Is It Southern Food, or Soul Food?

Todd Richards and Virginia Willis, authors of cookbooks on the food of the American South, at Ms. Willis’s home in Atlanta.

ATLANTA — When you’re a Southern cook everyone thinks they know what you’re about. You bake your cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. Your kitchen is stocked with grits and greens and grease. You’re probably white or African-American, a churchgoer, a straight woman and a mother. And you learned at your own mother’s apron strings, never wanting to cook anything other than the foods of your own tradition.

More and more Southern cooks are chipping away at that stereotype, both in who they are and what they cook. Two cooks based here — Todd Richards and Virginia Willis — have published cookbooks this year that reflect new ways of thinking about Southern food and the terms that have come to define it.

Mr. Richards, 46, is a self-taught chef with Southern roots; in “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” he describes his journey from Chicago, where he grew up, through a culinary career that began in the butcher department at a local Kroger supermarket, continued at the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton hotels, and now involves overseeing multiple restaurants here in Atlanta. His book is both a manual and meditation, in chapters moving alphabetically from collards to potatoes, on the forces of history that made him the cook that he is.

Ms. Willis, 51, is a Georgia native, taught the classics by her mother and grandmother, and polished by years spent cooking in France and working in food media in New York. As a gay woman, she felt she had to leave the South to explore her identity, and came out only when she found her way into the professional food world.

“Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South” is her sixth book, and her first to illuminate the diversity of Southern food: not only its African, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Mexican and other influences, but its agricultural range.

I brought them together for a conversation about this exciting and complicated time for people who love Southern cooking. The rest of the world is waking up to the multicultural reality of the New South: Korean-Southern fried chicken, Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish, tacos stuffed with barbecue. And new studies and discoveries by historians of African-American food like Toni Tipton-Martin, Adrian E. Miller and Therese Nelson are fueling debate over the origins of the Southern culinary tradition.

“There’s a huge piece smack in the middle of the Southern food conversation and that’s the black-white divide,” said Ms. Willis, putting the elephant in the room right on the lunch table.

So far, no one has managed to draw a clear line between white food and black food in the South. Many of the cooking traditions and techniques that define Southern food were invented and executed by African-Americans, whether they were cooking for their own families or for white families that enslaved or employed them.

“When you take a good look, it’s mostly about class and place, not race. People who lived in the same region mostly ate the same food,” according to what ingredients they could afford, said Mr. Miller, the author of “Soul Food” and other books on African-American food history, in an interview. “They weren’t eating it together, but they were eating the same thing.”

And yet, the term “soul food” came to represent the food of black Southerners, and “Southern” or “country” the food of white Southerners — even when the dishes were exactly the same. (According to Mr. Miller, the word “soul” was first used this way around the 1950s, by black jazz musicians who wanted to distinguish their own music from the white copycats they encountered in places like Chicago and Detroit. “Soul music,” “soul brother” and other terms followed.)

In the kitchen, there seems to be more that unites Ms. Willis and Mr. Richards than divides them. Both of their mothers washed fresh-picked peanuts and collard greens in the washing machine. Their family recipes for potato salad are nearly identical, with not-too-soft potatoes, hard-cooked eggs, pickle relish, mayonnaise, mustard and paprika.

Since it’s not every day that I have two great Southern cooks coming to the table, I asked both to bring a variation on pimento cheese, a beloved sandwich filling from the dawn of convenience foods, made from shredded cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise and canned pimentos. Ms. Willis assembled a savory, summery tomato pie and gave it a topping of melted pimento cheese; Mr. Richards made his pimento cheese smoky and spicy, adding thick-cut bacon and the sauce from a can of Mexican chipotle chiles, and topping that with juicy sweet peaches on toast.

We started with iced tea, as you do in Georgia in July, but somehow also polished off a bottle of Champagne before dessert (upside-down peach cake). We reasoned that it would aid the conversation, which is excerpted below in condensed and edited form.

To people outside the South, it’s not always clear what the difference is — Southern food versus soul food.

TODD RICHARDS: First of all, Southern food isn’t one thing. Louisiana isn’t Georgia isn’t the Carolinas.

VIRGINIA WILLIS: The food of the South has changed and evolved more than people think. It's not stuck in one time or place.

