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Vintage Cookbooks: African heritage cuisine blossoms

Thursday, February 03, 2000

By Alice Demetrius Stock

African-American food traditions, and their variations, developed into a trendy cuisine in the last decade, rediscovered by a new generation of middle-class blacks, fed by a $250 billion black consumer market and encouraged by the American comfort-food revolution and food lovers of every ethnic background.

Restaurant critic Gael Green, in a 1994 New York magazine feature, "Soul Food Now," noted a national movement across the country of restaurants that were reinterpreting African-American foods - nearly a dozen such establishments in Manhattan.

Three years later, Cooking Light magazine named soul food "one of the trends to watch."

But by 1998, Village Voice columnist Lisa Jones, writing of the growing interest of African Americans in the home cooking of their forebears, pleaded, "Don't call it soul food - demeaning, far-too-folksy, gone the way of race movies. ... Call it Southern revival, low-country, Afro-Atlantic."

African-American Heritage cooking is the latest designation for what has flowered into a complex, diverse and full-fledged cuisine from its roots in Southern regional cooking.

Migrations across the country, ties to other ethnic cuisines, a growing number of contemporary black chefs and their restaurants and a flood of cookbooks by black authors worldwide have served to advance the new cuisine.

In 1978, on the cutting edge of this tasty trend, was "Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine" by Norma Jean Darden, New York caterer and restaurateur, who co-authored the memoir-cookbook with her sister, Carole Darden Lloyd.

Though they never mentioned the term "soul food," the Dardens' emphasis at that time was still on rich, hearty Southern homestyle cooking. With the addition of family reminiscences and photos along with the recipes, the Dardens' contribution became influential in advancing a growing interest and pride in the everyday achievements of blacks before and during segregation and in the concept of preserving everyday black family history.

For example, when Klan members drove Papa (William T.) Darden out of Alabama in the late 1920s, he migrated North to Newark to resume his medical practice. "My father was very proud of saying when he came out of Tuskegee, Ala., that everything he had was made by black hands except his two-toned Nash," Norma Jean Darden explained.

The sisters write with humor and fondness about their extended family, including a grandfather who was a wine maker ("Every year Papa Darden donated his grape wine to his church for sacramental ceremonies. We're sure the pastor looked out on smiling parishioners."). Aunt Alice and Aunt Lillian were skilled in producing old-fashioned herbal cures (Gargle: Blend equal parts honey, glycerin and vinegar. Use as needed) and homemade beauty products.

A wealth of authentic family recipes include lemon-roasted leg of lamb, Bud's Saturday seafood stew, Mrs. Sheridan's North Carolina deviled crabs, sweet potato pudding, biscuits, bread, pie and puffs, Waltine's barbecued ham, roast opossum with yams, Uncle Glen's eight-year black fruitcake ("... every 3 months add 5 to 6 tablespoons of rum for the next two to eight years, depending on your patience"), a variety of "honey foods," cold buttermilk soup, peach tea, coconut cake, fig ice cream, gingerbread and, of course, spoonbread.

It is not surprising that the Darden sisters' cookbook is still in print.

Mom Sampson's Spoonbread

This cornmeal custard, a Southern version of corn bread, is best served hot. We use any leftovers in pork chop stuffing.

1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, well beaten
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Add cornmeal slowly (to avoid lumps) to the boiling water in a 1 1/2-quart saucepan, stirring constantly until thick and smooth.

Add butter and salt and cool to lukewarm. Add beaten eggs and milk and beat for 2 minutes.

Pour into a greased 1 1/2- to 2-quart casserole and bake for about 35 minutes or until golden brown. Do not overbake.

Spoon out while piping hot and pass more butter. Makes about 8 servings, but can be divided, by thirds, for fewer servings.

"Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine" by Norma Jean and Carole Darden, 1978.

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