American cuisine is a melting pot of flavors, ethnic specialties, the food of our ancestors and those who came to this country when it was young and relatively undiscovered. It is a mélange of our English heritage, French settlers, Italian immigrants, Russian refuges, the Irish who escaped the potato plague, the Chinese who came to work in the West and other ethnic groups that brought their culinary traditions with them.
Of all the foods that make up the American diet, none is so all-American than the food of the South. Soul food was developed in this country by the original black Africans brought here in the 17th and 18th centuries as slaves. Although the original foods and recipes originated in Africa, it was those stalwart souls who were forced into penury that combined their own ingredients and ideas with the products they found in their new environment.
This month is Black History Month and an ideal time to recognize the significant contributions those early Africans made to American gastronomy. These early slaves created a melting pot of culinary art. Many of the plantation mistresses insisted on English, French or Spanish food, dishes that were familiar to them depending on their ancestry. They depended on their cooks to provide them with such food and when the cooks combined these ethnic dishes with their own recipes it resulted in a cuisine that is now an important part of American culture.
Soul food is just what the name implies. It comes from the very soul of those Africans who were ripped from their homes and families to be brought to a foreign place and endured suffering and repression. Their determination to maintain their culinary traditions has given the world one of the most creative and interesting cuisines. It was from these enslaved people that Creole and Cajun cooking emerged. Had it not been for the women who wove seeds into their hair, we would not have such foods as yams, okra, peanuts, chilies and various herbs and spices that enhance our preparations to this day.
Americans owe the art of barbecue to those African-Americans who adapted their native stew, birani, and came up with a French version that required roasting on an open fire. The mastery of barbecue has come from the ghettos and backwoods of America. The spicy sauces used in this cooking method are now a viable ethnic American food.
Not only have African-Americans contributed mightily to the culinary preparations we all enjoy and are now an important part of American regional cooking, but many blacks have played a significant role in the development of food and agricultural industries. The ingenious innovations by these creative entrepreneurs changed the way Americans produce, transport and prepare food.
The best known is George Washington Carver, who was instrumental in introducing soil-enriching crops like peanuts and soy beans in the South, thus reducing the dependence on cotton. The peanut would be an obscure goober had it not been for his development of many products using the peanut. He also developed uses for sweet potatoes, pecans and Southern clay.
Norbert Rillieux invented the methods of sugar refining, which resulted in transforming sugar from a luxury item to a common kitchen ingredient. In the late 1930s, Frederick McKinley Jones invented the first practical refrigerator for long-haul trucks, trains and ships. Lloyd Augustus Hall, early in the 20th century, revolutionized the meat packing industry with his methods of processing and preserving meat.
And a standing ovation for Henry Blair, the inventor of the corn planter in 1934. He turned the corn industry into one of the most lucrative in the nation and, had it not been for this genius, the Italians would never have planted corn and turned ordinary grits into their fashionable polenta. Grits are not only a staple in the South because of Henry, but are inexpensive and widely available.
Soul food and real Southern cooking are becoming more and more popular in spite of its high-caloric content. However, many of the traditional recipes are now being modified and one can eat this hearty, healthy and delicious food without guilt.
As a young girl, I was introduced to real Southern macaroni pie in Charleston. I still use the same recipe:
8 ounces uncooked macaroni
10 ounces grated extra sharp Cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons margarine or butter, melted
2 large eggs at room temperature (they blend better)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (more if you like)
2 cups whole milk
Cook the macaroni in boiling, salted water until just tender. Drain and return to the pot.
While the macaroni is still hot, stir in half the cheese and all the melted butter or margarine.
Transfer the mixture to a 1-1/2-quart casserole.
In a medium bowl, beat together the eggs, mustard and milk.
Pour over the macaroni and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the casserole from the oven, sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and return to the oven for 10 minutes more or until the cheese is bubbling and turning brown.
Eddie Frank, originator of Swamp Buggy Days and an early Naples pioneer once had a wonderful vegetable garden where the Hole In One Golf Course is now. He often would bring me turnip and collard greens from his garden. I always fixed them with salt pork, ham bones or bacon. Recently, I came across this recipe, approved by the Food Patrol.
COLLARD GREENS WITH ONIONS
4 tablespoons safflower oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
4 pounds small young collard or turnip greens
2 cups defatted chicken stock
In a large kettle, heat the oil over medium heat, add the onions and sauté for about 20 minutes, stirring often and not allowing the onions to caramelize and brown.
Add the brown sugar and stir until dissolved.
Fold in the wet, washed collard greens and add the stock.
Cover and simmer about 1 hour or until tender. All greens cook down to about ¼ of their original bulk.
Serve hot to 8 or 10 hungry Southerners or converted Yankees.
Q: When I was growing up in North Carolina, my mother frequently made a frozen fruit salad for Sunday dinner. I would like to have the recipe to serve at a bridge luncheon. Each member of the group has been asked to bring a dish from their childhood.
— Martha Gilchrest, Naples
A: Fortunately, I have several old cookbooks given to me over the years and I found this recipe in The Charlotte Cookbook published in 1971 by the Junior League of Charlotte, N.C..
FROZEN FRUIT SALAD
1 3-ounce package cream cheese
1 tablespoon cream or half and half
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Dash of salt
1 cup canned pineapple, drained well
1 cup orange sections, drained
1 cup Royal Ann cherries, drained or green seedless grapes
½ cup maraschino cherries, drained
1 cup whipped cream
3 tablespoons sugar
1 cup miniature marshmallows
Blend softened cream cheese, cream and mayonnaise.
Add lemon juice and salt.
Add fruit, which has been cut into small pieces. (Any fruit may be added and substituted.)
Whip cream, folding in the sugar.
Fold whipped cream, marshmallows and fruit mixture together.
Pour into a square pan or freezer trays and freeze until firm.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” Contact Doris Reynolds at email@example.com.