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The difference between soul food and Southern food

"It's just poor-folk food," my mom told me.



One thing I missed most about the South when I lived in New York and Los Angeles in the '80s and '90s was sweet iced tea.

Oh yeah, and grits. And corn bread. And pork chops. And collard greens. And black-eyed peas. And candied yams.

I was told that what I was missing was soul food.

In fact, New York was where I first heard the term soul food to describe what I essentially thought of as just Southern food. A dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanite had taken me up to Sylvia's on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem to educate me.

"This is soul food," he instructed.

But this is just the stuff my grandmother cooked, I protested.

The food at Sylvia's was great, but the restaurant was a tourist trap, so my old music-writing friend Kandia Crazy Horse introduced me to a smaller joint tucked away in the West Village called the Pink Teacup. It was better. The servings were just as tasty. The wait staff was sassy. And the music was primo — Otis & Carla to D'Angelo & Mary J.

It occurred to me that the cuisine I always thought of as just plain old Southern country cooking was, in other parts of the country, interpreted more strictly as the cuisine of black Southerners. After that, I never gave it another thought. What non-Southerners saw as a uniquely African-American culinary tradition was, to me, just Southern country cooking. So when I needed a Southern food fix in New York or L.A., I'd go to a soul food restaurant.

Then I returned home in the early 2000s, and lo and behold, there were "soul food" restaurants everywhere. Had I missed them while growing up in North Carolina? Was there a difference between the corn bread, turnip greens and black-eyed peas that my white grandmother, Mama Carlton, cooked on Sunday afternoons, and the same combination I'd get in a soul food restaurant?

"It's just poor-folk food," my mom told me. "It's the food that us poor folk would eat in the Depression because it's made from cheap ingredients and it fills you up."

My mom came from mill people. They were pretty poor. My dad came from dairy farmers, and while they weren't rich, they weren't exactly poor. And yet they ate the same food. Mom's answer didn't satisfy me.

I decided to consult an expert: Ms. Rudean Harris, the 71-year-old owner of Charlotte soul food mainstay Rudean's. CL's Emiene Wright profiles the 55-year-old establishment and three other soul food restaurants in this week's cover story.

"I really don't know what makes it soul food," Ms. Rudean said, with a chuckle, when I called her on a Friday afternoon. "I guess soul food would be fatback, neck bones and ham hocks — that's what you season your food with, you know. And grits and eggs, gravy, lots of gravy, with creamed potatoes, stew beef and rice, corn bread. Oh, and biscuits — people were eating biscuits before Bojangles'. The kids these days don't know that." She paused for another chuckle, then continued: "And pigs feet, chitlins, Hoppin' John ... Do you know what Hoppin' John is? That's black-eyed peas and rice."

Ms. Rudean paused again, then turned the question on me: "What does soul food mean to you?"

I told her of my experience in New York, thinking soul food was just the same stuff my grandmother made when I was a kid. This time Ms. Rudean laughed out loud — and then she zeroed in on the heart of the matter.

"You know, black people have a way of giving something a nickname," she said. "We give everything a nickname. We give people nicknames. So, I guess soul food's just another name for country cooking."

The answer seemed as obvious as the butter on my biscuit. But while soul food may be just another name for country cooking, behind that name is a whole vibe, a lifestyle, a world. When I walk into a soul food restaurant — whether it's Rudean's, with Tavares' "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel" on the jukebox, or the Pink Teacup, with D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" playing — I'm entering a warm, loving, totally unpretentious world where I know I'll be cared for and well fed. Not that I wouldn't be cared for and well fed at the little country diner with George Jones and Alan Jackson in the rotation: similar food, slightly different vibe, same unpretentious folk — like the difference between soul and country music.

For this issue, though, we decided to specifically spotlight soul food, focusing on the restaurants you won't find in the Charlotte tourist guides. These places are well hidden from the glitz of downtown. The intent is not to denigrate the hard work and great offerings at more mainstream spots like Mert's Heart and Soul or the country cooking at non-soul food joints. The intent is to celebrate the soul food restaurants you may not know about. And if you're a visitor — perhaps a politician or delegate still hanging around after that big political convention — and you want to get to know some regular, everyday Charlotteans, you'll go break bread with the folks over at Rudean's, or Angie's, or La'Wan's, or Upscale.

Don't forget to tell Ms. Rudean I said hey.

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