. Angelou’s descriptions of her grandmother, such as how she always kept a pot of rice on the stove when Maya was a little girl, transported me to another time in my own life. My mind raced back to the late 60s and early 70s, when my sister and I would visit our grandparents’ home (on 77th Street in Los Angeles) nearly every weekend and on every holiday.

My grandparents’ cooking had its roots in New Orleans, with a bit of Alabama thrown in—where my grandfather, Charles Henderson, was born and raised. Even though we all lived in Los Angeles when I was growing up, what was cooked in my grandparents’ kitchen never really strayed far from their true roots. When we were over for dinner they’d set large platters of crispy fried chicken, chicken ’n’ dumplings, smothered pork chops, stuffed bell peppers and hot link sandwiches on the table, along with traditional side dishes, like slow-cooked collard greens seasoned with ham hocks, lima beans, cabbage cooked with rendered bacon, string beans with salt pork, candied yams, red beans and rice, black-eyed peas, and macaroni and cheese. This type of cooking has been called “Soul food,” I believe first by African Americans and then universally. Many of these foods can be traced back to the slave experience some 400 years ago, and some (like okra) back to Africa. During this dark period of American history, African American slaves—especially in the southern states—created dishes based on the heritage and tradition from their various homelands, but incorporating ingredients indigenous to America (like corn) and others brought over by the Europeans (like cabbage).

The black women who ran the stoves in spacious plantation estates, cooked for the slavemasters using the best hand-picked vegetables, and prime cuts of meat and poultry, while they themselves were often rationed smaller and cheaper cuts (like oxtail), tough cuts that require long cooking times or high heat, which is likely at least partly why there’s so much braising and frying in soul food. The ability of slaves to weave something out of nothing, to survive against all costs, to create food with flavor and soul, is just one of the many testaments to the strength of the African American people.

About Author
Jeff  Henderson
Jeff Henderson was the first African American to be named Chef de Cuisine at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and executive chef at Café Bellagio. He hosted the The Chef Jeff Project, a docu-reality TV series; and is the author of the New York Continue reading