Pop quiz time.
Soul food is most accurately associated with:
a. the cuisine eaten by African Americans in the South
b. the cuisine eaten by African Americans in the North.
Pencils down, time’s up. Easy one, right? Except it’s actually a trick question. The answer is both a and b. African American food scholars have persuasively shown that soul food wasn’t seen as a cuisine, an identifiable set of ingredients, cooking techniques and meal structures, until after the Great Migration, when blacks moved in huge numbers out of the South and into northern cities. Prior to that, blacks had eaten soul food, but it wasn’t until they moved and began interacting with people from other parts of the South that it became codified as a cuisine. Before that, it was just food..
And what food! It might be the beans and greens of necessity, the leftovers gleaned or scavenged by slaves, but it is delicious when done right.
Sadly, Delilah’s in Reading Terminal Market doesn’t really hit its marks. Delilah is an institution (indeed, google “delilah” and the Philadelphia soul food chef is the first hit), famous for bringing soul food not just to Philly but supermarket shelves everywhere. I was hopeful, and we stopped for an early lunch one weekend morning. They were barely open, so we made do with what was available–fried whiting, collard greens, beans and cornbread.
Somewhat underseasoned, I poured hot sauce onto everything, which helped considerably. The whiting was crisp, but not special. Collards needed more vinegar, too. I’m sure it seems sacrilegious to have not tried the mac ‘n cheese, hailed by none other than Oprah herself as the best in the country, but I’m just not that into it. I understand it as comfort food, but the focus on creaminess to the almost complete dismissal of texture or sharp, bright flavors doesn’t do it for me. I’m sure the mac ‘n cheese is good, but I’m not the judge for it. However, cornbread and I are involved in a lifelong love affair. Delilah’s version was pretty good, dense and satisfying, but I’ve had better (in fact, the best soul food I’ve ever had was in Omaha, Nebraska, of all places).
Soul food is supposed to be just that–nourishment for the soul. Earthy and hearty, it should stick to your ribs, especially when you’re eating ribs. Delilah’s is probably pretty good if you don’t know much about soul food, but not great otherwise. I don’t fault her for trying. As Doris Witt argues in her wonderful book Black Hunger: Soul Food and America black women’s relationship with food, especially soul food, hasn’t always been a positive one. From self-effacing mammies to castrating matriarchs, black women have often been portrayed as using food for and against others, while rarely being able to nourish themselves. So, good for Delilah for building her empire! But empresses rarely are close enough to the people to get the food just right.
Recommended: drinking that pot likker and making sure you sit at a table with a full bottle of hot sauce. And, if you’re into cultural food studies, reading Doris Witt’s book.