The notions of soul food and healthy eating might seem like opposite ends of the eating spectrum until you open the pages of “Soul Food Love.”
The cookbook that came out earlier this year was written by the mother-daughter team of Alice Randall, the author of “The Wind Done Gone” and other novels, and Caroline Randall Williams, a poet and teacher. It is a food journey that takes readers through generations of family food traditions.
“In the Delta one thing you realize is how proud we are of our food culture,” Williams said. “I grew up with women with an incredible cooking tradition. I was raised eating food in the style of my grandmother, who was from Waycross, Georgia, so even though I eat healthy, it’s not in some weird, modern way.”
Williams is close to her mother Alice Randall, the celebrated writer. She frequently shared with her mom the conversations about food with the students’ parents and her Delta girlfriends, and they didn’t see her healthy choices as real soul food.
“I wanted to maintain my healthy eating style while I was in the Delta, and my students, who were struggling with their own foods, would tease me about things I was eating,” Williams said.
Williams came to the Mississippi Delta in 2010 to fulfill a two-year commitment to Teach for America. Though the recent Harvard University graduate and Nashville, Tennessee, native developed close friendships during her teaching years at the elementary school in Moorhead and the high school in Ruleville, she felt her style of preparing traditional foods was creating a cultural gulf between her and her Delta-reared friends.
“It seemed like I was distancing myself from my history and the Southern foods they knew,” Williams said. “My mom and I talked about that a lot. She struggled with her weight all of my adult life, and she decided she wanted to lose some weight, claim her health, and I started sharing some of my recipes with her.”
That’s where the cookbook collaboration began.
“Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family,” is described as “mining the traditions of four generations of black women and creating 80 healthy recipes to help everyone live longer and stronger.”
The four generations of black women began with Williams’ great-grandmother, Joan Bontemps Williams, from whom Williams inherited a collection of cookbooks that has now grown to about 2,000. Her grandmother, Alberta Bontemps, continued the family food traditions.
“She lived back in the days when it was not as common for a black woman to have both an undergraduate and a graduate degree,” Williams said. “Her husband was civil rights lawyer Avon Nyanza Williams Jr., a first cousin of (Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. Although she worked at a library, her real joy was cookbooks. They included Chinese, Japanese, Russian, English, Irish, all kinds of food.”
One of the most important things her great-grandmother Joan taught her, Williams said, was that there was a difference between celebration food and the food you eat every day.
“One of the messages I’m most interested in sharing with people is that what we think of as soul food is really celebration food,” Williams said. One might have candied yams for a special event like Thanksgiving, but the daily equivalent would be a baked sweet potato.
“I was always raised to take foods from other cultures and be curious about different kinds of flavors you can incorporate,” she said. “Soul food is food from many different cultures – French, English, African and some flavors that have come to life on American soil. Our appreciation of foods need to change, grow, expand, encompass all the things we continue to be exposed to.”
One of Williams’ favorite dishes, one that she makes most often for herself and that is frequently requested, is Peanut Chicken Stew.
“I love to make soups and stews,” she said. “They are becoming a forgotten art in my opinion. They are such a delicious, nutritious option, and they are easy on the budget.”
Williams’ undergraduate degree is in English, so she always knew she wanted to write. Although she published her first book of poetry earlier this year, Williams was not sure if that was her true career path.
After her two years with Teach for America, Williams, 28, completed her master of fine arts degree at the University of Mississippi. She began this year as a visiting assistant professor at West Virginia University.
“I really wanted to Teach for America because I believe in that program and believe in the necessity of giving back,” she said. “I want and need to educate. I’m loving teaching and looking forward to teaching a class on cookbooks as literature. There are many ways in which a recipe is a poem. I want to spread this message of being a food activist, helping people living in a food desert prepare foods that sustain them.”
Williams is committed to penning another cookbook, and expects to be adding to her cookbook collection as well.
“I honor my Nana by doing that,” Williams said. “I want to keep it alive for her. One of the most important things I’ve been able to do for my family is add a cookbook I’ve written to that collection.”
Peanut Chicken Stew
Serves 8 to 10
3 cups chopped cooked chicken
11⁄2 cups natural peanut butter
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, or 31⁄2 cups diced fresh tomatoes
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 quart Sweet Potato Broth (recipe follows)
1⁄2 cup chopped roasted unsalted peanuts
Put the chicken, peanut butter, tomatoes, curry powder, and cayenne in a medium pot and pour in the sweet potato broth. Season with salt to taste. Simmer over medium heat until the peanut butter is completely blended and the stew has a thick, even consistency, 20 minutes.
Ladle the stew into bowls and serve, sprinkling the chopped nuts over the top as a garnish.
Sweet Potato Broth
Makes 1 Quart
1 medium onion, sliced
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 large sweet potato
5 whole cloves
Salt and pepper
In a large stockpot, sauté the onion, celery, and carrot in a tablespoon or so of olive oil—just enough to cover the bottom of your pot—over low heat. Meanwhile, peel and quarter the sweet potato. When the onion has softened, after about 8 minutes, add the sweet potato to the pot along with 6 cups of water, the cloves, and a little salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the sweet potato is completely soft, about 30 minutes.
Fish out the cloves, then puree the mixture in a blender or food processor, or if you’re working without fancy tools, by mashing the sweet potato into the side of the pot with a wooden spoon and stirring. If not using immediately, let cool, then cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 2 months.
Photos and recipes: “Reprinted from Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family. Copyright © 2015 by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams. Photographs copyright © 2015 by Penny De Los Santos. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.”
Portrait by Tenola Bravara Plaxico // Story by Lena Mitchell