Soul Food, the third cookbook by celebrity chef Carla Hall, is still new, with no stains. But the recipes in the book—which draw on Hall’s own family history (she’s a Nashville native), as well as black culinary tradition more generally—have been passed down through Southern kitchens on many food-stained recipe cards.
As Hall points out in her introduction, soul food is loosely defined as “the dishes of the Cotton Belt of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama that travelled out of the rest of the country during the Great Migration.” It was food, like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, that travelled well; it was not the food that African Americans in the South ate every day. Those everyday meals were some combination of seasonal vegetables and grains, with meat (or fish, for those who lived near the water) an occasional addition.
After the Great Migration, many of the Southerners who moved to Northern cities were cut off from access to fresh produce. They began to rely on processed foods—and the rich soul food once reserved for celebration—for their daily sustenance. In this volume, Hall returns to a farm-to-table tradition of soul food. Most recipes feature food cooked in lighter ways to let the ingredients themselves shine. “For this book, I tried to imagine that my ancestors would be cooking from the farm if they were alive today,” writes Hall, who also includes recipes from African and Caribbean traditions, an often overlooked part of the soul food-diaspora.
What’s the difference between Southern food and soul food? According to Hall, it lies in who’s doing the cooking: “It’s like the difference between a hymn and a spiritual. Both sound beautiful and express the same message, but the spiritual’s got a groove.”
Still, this is not a spiral-bound church cookbook—there are no crumbled Ritz crackers or vanilla-wafer capped banana puddings here. Instead, Hall’s recipes read like a culinary autobiography. Though she did not learn to cook from the family matriarchs, she developed her discerning palate for authentic soul food by eating food prepared by her grandmothers. After earning a degree in accounting, developing a modelling career in Europe, and attending culinary school, Hall returned to her love of soul food when she was a contestant on Top Chef.
Hall made a literal return to her roots when she set off on a road trip with co-writer Genevieve Ko and photographer Gabriele Stabile to prepare for this book. Starting in Charleston, South Carolina, their group passed through the Gullah-Geechee lands, Georgia, Alabama, the Mississippi Delta, and finally to Nashville, paying homage to important culinary and civil-rights sites along the way. These visits are chronicled throughout the book, highlighting farmers, chefs, and cooks who are preserving soul-food traditions while making their own contributions to it.
Nashville readers will be proud to see a spotlight on Swett’s, a longtime family gathering place for the author. This cafeteria-style meat-and-three has been serving Nashvillians for more than sixty years. It’s the perfect choice for a meditation on the centrality of food in family gatherings. The chapter’s layout is filled with beautiful color photos of Swett’s famous food and family pictures of Hall’s parents, who attended North Nashville’s Pearl High School with the restaurant’s owner, David Swett.
Naturally, there’s a tribute to hot chicken here, too. “My life can be measured in fried chicken,” writes Hall, following a through line from her grandmother’s kitchen to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack to her own hot-chicken restaurant. The recipes in the poultry section are as varied as Hall’s experience, ranging from classic “Baked Chicken and Pan Gravy” to spicy “Pineapple-Habanero Honey Fried Chicken” to exotic “Caribbean Smothered Chicken with Coconut, Lime, and Chiles.”
The recipe selection keeps cooks of their toes. On one page there are directions for “Sorghum Butter,” which simply means mixing sorghum and butter together. On the next page, there’s a recipe for “Serrano Kale Pistou,” a topping featuring Southern greens instead of French herbs. Hall calls it a Southern-French fusion in the tradition of James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s chef, who was known for his Virginian-French cooking.
Soul Food offers a thoughtful exploration of the origins of Southern food with a modern take on original farm-to-table recipes of the past. “Anyone making this book’s recipes will feel like they’re at the family table,” promises Hall.
Sarah Carter is a high-school English teacher in Lebanon, Tennessee. She recently earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Sewanee School of Letters.