Celebrating MLK with Soul

Did you know that from January until June 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. lived in an apartment on Chicago’s West Side to draw attention to the city’s discriminatory housing practices?

I learned about the Chicago Freedom Movement yesterday, while reading news articles about MLK in advance of his namesake holiday. It got me thinking: If I was a community organizer living in Evanston in 1966 and MLK came to my house for dinner – he often met with local activists while traveling and frequently doubled up on dinner plans – what would I serve?

I did a little online research and based my menu on four factors:

  1. MLK’s favorite foods. One article says he loved a “Sunday feast of fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed pies, and corn bread,” while another source highlights fried chicken, pickled pig’s feet, mac and cheese, and pecan pie. Other favorites included peach cobbler (a Southern classic but rarely in season in the North), sweet potato pie, steak, and chocolate birthday cake with ice cream.
  2. Foods made by Civil Rights activists. In particular, I learned about Georgia Gilmore‘s efforts to feed the resistance out of her home kitchen, in addition to raising money for the Montgomery bus boycotts by getting all the ladies in the area of sell their pies and cakes. Cakes attributed to Georgia include 7-Up Cake, Red Devil’s Cake, and peach pie.
  3. Southern food and soul food scholarship. Southern food is deeply rooted in slavery, from West African ingredients (peanuts, okra, greens) to one-pot cooking (gumbo, hoppin’ john) to preservation methods that guard against spoilage of an extremely limited food supply. One story says that mac cheese was introduced to the US by Thomas Jefferson’s slave/cook who traveled with home to Europe. Southern cooking in general evolved from deprivation and later, after the Great Migration, shifted into the more bold flavors of “Soul Food,” the cuisine of the black diaspora in the more affluent North.
  4. Local Soul food restaurants. I pegged my menu against well known South side restaurants, including Peach’s Place and Dan’s Soul Food.

I also watched the 1951 movie “A Raisin in the Sun,” based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play of the same name, which is set in Chicago, to see if they said anything about food. Though they only ate eggs on screen, it made me chuckle when one of the main characters, Ruth, complains about her “closet of a kitchen” that looks a lot like my kitchen.

Making this meal represented a lot more than a shout-out to MLK. There are so many layers and nuances to the way we perceive Southern food and soul food in America today. Curiously, after African-American food was rebranded as soul food in the 1960s, Southern food was culturally whitewashed, marking the beginning of the down-home, all-American Paula Dean era of Southern cooking. Food in the modern South is dichotomous: the fancy, farm-to-table version that’s enjoying a renaissance in expensive restaurants from the Carolinas to Colorado and the nutritionally disastrous diet of many poor families in the South suffering from malnutrition and obesity.

I wanted to make sure that my menu was true to the era – 1960s South Side Chicago – and sensitive to the cultural context of the food. That’s how I arrived at this menu:

  • Smokey collard greens: a staple at many meals. Regularly made in the North and South.
  • Fried catfish in buttermilk-and-cornmeal breading: I opted for catfish over chicken just because I prefer catfish. I think chicken would have been more realistic in winter in Chicago, though catfish can be found in every waterway in Illinois. I also opted for fried rather than smothered, the other main option for meat preparation.
  • Mac and cheese: one of MLK’s favorites that’s popular in the North and South.
  • Cornbread: another classic. In choosing sides, I decided against hoppin’ john and red beans and rice because those seem to be more closely associated with specific parts of the South.
  • Sweet potato pie with vanilla-and-brown-sugar whipped cream: most sources said peach cobbler and/or pecan pie were MLK’s favorites, but sweet potato pie makes more sense for winter in Chicago.

The entire meal took about 3 hours to prepare. I started with the pie filling and the collard greens, both of which need to simmer on the stove for about an hour.

Everything else – mac and cheese, cornbread, and catfish – comes together in 15 minutes for each recipe.

The whole meal looks just like a plate from a soul food restaurant on the South side, like Peach’s.

soul (7 of 10)
soul (10 of 10)
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