“The Spirit of Soul Food” with Jaye and Jim Beeler

So here’s a strange juxtaposition: A few weeks ago, I attended the ninth annual Summit on Racism. The next day I attended a cooking seminar entitled, “The Spirit of Soul Food.”

Summit on Racism is a little bit of a downer. It’s not supposed to be. It tries to be positive and goal oriented as opposed to concentrating exclusively on what’s wrong with the world. Still, the only reason anybody is there is that our society treats some people badly for no good reason. You can’t expect to come out of something like that cheering.

“The Spirit of Soul Food” by contrast is more of a celebration of the style of cooking that came out of the combination of North American environment, slavery, and African culinary sensibilities.

What sort of food do you learn how to make? Many different sorts of food. A key point is that the food you learn how to make is the sort of food that people make at home everyday. Thus you get things like meatloaf, pork chops in gravy, and macaroni and cheese. There were also a lot of interesting vegetable side dishes (greens) and desserts (sweet potato pie, for example).

Oddly enough, it served to reconnect me with the cooking I grew up with as much as it did Soul Food. Since teaching myself to cook, I’ve spent most of my time cooking Indian, Mediterranean (Italian, Greek, Provencal French, Lebanese), and Southeast Asian (Thai, Malay) food. Occasionally, I also cook a few favorites from my childhood, but not all that many. My kids have seen a lot more basmati rice than grilled cheese sandwiches.

Soul Food doesn’t use curries as often as it does garlic or onion powder. It uses Campbell’s Soup (cream of mushroom) in more than a few recipes. The recipe for macaroni and cheese actually required me to buy Velveeta for the first time in my life.

It’s worth noting that “Soul Food” isn’t a homogeneous entity. It varies by region. In Louisiana, it includes red beans and rice. In places near the ocean, it includes crab cakes. Bearing in mind that Jaye and her father Jim originally come from Kentucky, this particular seminar included a recipe for Kentucky Bourbon Pie (bourbon comes from Kentucky). I tried the pie. It’s good.

Those of us who wanted to could also try a sip of the bourbon. It’s powerful stuff.

The instructors: Jim Beeler is a (semi-retired) self taught cook who worked in restaurants for his professional life. Jaye Beeler is the food editor for the Grand Rapids Press (my local paper). Even beyond learning about Soul Food, the family dynamics were entertaining.

During the seminar, each person was responsible to cook one dish. Despite not liking macaroni and cheese, I chose that one. Why? Mostly because my kids do like it. I thought it might be interesting to know how to make Mac and Cheese from scratch and flavor it with actual cheese as opposed to from a box flavored with Mystery Cheese Powder.

It turned out pretty well. I’ve made it at home since then and my family seems to like it (with the exception of one of my daughters who simply doesn’t like cheese). The same is generally true of the other dishes from the seminar. I’ve been trying to make one or two a week.

Next year they were talking about doing a slightly different seminar–a Soul Food brunch. I’d go.

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