James Beard Foundation Op-Ed: Cast Iron Chronicles
FIGHTING STEREOTYPES, ONE DINNER AT A TIME
Jennifer Hill Booker
February 14, 2018
Photo: Shelby Light
In our ongoing op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.
Our latest piece comes from chef, culinary instructor, cookbook author, and Chefs Boot Camp alum Jennifer Hill Booker. Below, Booker explains the motivation behind her recent collaborative dinner series, “the Cast Iron Chronicles,” which will culminate in a meal at the Beard House on February 21 where Booker and her partners in the series will use food and beverage to tackle racial and gender stereotypes.
Let’s talk about Soul Food.
To do so, we’ll have to talk about who cooked it, who’s currently cooking it, and all of the stereotypes in between.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether Southern food and Soul Food are the same things. Southern cuisine has made some inroads in regard to its popularity, but it has come at a cost—the loss of its identity in order to become part of mainstream culture. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed that less and less is food from the South called “Soul Food,” and that more and more often it’s referred to as “Southern cuisine.” No longer are the people who have cooked Soul Food for over 300 years being recognized for maintaining that genre of cuisine or even currently being in the kitchen cooking it. It seems that in order for Soul Food to be fully embraced, to be considered healthy and elegant, it must become Southern food, with the original black hands in the pot replaced by white ones.
To that, I take exception. I’ve learned from conversations with other Southern chefs of color that the general consensus is that our cuisine is changing into a type of food we no longer recognize. To help preserve food memories of the South, the Cast Iron Chronicles were born. I wouldn’t call it a full-on crusade, but I have made it my business to remind people of the origin of Southern food, who cooked it in the past, and who is cooking it still.
What is cast iron? It’s a group of iron–carbon alloys in which (among other things) cookware is made. Due to its resiliency, cast iron pots and pans are considered invaluable pieces of kitchen equipment, are a source of pride for Southern cooks, and have become synonymous with Soul Food. The Cast Iron Chronicles are a narrative of my food experiences: as a Southerner, as a woman of color, and as a chef. They debunk the myths surrounding Soul Food by sharing the rich cultural history of food from the South, discussing gender and race representation in the kitchen, and offering up food memories and recipes from other Southern cooks.
My family is from the Mississippi Delta and my roots are truly Southern. Spending time “down South,” I’ve seen a lot of changes. Some of those changes were motivated by hate, like bulldozing and pouring concrete in the city pool instead of integrating it. And other changes were motivated by hope and inclusion, like providing accessible and affordable health care for everyone. But it took becoming a chef before I saw hard-core food racism. Although my familial roots are Southern, my formal culinary training is French, and I was told to embrace that training, because there just wasn’t a place in the kitchen for my roots. I’ve worked in establishments that said collard greens and black-eyed peas were “slave food” to be cooked in restaurants only during Black History Month, and that fried chicken is the only thing black women know how to cook well.
I am both amazed and outraged by the disdain food from the South receives. I believe this prejudice comes from a widespread misconception that food from the South or Soul Food is unhealthy, unsophisticated, and prepared by poorly trained cooks. Those who cook—and eat—Southern food would disagree. Which brings us back to the Cast Iron Chronicles.
Fried chicken livers, one of the menu items from the upcoming Cast Iron Chronicles Beard House dinner. (Photo: Shelby Light)
This ongoing narrative will make a formal presentation at the James Beard House on February 21 as the finale to a three-part dinner series. It began with an interactive dinner called “Cocktails, Cuisine, & Conversation,” followed by a celebratory dinner held on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday entitled "Journey to the Beard House.” For all of these dinners three African American women with Southern roots (myself, chef Deborah VanTrece, and mixologist Tiffanie Barriere) showcased their personal culinary journeys though food and drink.
The final dinner of this series, aptly named the Cast Iron Chronicles, will proudly present a menu that reflects our heritage using the delicious variety and elegance of Soul Food. Those attending the James Beard House dinner will delight in dishes like oxtail rillettes with foie gras mousse, picked onions, black truffle toast points, and muscadine gelée; black-eyed pea risotto cakes with smoked ham hock and candied winter greens; and house-smoked salmon with deviled quail eggs, green onion hoe cakes and caviar chowchow. Southern wines and creative cocktails like the whiskey-based Southern Reserve and a gin-laced cocktail made from green apple and collard greens, will be paired with each dish. Iconic Southern desserts like bourbon–caramel cake and sweet potato tartlets with meringue clouds will complete the meal. This menu has been purposely created with the belief that once enjoyed, everyone will leave with a better understanding of the history and complexity of soul food, not to mention delicious food memories as indelible as cast iron.
Jennifer Hill Booker is an Atlanta-based chef, culinary instructor, and author of two cookbooks, Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent, and Dinner Déjà Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow.
Learn more at chefjenniferhillbooker.com.