A Soul Food Summit


Black-eyed peas with ham hock and pepper vinegar

Image via Wikipedia

The following story reminds me I’m getting older because some of the people quoted in it are gone now and the soul food cafe it’s set in is no more.  I wrote the piece a few years into my coverage of Omaha‘s African American community.  I had been introduced to the Fair Deal Cafe a few years before and because I loved soul food I decided to convene an informal “Soul Food Summit” there with the joint’s owner and head cook, Charles Hall, and a few of his cronies. Two men who become valuable sources and favorite profile subjects of mine, Preston Love Sr. and Billy Melton, joined us, along with their mutual friend, Mae Williams.  All were well-established figures on Omaha’s north side.  The idea was to talk about what makes soul food soul food over lunch at the Fair Deal. Nothing earth-shaking came out of the experience, but I really like the piece for trying to get at an authentic slice of culture. Another reminder of  the decade that’s passed since this “Soul Food Summit” is that the newspaper the story originally appeared in, the Omaha Weekly, is no longer around.

A Soul Food Summit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly, a now defunct alternative newspaper

If you want to know the heart and soul of Black Omaha, then head to the Fair Deal Cafe at 2118 No. 24th Street. There, in a nondescript building that is a throwback to the past, the cultural traditions of a proud people are celebrated and the ties of a rich community renewed. And it all revolves around food.

Standing like a-tried-but-true testament to old times, the Fair Deal serves the most authentic soul food in town. Calorie counters beware venturing to this mecca of soul, as no short-cuts are taken in preparing its genuine high fat, comfort food. A typical meal includes a plate of tender greens, beans or black-eyed peas swimming-in savory meat juices. Moist corn bread muffins melt in your mouth. Chops, chitlins and sirloin tips are browned in their own fat and slow-cooked to succulent perfection. Braised ham-hocks, pig’s feet and ox tails fall apart in delectable morsels. Thick gravies ooze pan dripping goodness. Candied sweet potatoes have that light, yet gooey made-from-scratch texture. From stew and chili to eggs and grits, it features well-seasoned food with an accent on big, bold flavor.

Like the decor, the prices seem left over from another era, with most meals costing well under $6. Just don’t expect a menu at lunchtime. You see, the owner and chef the past 47 years, Charles Hall, only opens for lunch and breakfast these days and he caters to so many regulars that he offers a small rotating selection of entrees and sides that old customers know as well as the waitresses. The place, which is virtually unchanged since it opened sometime in the 1940s (nobody is exactly sure when), is one of those hole-in-the-wall eateries steeped in history and character. During the Civil Rights struggle it was commonly referred to as “the Black City Hall” for the melting pot of activists, politicos and dignitaries gathered there to hash-out issues over steaming plates of food. While not quite the bustling crossroads or nerve center it once was, a recent visit found a faithful crowd of blue and white collar diners whose table side and counter top discussions ran the gamut from blues legend Johnny Otis to Omaha police officer Jerad Kruse.

 

 

However much times or issues change, the main bill of fare at the Fair Deal remains the same. Indeed, for cafe veterans like Mae Williams, the vittles there remind her of the grub she grew up with on her family’s farm in Muskogee, Oklahoma. “This restaurant right here cooks soul food like I remember it. Identical,” she said. According to regulars like Williams, Preston Love and Billy Melton, all of whom have been eating there for decades, the Fair Deal is the last of the once numerous north Omaha restaurants featuring this food of love. For them, it provides a satisfying connection to a fondly remembered past. “Soul food to me is a warm feeling,” Williams said. “When I smell greens or beans or hocks cooking, it takes me back to my roots. It takes me back to a warm childhood feeling.” Yes, this just may be the original comfort food.

For soul food devotees, it all boils down to flavor. Lots and lots of flavor. It is a Southern-derived flavor that blacks migrating to the north brought with them in the early part of the last century. Hall, whose parents hailed from Arkansas, has strived hard replicating the exact taste he recalls sampling in his mother’s cooking. “My mother was an excellent cook. Down through the years I have tried to get the taste and the flavor that my mother had, and I have found it some,” he said. “I use the stock from smoked meat (ham hocks, etc.) for seasoning greens and beans. I add salt, pepper and garlic powder. I slow cook those greens and beans in that broth, simmering them for hours. That’s one of the primary methods to get that soul food flavor we remember from down south. That’s the essence of it.”

Scholars agree the south is the birthplace of soul food and that its originators were slaves who made discarded hog parts, including organs and entrails, the base of this indigenous style of cooking. Slaves found endlessly creative ways of infusing these fatty but tasty scraps with sharp seasonings and then combining the meat with more nutritious ingredients derived from African culture (rice, beans, yams).

