I love the words “soul food” but think they should have a much broader definition than they do. Soul food in the US refers mostly to food cooked in the southern part of the US, often associated with black Americans. (No, I still cannot say African American because I have absolutely no personal links to the African continent since slavery erased all records of our ancestry. And I am black from American, mixed with Irish, Scottish, German Jew and Cherokee!). When is food not food for the soul?
Soul food, in its traditional form, is made from cheap ingredients and things that can be traced back to Africa, like okra, and throwaway parts of the animal, like pig feet. Then there are black-eyed peas, collard greens and other bits and pieces, like corn bread. But it’s a lot like southern food in general, because the line between black and white culture in the south is very fine, especially among the poorer ones. It’s all mixed up with struggle and human suffering too. The road leading away from slavery has not been an easy one for black Americans. Every human in every community has challenges, heartache and have to face things that seem insurmountable, but problems are compounded by poverty.
Soul music, soul food and country music have much in common. They are filled with pain, heartache and longing. And while soul food may have grown up, is appreciated by a much wider audience, it all comes down to comfort food. And we all need comfort.
I’m sure I am not alone in using food for comfort, either for others or me. This last year and a half have been my darkest days. I was a single mom all of my life, from the age of 19, and had a wonderful relationship with my son, growing up as we did together. He started cooking when he was about 3 and by 4 he was allowed to build and light the fire when we went camping (backpacking in the national forests of California, just the two of us). All of our best memories have some element of food, and all of our worst as well. He reminded me: “Mom, how come you always offered me food when I was upset? Wasn’t this like bribing me? Maybe that is why I am so obsessed with food.” I accepted the reality of his claim. But every holiday and small achievement was rewarded with sushi, or a stay in a 4 store hotel with a 4 star restaurant (sometimes in the middle of a camping trip). And the only things he would do with me when he got older, was to shop for clothes (for him), camp or ski, or cook. Cooking was the thing we did most together. And he became an incredible chef, cooking private dinners for rockstars, actors and anyone who heard about his fusion food… all because he was a struggling actor. He even ran a restaurant in Mallorca (Deia) for a year on route back to London from New York.
My son’s private chef business became the Nomad Chef. I appropriated the name when he died. He died last year. And since then everything else that had been important to me seemed to slip away as well. There is a huge hole In me that will never be filled. But I try to find comfort and have only found it in cooking or babysitting small children. The Nomad Chef is in tribute to my son, but it is also a celebration of all of the years of cooking we did together. His cookbooks became mine, and in true mother fashion, all of my cookbooks were always his. I find comfort (and sometimes tears) when I open a page to yellow post-it notes he has left on recipes in the cookbooks. His handwriting reminds me that he was real. I find comfort cooking and eating something I know he has made, or would have loved. I feel him in the kitchen with me when I’m cooking. I use the spices he bought and replace them as they run out, in the same spice market where he shopped. I am not sure this heartache will ever heal, but I am sure that food is comfort for the soul. When I cook for you I am cooking for myself and my son is cooking through me. And I hope that you feel the love,