Nothing signals hospitality more than a pot of freshly made beef stew with buttered biscuits, green beans, a serving of corn, and a mug of hot black french press coffee. Such foods represent a cuisine from a day when Americans lived on farms and plantations, and life was not full of iPhones and Skype and twitter feeds. Food was not relegated to the caboose of the priority ladder. Fast food did not exist, and good food came only in direct proportion to lots of labor. Indeed, food was not only sustenance, but it was entertainment. It was art. It was socialization. It was an expression of love.
This came to be known as “comfort” food. During that same time period emerged a subdivision of comfort food, which is the genre that I explored today: Soul food.
During American slavery, slaves were most often left to cook for themselves. With the excess- or throw-away material- of their masters, overtime slaves developed methods of cooking that transformed off-cuts of meat and cheap produce into meals worthy of sharing with family. That’s how we got ribs; it’s how we got mashed potatoes; it’s how we got collard greens. Speaking of sharing and family, this slave subculture also was very dependent on one another for sustenance. Under the oppression of the day, many times slaves formed sub-communities in which they would share knowledge, Scripture, entertainment, and food to help better the collective health and quality of life for everyone within the slave ranks. Sociologically, that is what always happens to an oppressed group… they band together. Some slaves had more than others, the ones with means usually felt morally obligated to help provide for those with less. Slaves rarely just cooked for their family; slave families simply made food, and all families would share each other’s food. This is where the term “soul” food came into play. This new cuisine was more than the food. It was the culture of bonding and affection that came along with the food. It was the comforting element of the food in the face of difficult circumstances. It was the respect for the physical labor and pain that went into acquiring the food, processing the food, and cooking the food. Lives surrounded by uncertainty and hardship taught these folks to cherish the food that they had today because there might not be any tomorrow. Soul food was therapeutic for the innermost parts of these individuals.
This is still the connotation, albeit often subconscious, through which all Americans today interpret such meals. Homey settings with large sofas just have a way of inducing deep bonding. Perhaps we are more nostalgic with food then we care to think.
In any event, this is the historical background with which I prepared today’s Sunday dinner for my family. The recipe is stated at the bottom. It was my attempt to stay true to the theme of soul food, so I put a lot of time, effort, labor, and care into this particular meal. Also staying true with the theme of soul food, this is a very diet-bludgeoning recipe. The slaves often only had access foods high in fat content and lots of starch, and in order to preserve some of the older meats they received from their masters, they used a lot of salt and sugar.
I didn’t just follow a set of directions- I improvised, I added flair, I strategized. This recipe and the below pictures are my improvisations, but feel free to make your own alterations. Try it yourself…and remember to cook with soul. Make it for someone you love. No shortcuts. Reaping the rewards of your labor will make it taste that much better.
YELLOWHAMMER COUNTY FRIED CHICKEN WITH SWEET POTATOES
- 5.5 cups water
- 4 tablespoons sea salt
- 2 large onions, sliced thin
- 6-8 garlic cloves (make sure to have a garlic press handy. If not, use the side of a knife)
- 4 tablespoons dried rosemary
- 2 lemons
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 9 chicken quarters, excess fat trimmed (leave some fat on them for the frying)
- 5 cups all-purpose flour
- 6 tablespoons ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons paprika
- 1.5 tablespoons salt
- 1.5 tablespoons cayenne pepper
- 3 cups buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons baking powder
- 48 oz peanut oil
SWEET POTATO BAKE
- 15-18 sweet potatoes
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup butter
- Cinnamon to taste
- Nutmeg to taste
- Mini Marshmallows to taste
- 1-1.5 cups rolled oats (no quick oats or instant oats)
Start the day before with the brine. Personally, I like two days before, but a minimum of 12 hours in the brine should do the trick for the chicken. Start off the brine for juicing two lemons. Keep the juice handy to add to the brine n a few minutes. In a large skillet or saucepan, add onion and garlic into 2 tablespoons of hot olive oil and begin to sautee. After 30 seconds, add salt. Sautee onion, garlic, and salt in the olive oil until the onion and garlic are wilty and translucent (approximately 3-4 minutes). Add rosemary; sautee for another 30 seconds. Add water and lemon juice to the skillet. Stir thoroughly to dissolve sea salt. Add paprika. Stir thoroughly. Bring to a simmer; then refrigerate covered until cool.
