Southern/Soul/African Foodways & Bootstraps

The smells of down-home fried chicken clash loudly with the fancy glow of the retro bar as you walk into the doors. Bold colors, geometric patterns, black portraiture, stemmed and old-fashioned glasses, quilts, rustic “artifacts”, golden oldies, lively chatter, waiters and waitresses whisking by all meet you in the cramped waiting area. As you adjust your eyes and hone your hearing to take in what the person you came with is saying, album covers for records like Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” and posters for shows like the 1979 concert of Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Apollo Theater that occupy surreptitious places among the constellation of things to look at come into view. Lightly touching their ear, the lovely hostesses speak into a small microphone to check on your table for you. A sea of mostly tourists chomping away lies before you and beyond that, a wall of large animals with numbered appendages confirms that they serve meat. You’ve feasted on so much, but you’ve had nary a bite to eat at the Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem.

“We passed the Haile Selassie palace. There was a brand-new tower. Always, always, there was the contrast between the luxe Mercedes-Benz sedans and the impoverished kids on the street. It is like Harlem times twenty” –Marcus Samuelsson in his memoir Yes, Chef

Kassahun Tsegie was born in Abrugandana, Ethiopia. Adopted at age two by Swedish parents, he became Marcus Samuelsson. He learned how to cook and how to love cooking from his grandmother, Helga, from an early age. He notes in his personal timeline on his website that he “sported a jheri curl” when he joined the soccer team in 1985. Taking the skills and values he learned in rustic Sweden, he worked his way up in fine dining restaurants in Europe and, then, in New York City. While working for Aquavit, a fine dining Swedish restaurant in New York, the NYT awarded it three stars making Samuelsson the youngest executive chef ever to receive this award. He won the Rising Star James Beard Award soon after.

Walking into the restaurant after passing the elaborate bar, a line of portraits draws your eye into the back portion of the restaurant. An elderly black man dressed in a very stylish suit with a large bejeweled cross and cane is framed next to a young boy with sunglasses, cool with his hands in his pockets. Two other images of men dressed in suits and hats paved the way to an image of a woman who is wearing white gloves, pearls, and elegant plaid dress that is hard not to compare to portraiture of the first lady. These are only some of the portraits to come. On view in the bathroom, pictures of black families, individuals, and performances nearly line the walls from top to bottom. The quantity of images makes it hard to see each individually. The war veteran next to the woman dressed in a gown, the female vocalist next to the man with a suitcase, the family portrait next to the family portrait—were it all a photo essay the themes would be innumerable.  You’re at your table now. The images of animals whose bodies are charted with numbers as if ready for butchering are now in the foreground. The portraits and the animals are now in direct dialogue with one another.   If black politics and livestock are the conversation, a numbered cow leg extending downward into a photo of a young black woman makes for an interesting debate.

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“We wanted and needed three types of diner to give the Rooster the flavor that we considered the yummiest: Harlemites, the men and women (regardless of color) who are our neighbors, whose very existence provides the culture and color that is Harlem; downtown diners who love restaurants and great food; and out of towners who have traveled from as far away as San Fransisco, Sweden, and South Africa.” –Marcus Samuelsson in his memoir Yes, Chef

After attempting to do more independent work, he bought his name, “Marcus Samuelsson”, from his former boss. (Side note: the word “boss” originated from the Dutch word meaning “master.”) He spent his entire savings on buying his name back from his boss.  

Ahhh, the menú. Macaroni and cheese with greens, roasted salmon, “blackened” catfish, shrimp and grist, a “triple-double” burger, “fried yard bird”, lamb neck “rigatoncini”, “helga’s meatball”s, “mexiopian” chicken, and a “three pepper” steak. These entrées run between eighteen and thirty-seven dollars. “Snacks” and sides include things like cornbread, deviled eggs, chile lime peanuts, black eyed pea and tripe stew, and parmesan frites go for between eight and fifteen dollars. Five out of thirteen cocktail specialties use bourbon whiskey as their base alcohol. While some may recognize a number of these dishes, such as “blackened catfish”, as African American southern staples, the Red Rooster just goes with the label “comfort food”.

“The restaurant had to be a place that honored and mirrored the mystique of the renaissance but showed the new Harlem—inclusive of both old and new…I wanted the menu at Red Rooster to reflect all that Harlem has to offer, which means it was designed with our neighbors in mind” –Marcus Samuelsson in his memoir Yes, Chef

 

After finding out that his father, whom he had long presumed dead, was still alive, he returned to the village he grew up in 30 years after he had left to meet his father. He pays for his four half-sisters to attend school instead of working on their father’s farm. Chef Marcus Samuelsson calls his food comfort food.

