The Traveling Soul
Nicole Taylor doesn’t live in the South anymore, but her connections to the region run deep. Born and raised in Athens, Georgia, Taylor lived in Atlanta for a spell before leaving for Brooklyn, New York, where she has worked as a multi-media storyteller for the better part of a decade. She’s authored the Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen (Countryman Press, 2015), which chronicles her journey as a “daughter of the Peach State” who reconnects with the South through food and a new perspective born of being a Southern expat in a Brooklyn world. In a recent conversation at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, Taylor and chef Todd Richards, author of the new cookbook Soul (Oxmoor House, 2018), unpacked the term “soul food,” its connections to migration, and its myriad definitions. Here, Taylor discusses those complexities and offers her picks for soul food institutions, both old school and new.
“Southern food is food indicative of the South. Soul food, to me, is migration food.”
How do you define soul food?
If you ask ten different people what soul food is, you’ll get ten different responses. I didn’t use the term until I was 18 and went away to college in Atlanta. Typically, it refers to food made by African Americans who left the American South and went to cities like Chicago, Oakland, New York, and DC. The foods they made were quintessential examples of soul food. People used what they had to recreate their home food, so purple hull peas became black-eyed peas, and so forth.
When did the term “soul food” first appear?
People will say it goes back to the 1960s and ’70s, to the rise of soul music, the black pride movement, and marketing of the word “soul.”
What are some quintessential soul food items?
When I go into a soul food restaurant, I want a good veggie plate. I want peas and greens. And if they don’t have peas or lima beans, I’m looking at them sideways. And no, I don’t want a biscuit. I want cornbread. The other thing is the desserts. Do they have layer cakes? Cobblers? My friend Adrian Miller wrote a book called Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time with a comprehensive list.
What is the issue that most endangers soul food today?
The disappearing of classic soul food spots. Gentrification. People can’t afford their taxes in a changing neighborhood, or some of the owners are simply aging out. Institutions are disappearing.
Is there a difference between Southern food and soul food?
Again, I don’t think there is a singular definition,but I think Southern food is food indicativeof the South. Soul food, to me, is migration food. And then there’s black food, which islooking at the cuisines of the African diaspora, traditional West African food, the food ofenslaved people dispersed to places like the Caribbean and Brazil. I try to use the word soulful, meaning it has an element of blackfood or soul food. When I want Southernfood, I cook it at home. When I want Southern soul food, and not just the food but the feeling of community, I go to a soul food restaurant.When you walk in the door, it feels like home. It’s a vibration.
Nicole serves up some soul:
BUSY BEE CAFE | Atlanta
This is Taylor’s “all-time favorite spot.” In college, her freshman dorm was only five minutes away. “I love the fried corn, all their sides, and I love the blackberry cobbler to death. I love the people too, it’s always got a nice mix.”
HATTIE’S RESTAURANT | Saratoga Springs, New York
Hattie’s is a place that makes you feel like you’re touching a part of history. Louisiana-born Hattie Gray moved to Saratoga Springs in 1938 and opened Hattie’s Chicken Shack, a 24-hour institution serving the late-night crowd. Her welcoming spirit helped countless people by giving them work when no one else would or simply feeding them. Today, owner Jasper Alexander carries on her legacy.
BROWN SUGAR KITCHEN | Oakland, California
Taylor is enamored with the buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal waffle at Tanya Holland’s restaurant in West Oakland. She says the apple cider maple syrup, tart and not too sweet, is one of the best things to top a waffle.
BERTHA’S KITCHEN | Charleston, South Carolina
Taylor says it’s all about “the beans, the beans, the beans!” Local chef BJ Dennis introduced her to Bertha’s, and a to-go plate of lima beans and red rice made her a fan. This meat and three is also known for fried pork chops, fish specials, and yes, those lima beans cooked down with smoked turkey necks.
WEAVER D’S DELICIOUS FINE FOODS | Athens, Georgia
Taylor grew up around the corner from Dexter Weaver’s soul food restaurant, which the James Beard Foundation lauds as an American Classic. She digs the broccoli casserole and pork chop, and still loves to hear the gregarious owner shout his slogan “automatic for the people.” (A little rock group from Athens named R.E.M. even titled an album after the famous catch phrase.)
BUTTERFUNK KITCHEN | Brooklyn, New York
Here, chef Chris Scott serves what he calls “Amish soul food,” a riff honoring the migration of his family that extends back seven generations from slavery in Rappahannock, Virginia, to the Pennsylvania Dutch town of Coatesville. Taylor says his buttermilk fried chicken is notable, with a “not too bready” crunch.
MAMA J’S | Richmond, Virginia
Taylor says you can’t go to one of her favorite Southern cities and miss Mama J’s. Located in Jackson Ward, a historically black neighborhood formerly nicknamed the Harlem of the South, it honors the recipes of Velma Johnson, or Mama J. Taylor says their fried catfish is some of the best around.
RICHARDS’ SOUTHERN FRIED | Atlanta
Todd Richards, the newly minted cookbook author and creator of several restaurant concepts including this beloved food stall in the Krog Street Market, adds his own twist to soul food. Taylor suggests the collard green pho. It’s not on the menu, but just ask for it.
HOOVER’S COOKING | Austin, Texas
Taylor first tasted Hoover Alexander’s homage to an African-American travel meal known as the shoe box lunch in the form of a chicken biscuit box. Hoover’s airport outpost is always good for a chicken sandwich served on sweet hawaiian bread, she adds.
MARVIN | Washington, DC
Named after Marvin Gaye and modeled after his self-imposed creative exile to Belgium in 1981, Marvin is a place to see and be seen, especially among the African-American professional set.
FARMER BROWN | San Francisco
At this restaurant, which dubs itself San Francisco Soul, chef-owner Jay Foster (who has roots in North Carolina) and his partner, Deanna Sison, pay homage to the South. As black-owned businesses disappear from the city, Taylor says this place is worth a stop.
SYLVIA’S RESTAURANT | New York
“You can’t be black and from the South and not eat here,” says Taylor. Sylvia Woods left South Carolina to pursue her dreams in Harlem and opened Sylvia’s in 1962. An entrepreneur, she became known as the Queen of Soul Food. Taylor says her story captures “what it means to move out of the South as a black woman, and not only survive, but thrive.”
BIG JONES | Chicago
“Paul [Fehribach] is thoughtful in his approach to soul food,” says Taylor. He’s an example of a chef who is not from the South, but understands the nuances of its food. Find items like Senegalese accara (black-eyed pea fritters) with fiery kani sauce right next to catfish and grits.