For Mae Williams, soul food is “a survival food” devised by a people desperate to feed their large, hard-working families. She admires the ingenuity of ancestors who, from the refuse of others, concocted a hearty and versatile cuisine that has endured for centuries. She said making delicious meals out of cheap staples is how poor black families got by during hard times. Hall said the low cost food has allowed generations of homemakers to stretch slim budgets. “My mother could take a little and make a big meal out of it.” Ironically, he said, once scorned items like chitlins have acquired delicacy status and now command steep prices. Billy Melton added, “It’s not just for making do with. It’s good food. Why do you think we still eat it?”

Today, the food itself has become a repository for old values and traditions harkening back to when families ate together at the same table. Sitting down to a soul food feast means enjoying a slice of black heritage too quickly passing-by.

“It’s our culture. We are conscious of this,” said Preston Love Sr., an Omaha musician and author (A Thousand Honey Creeks Later). The 79-year-old Love decries the scant interest young blacks pay to birthrights like jazz and soul food. “So many young blacks have been Americanized and Anglicized that they don’t know anything about their roots. They’re missing everything. That’s our heritage.” That’s why, he said, “it’s essential” to have the Fair Deal around to keep these traditions alive.

He said a soul food repast there is like a reunion of “brothers and sisters under the skin.” For Love, soul food is a direct expression of the zestful black experience. “I think the term ‘soul’ was first applied to us as a people to describe the feeling of our expressions and attitudes and language. It means a lot of heart and a depth of feeling. It refers to the pathos in our expression, musically and colloquially. It was probably first applied to black musicians, denoting they had a lot of soul. Later, it became applied to food with lots of flavor and a particular type of flavor identified with blacks. One of the key things in it is pork.” Like so much of southern cuisine, he said, pork fat “rules” here, too.

In keeping with soul food’s peasant roots, the 80-year-old Hall eschews printed recipes and precise measurements in preparing his signature dishes. From day to day he may add a dash more of this and that or try some new variation depending on his whim or a sudden burst of inspiration. That way, his product is constant without ever being exactly the same.

 

 

 

 

According to Love, that genius for spontaneity is a hallmark of blacks in any number of creative endeavors — from music and dancing to cooking. In the case of soul food, he said, necessity became the mother of invention for blacks forced to make a banquet from the meager stores and resources allotted them. “The limitations we lived under gave birth to these embellishments and improvisations. That’s what we did. We were masters of embellishment. Our cooks improvised by adding a little something — maybe some red pepper here or some garlic there — to get that flavor we craved.”

“You want to know the secret of soul food?” Billy Melton, 78, asked a visitor. “It’s slow cooked,” said the retired railroad man and brother-in-law of Hall. “Don’t rush soul food. This is the most important thing about it.” Indeed, everyone at the Fair Deal concurs it is the combination of piquant ingredients and their slow cooking over low heat that gives the food its deep, distinctive tang. Williams said the deeply imbued flavors arise in part from liberally seasoning dishes with aromatics at the beginning of the cooking process rather than waiting till the end. Further enhancing the flavor is the omnipresent pork fat. Adds Williams, “Anytime there’s fat in food, it’s going to taste good.”

As nutrition advisor supervisor for the Douglas/Sarpy County Extension Cooperative Service’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education unit, Williams and her staff of nutritionists work with many low income black residents to devise healthier versions of classic soul food dishes. Because many blacks suffer from high cholesterol and hypertension, her focus has been on cutting fat, calories and sodium in staple foods like sweet potato pie and collard greens. In pie fillings, she substitutes skim for whole milk and margarine for butter and in pie crusts replaces lard with vegetable oil. With greens, she uses de-fatted meat broth and limits the number of ham hocks per serving. She said the program has won over many seniors.

“We’ve gotten a lot of people to change eating habits. We don’t try to take these foods away from them, because black Americans want that taste. Instead, we show new ways to cook that cut out the fat. It’s never going to taste as good though.”

Hall has made some health conscious concessions over the years by reducing the fat content in his dishes. Old customers like Preston Love wouldn’t want him to go too far, however. “You’re going to get fat anyway, so why not enjoy it? Get all the flavor you can. Flavor to the end.” Amen.

The Fair Deal Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesdays through Fridays and for breakfast only on Saturdays. Call 342-9368 for details.

Advertisements
  1. November 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Missing the Fair Deal, Uncle Charles and Papa a whole lot this week! Lovely to be able to read this and stoke my memories.

    Like

  1. July 11, 2017 at 4:09 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: