MODERN LIVING

FOOD WITH SOUL

The food that goes with jazz, the other saving grace of black experience: it’s simple, it’s good, and, thanks to footballer Dave Mann, it’s available here

MARJORIE HARRIS January 1 1970
MODERN LIVING

FOOD WITH SOUL

The food that goes with jazz, the other saving grace of black experience: it’s simple, it’s good, and, thanks to footballer Dave Mann, it’s available here

MARJORIE HARRIS January 1 1970

FOOD WITH SOUL

The food that goes with jazz, the other saving grace of black experience: it’s simple, it’s good, and, thanks to footballer Dave Mann, it’s available here

DAVE MANN WAS talking about Soul. Dave Mann is the kicking coach of the Toronto Argonauts and a partner in a Toronto restaurant called The Underground Railroad, and about Soul he said, “It was a word I heard when I was six. I remember my uncle playing the piano. He was doing this rinky-tink thing and one lady said, ‘Man, it’s got soul.’ That was 30 years ago and it was around long before then.”

Soul as a word seems to escape most definitions but you know it if you’ve got it, according to Mann. He’s interested in defining Soul in a special way — through his people’s food. “The black-man’s flight into independence, you might say, along with music, athletics and history is acceptance of his food.”

So Dave along with four close friends — Bill Cosby, the American superstar, musician Archie Alleyne, football player John Henry Jackson and businessman Howard Matthews — are launching 10 Underground Railroad restaurants in Canada (from Vancouver to Halifax), and an, as yet, unknown number in the United States.

In their first restaurant in Toronto, they attempted to create an atmosphere close to what a gathering place for black people is like down South. The roughboard floors (from magnificent old barns) and plaster walls, the folk-art paintings, simple crockery and charming service don’t indicate the oppressive circumstances that caused the original underground railroad. From 1815 on, slaves from Southern plantations fled to Canada and freedom through a secret network of routes, aided by black and white volunteers. That network became famous as the underground railroad.

Soul food itself has a much longer history than slavery — it's at least 250 years old. It originated in Africa with certain tribes who used lots of greens, herbs and roots in their cookery. They brought these secrets with them on the slave boats. The Caribbean islands all have variations of the original African cookery,

but have added curries and fillets. In the southern United States the food was basically what could be found in the fields and what was left over after the slave owners finished eating: pig’s feet, snout, ears, tails and chitterlings (the inside wall of the pig's stomach).

A typical Soul-food dinner might include fried chicken, black-eyed peas, home-fries or rice, corn bread, a tossed salad, coilard greens and a field pudding (watermelon, canteloupe, walnuts—any fruit you’d pick up in the field and served handsomely).

Fried chicken, in the Soul-food tradition, is the best there is — not ruined by an inch of batter and steamed in the cooking. They do it in a very light coating of flour, salt and pepper. It’s fried gently until crisp and brown and never turned more than once.

“Black-eyed peas — actually a bean — are another favorite of ours,” says Mann. “Lots of people don’t know how to cook beans. They soak them until the skin is soft. But we take hog jowl, very thick bacon with rind, cut it into one-inch slices and put them into an 18-inch pot filled with water. Chop in three onions, add two cloves of garlic and then put in about two cups of beans. Let it boil first, then simmer a good hour and a half uncovered.

“Smothered steak is another of my father’s recipes. You cut a piece of round steak in four pieces and flour it lightly on both sides. Brown it in a pan, then remove to a plate. Chop an onion and a green pepper into the browning pan and sauté them for about 15 minutes. Add a bit of flour and water to make a gravy, to your taste, and put the steak back into the pan to cook, covered, for about an hour and a half. Serve this with home-fries and a salad.”

The basic thing to remember in Soul cookery is “adding to your taste,” and combining sweet and salty things, or hot and bland things, in one meal. As Dave Mann says, “Soul cooking should give you a good feeling. You can’t explain Soul to anyone else, but you'll know when you’ve got it.” □

MARJORIE HARRIS