RICHARDS: And Southern kitchens had different influences over hundreds of years. There was fine dining, there were poor farmers, there were slave cooks.

So is soul food a subset of Southern cooking, or a separate thing?

RICHARDS: Soul food is a marketing term invented by Northerners. It was the home food of the black Southerners who moved in the Great Migration. There weren’t a lot of white people leaving the South to go live in Chicago or Detroit, so up North, it became black people’s food.

WILLIS: Down here, I don’t see the food being specifically black or white. It’s more a question of who is doing the cooking. And that has a lot of complicated answers.

RICHARDS: People get preoccupied with skin color. But it’s really a question of poor and wealthy. Only poor people would eat neck bones and chitlins. Fresh meat like chicken and pork was always a luxury.

WILLIS: Fresh vegetables weren’t a luxury; everyone had a garden, and the growing season is long. Across the South, it was an agrarian culture, for better or for worse.

RICHARDS: Everyone had the same ingredients. The difference was in the expense, in whether you were getting the wings or the breast, or a scrawny old chicken or a fat young one. It’s still true: I was just at a place where the fried chicken plate is $36. And if there is any difference between that fried chicken and my $9 fried chicken and $36 fried chicken, other than what kind of chicken you use, I would be hard pressed to find it.

WILLIS: And not to sound all California, but when you have great ingredients, when you’re cooking with super-fresh tomatoes, onions, okra, you’re almost there in terms of flavor.

RICHARDS: To me the pursuit of delicious food is the Southern way. There might be greens on every table, but they are cooked a thousand ways. Somebody figured out that a combination of mustard greens and collards tastes better than either one of them tastes alone. Somebody added ham, somebody else took it out and added vinegar instead.

But why was that pursuit more vigorous in the South than in other places? It didn’t seem to happen in New England. And it’s not like Scandinavian food was revolutionized with flavor when people settled in the Midwest.

WILLIS: A lot of Southern cooking comes from just figuring out how to keep things from spoiling in the heat.

RICHARDS: That strong flavor profile we have — the spice, the smoke, the heat — those didn’t come from any English settlers. They were preservation methods that we know were used in Africa long before anyone ever landed in the state of Georgia. We are claiming barbecue as our own. We are claiming cayenne and hot peppers.

WILLIS: The pickles, the hams, the preserves — it was not a hobby. It was how you kept your family alive. It sounds very nice and pretty now to say “agrarian,” but the dark side of that was poverty and hunger and backbreaking labor for the vast majority of people.

RICHARDS: The good side was that people had real cooking technique. You had to know how to clean a fish or kill a squirrel. Your livelihood could depend on making a good biscuit. That isn’t so different from what you learn in culinary school or studying French technique.

WILLIS: I went to France to cook for three months and stayed for three years. The longer I was there, the more I realized that it was like the South. People still have connections to the sources of their food, they know the vegetables in their grandpa’s garden, they’ve seen the grapevines that their wine comes from. And they also argue about cooking all the time.

RICHARDS: My father’s family was originally from Louisiana and my mother’s family, from Alabama. It was a rice culture versus a grits culture. My father was appalled when my mother cooked rice with butter. He thought that was sacrilege.

So how did your families shape your sense of Southern food?

WILLIS: I learned to cook the classics a certain way from my mother and my grandmother, but even back then in the ’70s, things were already changing. My mother was an adventurous cook. I went through a vegetarian phase. We had food magazines and food TV, so new stuff was coming in all the time.

RICHARDS: Maybe because they lived outside the South, my parents liked to cook things just the way remembered them. They cooked for 50 to 60 people at a time. My father was brining chickens all over the house before any chef started doing it, smoking racks of ribs. My grandmother made everything without a recipe: collards, cornbread, poundcake.

Is that what defines soul food for you? The memory, the heritage? How do you preserve that into the future?

RICHARDS: Soul food is a black art form. Soul food is a gospel, and chefs are its preachers. It can be handed down once you know it, and once you’re proud of it.

Recipes: Grilled Peach Toast With Spicy Pimento Cheese | Tomato Pie With Pimento Cheese Topping | Peach Upside-Down Skillet Cake With Bourbon Whipped Cream

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