Cookbook Review: Soul Food Love

Photograph copyright © 2015 by Penny De Los Santos.

Cookbook Review: Soul Food Love

If anyone has any remaining doubts that food is one of our most powerful personal connectors and at the heart of cultural identity, you should read -- and cook from -- Soul Food Love (Clarkson Potter, February 2015, $30,00, hardcover).

Authors Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams, mother and daughter, have created a manifesto combined with a conversation about family, heritage, nutrition, and flavor, all of which come together at the dinner table. 

A bit of background:  In 2012 Alice Randall, the best-selling novelist who also studied with Julia Child for credit at Harvard and written country music hits for stars like Trisha Yearwood, wrote a New York Times op ed entitled "Black Women and Fat" about her quest to be "the last fat black woman" in her family.  That piece led her and her daughter, poet and teacher Caroline Randall Williams, to use their family history to explore the relationship African American women have with food.

The result is a book about five kitchens, three women, and one hundred years of cooking that manages to be personal and revelatory as well as a gift to anyone who savors the flavors of African American cooking but wants to eat healthily.  Soul Food Love is a candid family memoir with 80 recipes for everyday and special occasions.

It's hard to separate the narrative of this book from the recipes, not that you have to.  The book begins with stories about family, followed by the recipes, most of which have head notes with back-stories about the source of the ingredients, personal remembrances, nutrition advice, literary and historic references, including how slavery influenced black cuisine.  It is so beautifully written.

And then there is the cooking.  From Sips & Bites to Crowns ("Crowns are what folks in our family call the tall, and often round, dishes that we present to our most cherished guests to signify their preciousness," they write) to Cooking For A Crowd, nearly every recipe is done to boost health and nutrition and reduce fat and salt.  For example, the Soups chapter includes three broths (chicken, sweet potato, and green) and the chapter on Sides & Salads brings lively flavor to a wide range of vegetables with dishes like Fiery Green Beans, Herbed Corn On The Corn, and Broccoli With Peanuts and Raisins.  Main Dishes come in three categories:  Poultry, Fish, and Beans.

Foods are roasted, not fried.  Brown rice replaces white.  Olive oil is used in place of butter or lard.  There is a decidedly southern tilt to the flavors and ingredients, as with Red Pepper Jelly Coins and Red Bean and Brown Rice Creole Salad, and many of the recipes are very simple.  There are also some unexpected international recipes (guacamole, two versions of hummus, baba ghanoush) and cooking techniques, plus Nana's Martini, mixed in a mason jar with a tiny whole pickled green tomato replacing the conventional olive.  There is a huge amount of flavor on these pages but if you're expecting stereotypical soul food cooking, you will be disappointed.  And that's the point.

We were given permission to share their recipe for Peanut and Chicken Stew, which includes the recipe for Sweet Potato Broth, itself a wonderful addition to any vegetarian repertoire for how it can replace chicken broth.

After working with this special book for a few weeks it was easy to appreciate the meaning of the title -- that the "love" was for both the legacy of this family and the generations of women who ruled their kitchens.  And it's for the love of this food.






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