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Soul Food For Thanksgiving: Mac And Cheese, 'Red Drink,' And More

The Mac and Cheese and Hibiscus Aid were prepared by Rock Harper of DC Central Kitchen.
Amy Ta
The Mac and Cheese and Hibiscus Aid were prepared by Rock Harper of DC Central Kitchen.

Adrian Miller is a lawyer and former special assistant to President Clinton. After the president's second term, finding himself with extra time on his hands, he ended up spending the next decade or so researching soul food. "With the only qualifications of eating the food a lot, and cooking it some, I dove in," says Miller.

Getting past some stereotypes about soul food is one goal of his new book. Miller says the common perception is that soul food is slave food, but that's only partially true, he tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.

"A lot of time master and slave were eating out of the same pot," he says. "So it was really only on the really large plantations ... that you had this bifurcated feeding system where the enslaved got some set of foods and the big house got different cuisines. But for the most part, the economics and the reality of such meant that people were often eating the same food."

During his research, Miller ate in over 150 restaurants serving soul food, often posting pictures of his meals on Facebook. Concerned friends sent messages, asking about his health.

"Reflexively they're looking at the African-American community and they're seeing all of the health problems, you know, obesity, chronic disease like diabetes, heart attacks, cancer and all these other things and just linking the two," Miller says. He's careful to say that he's not a nutritionist but points to other factors that contribute to these diseases, such as the rise of processed and fast foods. And he offers plenty of alternatives for preparing soul food dishes. For example, he suggests using smoked turkey in greens rather than ham hocks.

Miller's book is an extensively researched look at the history of soul food, but also its future: "I say honor the past, work on the future ... but then let's be creative and play around with these foods." Miller hopes soul food will be celebrated and get the same treatment other ethnic foods have received.

Interview Highlights

On the difference between soul food and Southern food

There's a lot of overlap; hence the confusion, because there are a lot of common ingredients. But I think of soul food as the limited repertoire of Southern food. And it's really about the food that black migrants from the South took with them to other parts of the country. And they did what other migrants do when they got to a new place — they tried to re-create home often through food. And if they couldn't get the exact same ingredient, they found substitutes. And becomes this national cuisine over time.

On how mac and cheese became a soul food staple

Mac and cheese used to be royalty food. So it goes back to the 1300s. [It] wasn't the goopy thing that we love today. The earliest iteration of it was pasta with some Parmesan cheese on it. ... It was royalty food and then it becomes elite food. ... It crosses the Atlantic as a rich person's dish, and so when it made its way to the South, it was enslaved African-Americans who were cooking this dish, often in the big houses. [A recipe for macaroni and cheese with butter is found in the Forme of Cury cookbook (circa 1390), which was used in the royal kitchens of England's King Richard II and Queen Elizabeth I.]

On why red Kool-Aid is a common soul food beverage

There are two traditional red drinks that crossed the Atlantic during the slave trade. And most people have had them but probably didn't even know it. ... One is the kola tea, because there are white kola nuts and red kola nuts and so they would use that as a drink of hospitality. And then another drink was called bissap. Which is a tea made from the flowers of the hibiscus plant, which we call over here agua de jamaica or red zinger tea or just hibiscus tea. ... As I look through the historical sources, whenever there was a communal setting, there was some kind of red drink.

Nyesha Arrington's Mac And Cheese

Makes 10 servings

1 pound elbow macaroni
3 1⁄2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
3 tablespoons all- purpose flour
2 1⁄4 cups whole milk, plus more as needed, warmed
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon ground white pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3 1⁄2 cups coarsely grated Cantal, Gruyere, or sharp white cheddar cheese, divided (1 pound)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 cups fresh white bread crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 2 1⁄2-quart casserole dish.

Cook the macaroni al dente according to the package directions. Drain in a colander and set aside.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until very soft and golden brown, about 12 minutes. Set aside.

Melt the remaining 2 1⁄2 tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is pale yellow and frothy, about 2 minutes. Do not allow it to brown. Slowly whisk in the warm milk and continue to whisk until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, 2 to 3 minutes. Season with the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Reduce the heat to very low, add 3 cups of the cheese, and stir until the cheese melts and the sauce is smooth. The sauce should be the consistency of pancake batter, so thin the sauce with a little milk if necessary.

Stir in the macaroni, onions, parsley, rosemary and thyme. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1⁄2 cup of cheese over the top.

In a small bowl, toss the bread crumbs with the melted butter and sprinkle over the casserole.

Bake until the casserole is warmed through and the top is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving warm.

Sweet Potato Greens Spoonbread

Makes 8-12 servings

The Sweet Potato Greens Spoonbread was prepared by Rock Harper of DC Central Kitchen.
Amy Ta / NPR
The Sweet Potato Greens Spoonbread was prepared by Rock Harper of DC Central Kitchen.

10 ounces sweet potato leaves with 1- to 2-inch stems
2⁄3 cup stoneground white cornmeal
1⁄4 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup red onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
4 eggs
Dash of Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 9-by-2-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper and butter the paper. The spoonbread bakes in a water bath, so have ready a large baking pan that can hold the prepared cake pan.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Have ready a large bowl of ice water. Stir the greens into the boiling water. As soon as the water returns to a boil, use a small sieve or slotted spoon to transfer the leaves into the ice water. Drain in a colander. Pick up small handfuls, squeeze them as dry as possible, and then coarsely chop them. Fluff them with your fingers to separate the pieces.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the greens into the skillet and stir to mix well. Season the mixture with salt and pepper and set aside.

Combine the milk, cream, and butter in a large saucepan. Cook over low heat until the butter melts.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in the cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder, and Tabasco if using.

Whisking constantly, add the warm milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture in a slow, steady stream. Pour this back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula until the mixture thickens enough to coat the spatula, about 3 minutes. Do not let the mixture boil. Remove the pan from the heat.

Drain any accumulated liquid from the greens mixture. Pour about one-fourth of the hot cornmeal mixture into the greens mixture and mix well. Scrape into the prepared cake pan. Scrape the rest of the cornmeal mixture into the pan. Smooth the top.

Set the cake pan in the large pan. Pour very hot tap water into the large pan until the water comes halfway up the side of the cake pan. Bake until the spoonbread is set, about 45 minutes. Let it rest in the hot water bath for 10 minutes and then remove it from the water.

Place a large serving plate over the cake pan. Hold them together firmly, flip them over to release the spoonbread, and remove the pan. Cut the warm spoonbread into wedges and serve at once.

Hibiscus Aid

Makes 2 quarts

2 quarts water
1 ounce fresh or dried food-grade hibiscus blossoms (about 1⁄2 cup)
1 ounce fresh ginger, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 cup sugar, honey, or agave syrup, or to taste
Juice of 1 fresh lime (about 3 tablespoons)

Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and add the ginger, hibiscus, and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves.

Cover and let cool to room temperature. Strain into a large pitcher, stir in the lime juice, and refrigerate until chilled. Serve cold.

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