Carla Hall’s intentions were clear when she started working on her third cookbook: She wanted to focus on the food of her native South. But it wasn’t until a “pivotal point” with okra and tomatoes that the D.C.-based chef and TV personality figured out how to put her vision on the page.
“There is a stewed okra dish that everybody in the South knows,” said Hall, who was born and raised in Nashville. “I’m not a huge fan of okra, but I respect it as part of the ingredients and the culture.” She tried making a broth with canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and bay leaf, and roasting the okra separately, so the pods got crunchy, before dropping the vegetable into the aromatic liquid.
“Immediately, the broth just permeated with this beautiful okra taste,” Hall marveled, triumphant that there was no trace of the vegetable’s signature sliminess.
At that moment, Hall remembers, she said: “This is it. This is what I want to do. I want to take a classic dish and think about the way that we live now and have those same tastes, and food memories, but in a dish from today.”
But “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration” (Harper Wave) is much more than a cookbook that updates traditional recipes. It also seeks to educate home cooks across the country about, as the introduction states, “the true food of African-Americans.”
The impetus was a DNA test that revealed Hall’s ancestors were the Yoruba people from Nigeria and the Bubi from Bioko Island off the west coast of Africa. She wondered what they might eat today if they lived in the United States.
At the same time, she noticed that many grains — millet and sorghum among them — that were brought from Africa as part of the transatlantic slave trade and eventually incorporated into Southern foodways were available here again. Her soul food, she decided, would be that of her culture’s heritage, and of her family, childhood and adulthood.
She and co-author Genevieve Ko did copious research, relying on the work of such culinary scholars as Tonya Hopkins and Jessica B. Harris and such literary powerhouses as Maya Angelou — for her poetry, fiction and cookbooks — and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose novel “Americanah” juxtaposes African and African-American cultures with notable depictions of food.
They also traveled extensively through the South with Italian photographer Gabriele Stabile, whose documentarylike images, candid portraits and intimate shots are a departure from the carefully styled pictures of standard cookbooks.
Collectively, these choices allowed Hall to convey the multivalent nature of her subject, which, as Harris said, is “difficult to define because people tend to view African-Americans and African-American life in the United States as monolithic, and it’s not. People therefore are at a loss when it comes to seeing the varieties, and the range of lives and lifestyles that are involved in something like soul food.”
While the term “soul food” didn’t come around until the mid-20th century, Hall writes, it “refers to the dishes of the Cotton Belt of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama that traveled out to the rest of the country during the Great Migration,” when millions of African-Americans left the rural South.
Michael Twitty, whose book “The Cooking Gene” (Harper Collins) won top honors this year from the James Beard Foundation, has three definitions for it. The first is “the product of the Great Migration,” he notes, though, “The Great Migration is an idea: the idea that we will use momentum to leave our past.” It is also “the memory cuisine of the great-great-grandchildren of enslaved people,” an answer to the question “Who are we?”
Finally, soul food is “the African-American vernacular cuisine,” Twitty said. It is the culinary counterpart to African-American vernacular English, “in other words, black English, Ebonics,” he explained. “Because it’s not slang, and it’s not a poor adaptation. It’s not a pathology.”
The tendency to disparage soul food as “poor people’s food” is one that Hall and many African-American food writers and chefs continue to challenge.
“It’s a melding of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas,” said Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food” (University of North Carolina Press).
“Like many other cuisines, it’s a mix of the high and the low. There are elements of soul food that started as European royalty food, but soul food is consistently cast as a poverty cuisine.”
That association dovetails with another myth Hall wants to dispel: that soul food is unhealthy.
“When you hear nutritionists telling us what we need to eat,” Miller said, “they keep saying dark, leafy greens; sweet potatoes; more legumes; okra is now a super food. You know, more fish and chicken, less red meat — these are all the building blocks of soul food.”
Hall battles this misconception by offering two categories of recipe: Everyday and Celebration. Remembering the vegetables her grandmother picked from her garden and cooked for the daily meals of Hall’s childhood, it struck her that portrayals of soul food tend to focus exclusively on large festive gatherings and holidays instead of reflecting how people eat on a regular basis.
Some dishes are present on both daily and celebratory tables, and she identifies those accordingly. But the cookbook emphasizes vegetable-centric items you could eat any day of the week, and is mindful of reducing fat and sodium.
Readers will find such dishes as a three-bean skillet stew that lives up to the “speedy” in its recipe’s name and draws its flavor from bacon (about one slice per serving); a Caribbean-inspired smothered chicken made with light coconut milk, lime and habañero, in lieu of pork, which was introduced to the United States by Europeans; and, for special occasions, a sweet vanilla cake doused in a glossy, amber caramel sauce.
This is another way, as Hall writes in the book, to “redefine soul food, to reclaim it,” and to do that on behalf of her community.
“It’s really getting back to being proud of this food to reintroduce it to other African-Americans,” she said. She was met with skepticism from her literary agent, who, when Hall announced her next cookbook would focus on soul food, advised against it out of concern that her client would ostracize the rest of the country.
“Nobody would say that about other cultures,” she replied.
She questions the assumption that it wouldn’t appeal to nonblack readers simply because it covers a product of African-American culture. It’s a prejudice that other black food writers have faced. Harris, who has written more than 10 volumes on the origins and development of black food in America, believes resistance to the subject matter is rooted in unease.
“The history of African-Americans, in not just this country, but this hemisphere, is loaded with questions of enslavement, questions of disenfranchisement,” she said. “I think there is a level of historic discomfort that people have with soul food. Because it’s reminding them — people who didn’t grow up with the food of a history that is difficult, to say the least.”
To complicate matters, the work of black chefs and food writers is often pigeonholed as dealing exclusively with soul food. “It’s either down home, get down, finger-licking food, you know, or it is essentially branding every person who is an African-American — everything they cook is soul food,” said Alexander Smalls, an opera singer, chef/restaurateur and cookbook author in New York City. On the one hand, he explained, “You have to be black to make soul food.” On the other, “You have to understand that even though you have to be black, all black people can’t make soul food.”
Hall, who splits her time between Washington and New York, was an accountant and model before she moved into food, catering and later parlaying her breakout appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef” into a gig co-hosting the daily talk show “The Chew.” After it was canceled in May, she landed a regular cooking segment on its replacement, the third hour of “Good Morning America.”
With the book, to some extent, Hall is trying in her way to achieve what a crossover artist in the music industry might. “The same way that we would all pick up an Italian book if we didn’t know about Italian food, or a Korean book, or Japanese, or Indian food — it’s to honor the culture in that way. I’m just asking that you will honor our food.”
Hall’s cookbook starts with the individual telling a story and gives us a history lesson along the way. Her hope is to use the former to give credit to those who came before her.
“I felt like it was my duty, even though I’m not trying to replace them,” she said. “I’m trying to shine a light on what they do.” She knows it’s a tall order. As she told her publicists, “This is a black book from a woman who is 54 years old with gray hair, and she’s black.”
But she believes she’s up to the task. Because she’s not just another 54-year-old black woman with gray hair and a cookbook to sell. She’s Carla Hall. “With this platform,” she said, “I can do that. I can take it mainstream.”