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AFRICAN/SOUTHERN FOOD WAYS

Debates persist about the exact number of foods to travel over to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. It’s been settled, though, that yams, black-eyed peas, chiles, peanuts, oranges, and other roots and tubers along with a number of grains, all ingredients in the above entrées, originated in Africa and were incorporated into African American southern cuisine. Whiskey bourbon emerged as a beverage produced in the south during the mid-19th century around the time that tending bar became one of the few occupations acceptable for free black men.[1]

People who study foodways understand the Great Migration through food and cooking traditions along South to the North and Caribbean to the North dyads. Not all African American migrants who moved to New York City during the Great Migration moved to Harlem, but over 200,000 black individuals moved to Harlem during the ten year span between 1900 and 1910 alone.   This massive movement of people who brought their traditions with them set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance and the foundation for flourishing black-owned businesses. Among these businesses, southern food restaurants held a special place in Harlemites’ stomachs and social calendars. Serving variations on southern dishes took hold immediately both inside and outside restaurants.

The interactions between new black residents and new immigrants in Harlem affected new trends in what types of foods African Americans made—like macaroni and cheese and pancakes for example.   After the First World War, Cubans began to immigrate to Harlem in greater numbers and the restaurants they opened also influenced how African Americans from the South cooked and ate. During the Depression Era, African Americans worked to support one another and used food as a way to do so. Black southerners in Harlem threw rent parties for one another and sold southern dishes to make a profit.   Because of the communal nature of food lines and free meals operations, African Americans gained even greater exposure to a variety of immigrant food cultures.   Those exchanges journeyed onto the menus of restaurants around town.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Harlem’s southern food scene thrived. The original Red Rooster, the current Red Rooster’s namesake, along with other southern food spots like Jock’s Place, Tillie’s Chicken Shack, and Well’s opened and became successful establishments, well known particularly for late-night food.   As black politics began to shift during the late 1950s, these same restaurants began using the term “soul food” to describe their menus and environment.

SOUL FOOD WAYS

In the 1950s through early 1960s, black political groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had a strong impact on the intellectual, social, political, and food cultures of Harlem. In an article written about the Red Rooster for the African American periodical in 1969, the author explained, “Like so many eating places located in Black communities, the Red Rooster was serving traditional soul food dishes long before the current national interest in soul cookery.”   The connection between black politics and African American foodways in Harlem was evident. Soul ideologies emphasized that it was important for African Americans to honor their African roots and to stay connected to black communities even if individuals experienced upward socio-economic mobility. The concept of “soul” took on various meanings in a foodways context, but restaurants both benefited from and benefited others through joining the dialogue around soul politics. In the late 1960s, black political activists even began producing soul food cookbook literature.

SOUL/SOUTHERN FOODWAYS

For black cooks and chefs during that time, the connection between soul food and southern food remained an important one. For them, soul food symbolized the African American experience in the South and the unique wisdom black Americans had from their familial ties to the South. It represented survival in the face of severe domination and violence and, therefore, belonged to black Americans only.   Southern and soul food restaurants have a history as spaces that signify progressive politics whether by black economic empowerment or by providing a space for black community bonding.

COMFORT FOODWAYS

The South is known for its “kindness”.  People are just so nice there.  For many, this is what they think of when they think of “southern comfort” or “southern hospitality”.  But, for me, it is also important to remember what other connotations “southern comfort” has, especially when it intersects with making a profit. Southern comfort and hospitality also represent an affective economy, or an economy of feeling. The terms carry a history of making the bourgeois feel comfortable. Comfort is not an invisible thing floating in the air, it comes from circumstances that people create.  Creating comfort in the South has traditionally relied on gendered, classed, and racialized social formations in which people of color, usually women, serve white middle to upper class people.   This performance of racialized, gendered, classed, and southern comfort played out around food particularly.

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You are filled to the brim. That. Was. Delicious. Opting for one last cocktail instead of dessert, a hard decision in a place like this, you ask for the check. The waitress, dressed in jean pants, a chambray button-up, and with a red bandana in her hair, rushes to retrieve it for you. The golden oldies fill you with even more warmth as you get up from the table. A forty dollar tip? Yeah, that’s about twenty percent.

“During my walks [by the restaurant under construction,] I looked at how Harlem has changed, even in the six years since I moved here. People were carrying Target bags now. It made me smile.” –Marcus Samuelsson in his memoir Yes, Chef

Samuelsson is married to a model who is also from Ethiopia. He serves on the board of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program. In 2010, he won season two of Top Chef. The very next day, he executed the dinner for Obama’s inauguration for 325 people. He believes in hard work, preserving Harlem’s history, that “labels are not as important as the journey”, and, of course, in good food.

Consulted Sources:

Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America by Frederick Douglass Opie

The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, 7th ed., s.v. “Bourbon Whiskey.”

“Recipes for Respect: Black Hospitality Entreprenuers before World War I” by Rafia Zafar  in African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture

“Chickens and Chains: Using African American Foodways to Understand Black Identities,” by Psyche Williams-Forson in African American Foodways: Explorations of History and Culture

“The Customer is Always White: Food, Race, and Constested Eating Space in the South” by Angela Jill Cooley in The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South

Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 by Grace Elizabeth Hale

“Soul, Champagne, Girl Talk make New of Rooster of old Red” by Unknown Author in The Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988) July 26, 1969, pg. 13.

“(Black) (Queer) Love” by Sharon Holland

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