In an excerpt from her debut cookbook Sunday Best, chef Adrienne Cheatham taps family memories to honor the best of Southern cooking.
In the Black community, you typically have a set of clothes that are reserved for church. Your nicest dress, your socks with the fold-over lace on them, a pair of conservative heels. It’s a practice that extends all the way back to the days of slavery. There were laws preventing Black people from congregating in groups of more than two or three. The only time they were really allowed to gather was at the plantation church house on Sundays. So they’d shine up their shoes, dust off their pants, and wear the best of what they had. And this continued through—and in many places, well after—segregation.
Since their nicest clothes were generally their church clothes, people would put on their “Sunday best” just to go to town, because they wanted to look respectable so that they would be seen as acceptable. It was a way of saying “take me seriously” to anyone who didn’t accept Black people as equal.
Even today, those who cook African American food—which is to say, Southern and soul food—have had to push back against similar prejudices, demanding respect for a cuisine that’s seen as just humble and homespun.
By highlighting the subtleties, nuance, and cultural influences from the diverse groups that have had a hand in the pot, I’ve made it my mission to dress Southern food up in its own Sunday best. Whether by showcasing clever techniques, incorporating unexpected ingredients, or adding a bit of finesse through enticing finishing touches or thoughtful plating, I want to show that this food deserves a place at the table and in the narrative of serious cuisine. And that, like all other cuisines that began with humble, country cooking, it too can grow and evolve.
The concept of Sunday Best also encapsulates the value I place on feeding people. Think about it: for most of us, the very first meals we ever ate were prepared by our parents, which makes cooking a primary and fundamental way of expressing care and love.
So to me, feeding others isn’t a labor or chore but a privilege. It’s an honor to nurture both body and soul. I make a point of reminding myself of that every time I step into the kitchen. Not just at work, but at home, and not just one day a week, but every day. I believe that Sunday Best represents an ideal that most of us share, or at least strive for.
Regardless of whether it involves dressing up for church, it refers to putting on not only your best clothes but also your best attitude. It’s when you cook your best food, for the people you care about most. And it’s when you take the time to amplify and glorify who you are, as friends, as a community, and as a family.
I followed my sister, Jacqui, to Florida A&M University, where we shared an off-campus apartment. Jacqui ended up involving me in the weekend dinner parties she regularly held with her friends. They had been potluck sorts of affairs to start, and being that FAMU was a historically Black university in the South, that meant that the spread generally consisted of collard greens, mac and cheese, and other Southern-style dishes built to feed a lot of people on the cheap. But then my mom gave us a Walmart card, telling us that it was okay to buy a few extra groceries every once in a while to feed our friends.
Since we were fortunate enough to not be super poor anymore, we could take care of other people. With this extra help, we started a tradition called Cheatham Soul Food Sundays and did all the cooking ourselves.
We still made the kind of food all of us had grown up on, but we started playing around with it. We threw Chicago-style fish fries, for instance—essentially cornmeal-coated catfish served along with big pots of spaghetti, a common combination in neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. And there were always collards, but they’d be tweaked somehow. In fact, my sister’s close friend Melissa developed a recipe with chicken and stewed tomatoes in it to please her friends who didn’t eat pork. I thought it was blasphemous and refused to try it for years!
More than a decade later, following my appearance on Top Chef, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how I wanted to express who I am, and what I’m about, through food. I kept coming back to the idea of Sunday Best, and it served as the inspiration for my popup series by the same name. Everything had really clicked into place in my mind by the end of Top Chef, and I harnessed that momentum in order to bring people together over dishes like Red Miso BBQ Quail and Collard Green Kimchi. Because in addition to speaking to my mission to “dress up” what’s seen as humble Southern fare, I loved the idea of using Sunday as a medium to find kinship with cultures other than my own.
