From the Cabin With the Ghetto Gourmet
by Gregory L. Towns
In commemoration of Black History month, I though I’d take this opportunity to bring to your attention the history of what we call "Soul Food".
Being the product of southern parents, food that my sister and brother took for granted has a varied and diverse history. Some strictly American, but most ceremonially African.
The slave quarters were not the ideal environment to live or grow up, cabins were small, damp, some with dirt floors, walls of sparsely put together planks and most with thatched roofs of straw or stalks from the sugar cane harvest. In the winter families huddled together in front of the makeshift hearth, which combined to heat, cook; temper water for cleaning, and bathing. The restroom facilities were no more than a community hole in the ground covered by a rickety and hastily put up shack, not so much for privacy but to shelter its users from harsh weather.
The cabin was not the best of living conditions, but provided a haven from the stark realities of slavery’s cruel treatment, and the degradation of human conditions. Most times the cabin had only one large room that served as living room, dining room, and bedrooms, sometimes shared by more than one family. In secret times it served as meeting room, church, funeral parlor and hospital.
As a young man, when my family journeyed to Louisiana and Arkansas, I would sit near the kitchen door of a modern day cabin that was no different from those of slavery time. I’d listen to my elder aunts and other women telling stories of their harsh treatment, and the cruelties suffered by their family members. They also talked about what I perceived as jubilant times. Holidays, birthdays, picnics, and get-togethers were joyous times with family and friends. These celebrations included music dancing and of course lot and lots of food.
As a child, food was a large part of all celebrations, even the celebration of true freedom – death, yes during slavery death was considered the door to true freedom and like the other celebration was treated with music and food.
During the happy times, preparation of food for family holidays was a monumental event, a party in itself. Women, for instance, would gather late Saturday to prepare for a Sunday event, working through the night preparing food. Men would gather wood for the fire to boil pots and dig pits for roasting meat. They would fish late Saturday; yes fishing was actually a job for a big party. There would be music to work by, and laughter, jokes and stories of happy times. The menus were extravagant and contained a gourmet feast, featuring dishes of everyone’s specialties.
In the days of slavery, although the slaves tended the crops and livestock, the master’s house received the best of everything and the slave quarters were where the leftovers were divided. If a hog was slaughtered the prime meat was for the master’s table, chops, ham, bacon, roast. The parts that were left usually the head, feet and intestines – what we learn to call "chittlins" and not "chitterlings", the parts the master thought were uneatable was given to the "quarters". Being a resourceful people and having survival spirit we persevered, from the hog head, we made souse or hog head cheese: A loaf made of meat and fat with spices when chilled and formed it made a great appetizer served with crackers or as sandwiches.
The jowls or jaws were smoked and used to season greens, cabbage, beans or peas – or it could be sliced and fried hard like bacon – the grease from jowl was saved to make an excellent grave for grits or rice. The skin was used to make lard or renderings to make soap to clean clothing, cabins or for Saturday night baths. The tails and ears with seasoning would be boiled and smothered, served with anything, a southern delicacy. I’m sure not going to forget my favorite "chittlins" not pronounced chitterlings. There is no simply, easy or palatable way of explaining or defining chittlins – the large intestines of a hog – escargot is a melodious French word for snails. Chittlins are just chittlins.
As a child I could never get enough. In the winter, when hogs were slaughtered, my dad would buy them by the barrel and my mother and friends would have a party to clean them. This has to be done very careful and meticulous, it would take hours, chittlins must be boiled for hours. Sometimes almost 200lbs of chittlins, potato salad, coleslaw, black-eyed peas and corn bread would be prepared and served. A gourmet delight. During the preparation party the men and women would play cards, listen to music, visit, communicate and laugh. The chittlins boiling process would take all night. The party would whine down and by morning they were done. As a child, around 6 a.m. or so when everything was done, I’d wait patiently near the kitchen door to be served. Sometimes I would wait for hours. Dinner wasn’t until 2 p.m. but I was ready. As I said before I could never get enough, so now as an adult I keep 20lbs or so as personal stash.
Chittlins were usually served with greens, which grew wild in many varieties including mustard, collard, turnip greens, and poke salad. The master got the tender bottoms for his table. The slave quarters got what was left. Black-eyed peas (called hog peas) which were grown to feed the livestock can help to complete your down home chittlin dinner. Just boiled the peas with smoked ham hock or jowl.
These are but a few ways that we the descendants of slaves got our culinary delights. So, the next time you sit down to "hoppin john" (Black-eye peas) cracklin bread, turnip greens, hog jowls, red beans and rice and ham hocks, my favorite chittlins, potato salad and sweet potato pies remember it’s a meal of historical celebration. A meal that some 200 years ago was sustenance for the poor and a treat for the holidays – what we now scuff or turn our noses up to, was the food that our ancestors used to survive – gather family and friends, young and old, share some thoughts and recipes. It is all apart of our Black History.
During the month I will bring you recipes from the quarters along with some tips on medicine and healing methods "From the cabin".