What do the Slow Food movement and "soul food" have in common? Both celebrate indigenous/local foods and traditional social food gatherings. While Slow Food cites the need to preserve and observe local foods, soul food is the re-creation of dishes made with traditionally rural local foods of Southern African-Americans.
"Taste is like an umbilical cord. We all return to our grandmothers no matter how many detours we take along the way," said Carlo Petrini, the founder of the international Slow Food movement.
Similarly, Southern country, the larger category umbrella for soul food, features locally grown farm dishes that have geographical, not ethnic or racial, distinction. The term "soul food" came to be used primarily by African-Americans in northern urban areas sometime during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to describe the food they had eaten growing up in the South: Southern comfort food, down-home cooking, or cooking from the heart. Many recent Southern cookbook authors, notably Dori Sanders and Edna Lewis, have used the term "country cooking" to describe the same cuisine. Whichever term is used to describe the cuisine, this food has a distinctive style and flavor and relates to dishes one might have enjoyed on a farm back in the day. Many area restaurants offer soul/country cuisine based on treasured family recipes.
Akira Adams, daughter of owner Ken Adams at La'Wan's Soul Food Restaurant, says their menu is designed to be home-styled cooking. Adams says, "This is Southern food like what your grandma cooked. It's food that gives you a warm feeling." La'Wan's, named for Adams' mother, opened in 2001 in southwest Charlotte.
The heart of Southern country cuisine is vegetables: sweet potatoes, okra, collards, turnip greens, lima beans, potatoes and cabbage. Traditionally these dishes may have been flavored with meat -- since meat may not have been available as the main course. But, recently some restaurants have moved to flavor vegetable dishes with turkey, not pork, while others avoid meat altogether.
Going healthy is not just for vegetable dishes. At Grandma's Country Kitchen the chickens used may not be certified organic, but they are hormone-free. Owner Abdul Bilal uses the recipes from his great-grandmother from neighboring Cleveland County. Bilal, who is a vegetarian, does not use eggs in his journeycake ("When my great grandmother went to the barn and the cow wasn't milking and the hens weren't laying, [dinner] would still be made," he says), but does serve chicken, beef and fish dishes, focusing on foods that are healthy and nutritious.
When owner Eric Crenshaw bought the 30-year-old Chicken Box Café nine years ago, the eatery already had the reputation for serving fried chicken and soul food. But Crenshaw, who owns two restaurants in Atlanta, expanded the menu to include some items not found on many menus around town. Crenshaw says, "From now through the first of January, we'll sell 500 to 600 pounds of chitterlings." Chitterlings, correctly pronounced with only two syllables -- "chitlins" -- are the small intestines of the pig and a like-it or hate-it type of dish. The traditional time to eat chitterlings is at the holidays, which coincides with December, the time pigs used to be slaughtered on a farm.
Other dishes such as simmered oxtail and meatloaf are typically found on Southern home-styled menus. Owner Donna Floyd of Floyd's Restaurant II is known for her home-styled meatloaf.
But it's the chicken that defines Southern restaurants in Charlotte. Price's Chicken Coop has set the standard for exceptional fried chicken in town and many think of eating Price's fried chicken as a requirement to live here. But in addition to fried chicken, other chicken dishes can set a Southern country eatery apart.
At Simmons Fourth Ward, chicken is the star: a juicy, baked smothered chicken, white or dark, which straddles Simmons' wonderfully moist corn bread dressing. Chicken and dumplings are a favorite at Dish in Plaza Midwood. Dish owner Penny Craver notes, "The whole purpose [of Dish] was to represent the South -- to serve the real food, not the fried foods. Frying is simple and convenient and cheap -- in terms of labor it's easier. But that's not how most grandmothers made their dishes." To recreate her grandmother's "a bit of this and a bit of that" recipes, Craver assembled a taste panel and created dishes tirelessly until the dish matched the panel's memory taste profile.
But even if the restaurant has the family recipes, recipes may not be consistent due to geography. "My grandmother was from New Orleans and my wife's grandmother was from Pageland [S.C.]," says Thomas Hamilton owner of Down to the Bone. "We may cook the same dishes, but we season them differently." Over at Mert's Heart and Soul, owned by James and Renee Bazzelle, the menu has Low Country items such as red beans and rice, shrimp and grits, as well as inland fried chicken, sautéed squash and barbecue ribs.
Grandma, or your great-great grandma, may have had the ultimate, and modern, kitchen table: bearing foods that soothe the soul while simultaneously celebrating local traditions.
Chicken Box Café, 3726 N. Tryon St., 704-566-6000
Dish, 1220 Thomas Ave., 704-344-0343
Down to the Bone, 7945 N. Tryon St., 704-548-1616
Floyd's Restaurant II, 1820 Milton Road, 704-537-2800
Grandma's Country Kitchen, 6615 N. Tryon St., 704-598-1221
La'Wan's Soul Food Restaurant, 7705 S. Tryon St., 704-665-7225
Mert's Heart and Soul, 214 N. College St., 704-342-4222
Price's Chicken Coop, 1614 Camden Rd, 704-333-9866
Simmons Fourth Ward Restaurant, 516 N. Graham St., 704-334-6640