Across religions and cultures, almost every family I know has a Sunday ritual. And since it’s such a universal connector, it generally involves food! Sunday is the last opportunity to chill before getting up early for work or school on Monday. You assemble in a safe place with the people you love and abandon the midweek formality of a pork chop and a scoop of mashed potatoes on each plate. Meals are served family style, the kids run in and out of the kitchen, and someone sneaks a piece of crispy skin off the chicken. Maybe some of the details differ from household to household, but the overall feel of camaraderie and togetherness is always the same.
ADRIENNE CHEATHAM GIVES A TASTE OF HER SUNDAY BEST
Most people know that rice has a roughly 1:2 ratio (1 cup rice + 2 cups water = 2 cups cooked rice). But grits are actually 1:4. Meaning the tiniest bit yields four times the amount! Needless to say, grits are an economical way to feed yourself or a crowd. And they don’t require a lot of gussying up to be delicious. A bit of butter, salt, and pepper stirred in, paired with a slice of toast on the side, is amazing. Or a simple, sustaining mushroom ragout like this one. Here’s the thing to know when preparing grits, though: they’re not supposed to be, well, gritty. You know there’s a problem if they stick between your teeth! My aunt Dottie in Mississippi taught us a great trick to avoid this grit faux pas: Soak them overnight, just like you would beans. It softens that tough outer hull and ensures you get a perfect cook every time!
Crunchy Hoppin John Bhel Puri
This flavorful snack mix is equally in- spired by the Southern side dish hoppin’ John and the South Asian snack bhel puri, which I learned about from my Top Chef cast mate Fatima Ali. A combination of puffed rice, vermicelli noodles, spices, and more, it’s the perfect canvas for one of my go-to ingredients: oven-roasted black-eyed peas. Supremely crunchy, salty, and savory, I always keep at least a pint container of them on hand in my pantry. Besides playing a starring role in this recipe, they’re awesome for adding to salads, soups, or simply eating as is!
I used to exclusively purchase kimchi at the store until a couple of Korean coworkers piqued my curiosity by telling me of how their families used to make it in huge batches, let it ferment, and have a stockpile that would last them for months. Southerners certainly aren’t strangers to fermenting and pickling, so I thought I’d give it a go.
I went traditional at first with napa cabbage, before testing my way through all of our go-to greens. Turnip got too soft, and mustard was aggressively spicy—although I appreciated the peppery bite it had, which was similar to daikon. Collards, however, stood head and shoulders above the rest. They were nice and hearty and had a grassy but neutral flavor that really picked up the brine.
Starting around the 1500s in the South, Indigenous Americans formed strong alliances with newly displaced Africans. In a sort of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ situation, they shared important skills such as how to cultivate and use local crops, including nixtamalizing corn and various methods for preparing it.
From this alliance we got grits, hominy, cornbread, hush puppies, hoecakes, and other corn-based foods. Native Americans even taught Africans how to form a sort of cornmeal batter and drop it into hot water or broth to create a stew. And thus, chicken and dumplings was born. It’s easy to appreciate the dish for its comforting, rustic, homey qualities, but even more compelling is how many cultures have had a hand in creating it.
If you’ve ever stored cooked grits in the fridge, you know they turn into a solid brick that requires a lot of coaxing in a pot with milk, stock, or butter in order to loosen up. This is exactly how risotto behaves—made from Arborio rice, and popularly formed into the fried balls of love known as arancini. The lesson here is, whatever you do with risotto, you can totally do with any starchy grain, such as an excess batch of Southern-style grits.
Everyone has heard of beignets, but I say it’s time for a resurgence of their lesser-known cousin, calas. From the West African Nupe word for ‘fried cake,’ these little fritters are formed from sweetened and spiced rice. And they were commonly sold by African American vendors in New Orleans’s French Quarter in the mid-1700s. In fact, during the days of slavery, many women were able to buy their freedom with the money they earned selling calas and café au lait on the side.
From the book SUNDAY BEST: Cooking Up the Weekend Spirit Every Day by Adrienne Cheatham with Sarah Zorn. Copyright © 2022 by Adrienne Cheatham. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Kelly Marshall. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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