A few days ago, my friend Shay and I were talking over the phone via messenger as my daughter and I prepared dinner. She asked what we were having, and I told her that we had just returned from the market. That we were sitting at the kitchen table cutting up vegetables, mincing fresh herbs and greens, and making up the stock for the pot of vegetable soup we were making. To which she said "aaah, soul food", and which I answered with yes exactly. As Alayna and I worked on that pot of soup I refelected on Shay's statement. I quietly contemplated the deeper nuances of the term soul food, where and when the term had originated, and why it felt so appropriate for what was going on at the time.
I spent much of my youth in the deep south with my extended family. We lived in the small town of Lanett Alabama on the eastern side of the state, right where the Chattahoochee river becomes the state line. It was during the bad recession of the 1970s, so the economy in southern Alabama was all but nonexistent at the time. Most of the food we ate came from the river, the woods, the garden, and from a couple of farmers with whom we bartered for eggs, milk, and meat. Of course the staples such as: salt, pepper, sugar, flour, corn meal, and dried beans and the like came from the grocery store, but there was very little prepackaged food in our diet. The closest thing we had to frozen entrees were the containers of frozen meats and vegetables in the chest freezer on the back porch.
Back then the evening meals were almost never just items that my grandfather or father had bought and that my grandmother had cooked by herself. It was usually a team effort by the whole family – there were ten of us living there at the time – that would happen in phases. At the very least it was spread out over the course of an entire day, and more often than not it happened over multiple days. The entire back yard and one of the side yards was our garden, the woods and access to the river were a few blocks away, the farmers were out in the country several miles away, and each of us had our job to do in gathering things from the different places. Who would be doing what on any given day would vary from season to season. Then in the evenings, even the preparing of the food would be a team effort with most of the family gathered in the kitchen performing different tasks, with others carrying items in and taking out the scraps. It was because of this upbringing that I started my daughters on helping me in the kitchen at an early age, with the first cutting being done with soft items like mushrooms cut with a not-too-sharp paring knife.
Things were much different in my childhood than what I see around me today. Once we were past the age of 6 or so, no one would be saying anything along the lines of “hey, why does that kid have a knife in their hand” in the kitchen. Quite the opposite really. In fact I couldn't tell you how many times I heard my grandmother utter the phrase “get over here, grab a knife, and get to work!”, and there could be as many as six of us at the kitchen table cutting up different meats and vegetables. By the time we were 8 years old, these chores were all just second nature to us. It wasn't as if we were going to be tearing tomatoes apart with our bare hands, I can just imagine what kind of insane mess that would have made, and I can just imagine the reaction my grandmother would have had to it. That certainly would not have been a pretty sight, any of it.
Though spices were obviously bought at the grocery store, there were also no prepackaged herbs in our diet. We grew all of the herbs we used: dill, thyme, rosemary, and chives that I remember for sure, along with the onions – Bermuda, Vidalia, scallions, and shallots – and the garlic. Minced versions of any of these were always prepared fresh along with the rest of the fresh ingredients during the meal prep. I consider this to be one of the most valuable lessons in my learning to cook. Dried herbs may win out in the convenience category, but fresh herbs have so much more flavor, and better flavor as well.
When I look back on those days, my most fond memories are of the times in the kitchen. We would talk about the day's events and what was going on in our individual lives, what was happening in the local and national news, and even talk about any difficulties we were having in our school careers or our social lives. Yes, some times we would laugh at and pick on each other, and of course we would even give one another hell sometimes. Such was life in those days, and we were all much less easily offended back then than many people seem to be today. But we managed to muddle through it all okay because mainly, just like those meals we were preparing, we were also getting each other through life as a team as well. When we sat down to eat, not one person sitting there at that table felt as if they had been gifted anything. We all knew very well that we had played a role and literally earned our keep, and we were raised to believe that was how it was supposed to be.
Looking back from where I sit today. I am very thankful indeed that I got to experience those days. We were a bit crowded at times, and in being an extended family we were not all connected by shared blood. Yet we managed to make it through some very tough times, living, working, laughing, and crying together. We may not all have been connected by DNA, but we were certainly connected at the soul, and there is no deeper connection than that.