As the brine is cooling in the fridge, wash the chicken. If you are going to cut the leg off from the thigh in the chicken quarter, this would be a good time to do it. Trim the excess fat off the chicken, but make sure not to remove all the fat… the fat will be an important balancing factor in the frying. Wash in cold water and pat dry. Once brine is cooled, put chicken in sealabe plastic bags and pour cold brine into bags (enough to cover the chicken, evenly distributing the brine between bags if you have more than one). Seal the bags; Thoroughly rub down chicken with brine in the bags. Throw it in the fridge. Brining is perhaps the most important part of this recipe. As Wikipedia explains it, “Brining makes cooked meat moister by hydrating the cells of its muscle tissue before cooking, via the process of osmosis, and by allowing the cells to hold on to the water while they are cooked, via the process of denaturation. The brine surrounding the cells has a higher concentration of salt than the fluid within the cells, but the cell fluid has a higher concentration of other solutes. This leads salt ions to diffuse into the cell, whilst the solutes in the cells cannot diffuse through the cell membranes into the brine. The increased salinity of the cell fluid causes the cell to absorb water from the brine via osmosis. The salt introduced into the cell also denatures its proteins. The proteins coagulate, forming a matrix that traps water molecules and holds them during cooking. This prevents the meat from dehydrating.”
My experience was that the making of the brine takes much longer than I anticipated. Make sure not to cut it close with the brine, time-wise. Since you’re already up making the brine, why not start on those sweet potatoes?
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush vegetable oil on the skin of each potato. Place the potatoes on a baking sheet (you’ll most likely need two baking sheets). Bake uncovered for 55 minutes, or until soft. While they bake, melt 3/4 cup of butter, have your cream handy, and 1.5 cups of brown sugar handy. When the potatoes finish and are cool enough to handle, peel them; drop warm peeled potatoes into a large mixing bowl. When finished, beat on low until potatoes are mashed together (sweet potatoes are easy to accomplish this with, this should only take about 30-45 seconds). Then add butter, sugar, and cream; beat until thoroughly mixed. Add cinnamon and nutmeg to taste and stir that in as well. Refrigerate this mixture overnight while your chicken sits in the fridge brining overnight.
The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Take out the sweet potato mixture and pour into into a casserole baking pan. smooth out the surface. Mix oats, remaining brown sugar, remaining melted butter, and cinnamon/nutmeg (optional) in a bowl. Cover the surface of the sweet potatoes in this mixture. Place in the oven for 70-80 minutes.
As the sweet potatoes bake, get two large bowls and one medium bowl. Also get two cookie sheets and two racks. Mix flour, cayenne pepper, black pepper, paprika, salt, and baking powder thoroughly in one large bowl. Then take half of the dry mixture and put it in the other large bowl. Put the buttermilk in the medium bowl. remove chicken from brine and wash each piece in cold water. Then pat dry and set on a rack. You’ll want your station to look like this:
At this point, place peanut oil in large skillet for frying and begin to heat oil. Dredge the chicken in the first bowl of flour, then using second rack, get excess flour off. Set on the second rack. Once you’ve completed this with all the chicken, dip the pieces in the buttermilk. Make sure they are thoroughly covered. Then dredge them in the second bowl on flour. Then place them back on the rack. By this time, the oil should be near heated if not already heated. Place as much chicken as you can in the skillet at once without crowding them. Fry for 10-13 minutes each, until the batter is crispy and golden brown and until the chicken is cooked through. Set on a rack for oil to drain; optionally garnish with rosemary.
During the frying the sweet potato baking time will probably expire. Once it does, take the casserole out and spread as many mini marshmallows as you’d like on the top. Turn the oven on low broil. Put the pan back in the oven, and broil JUST long enough for the marshmallows to look a little brown and toasted. Then turn the heat off. Leave the casserole in the oven to maintain heat while frying the chicken.
This recipe took a lottt of work. But the finished product was well worth the labor. It’s not soul food if there’s not a lot of labor. But, with soul food, a meal with a whole lotta labor turns into a table of food with a whole lotta love.