Love, Life and Plenty of Sauce: Serving Up Our Favorite Black Food
On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle and Toure are hungry, and you’re about to be hungry too.
Black food is American food. That’s the theme of the new Netflix series “High on the Hog,” which our foodie podcast hosts recently devoured.
Inspired by its investigation of Black culinary traditions, they discuss how food connects them with family as well as their favorite dishes and destinations.
Toure and Danielle also answer these burning questions: What’s better –– KFC or Popeyes? What will they always skip at a soul-food spread? And just who thinks it’s acceptable to serve mashed potatoes without gravy?
Inspired by last week’s discussion of Netflix’s “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” Toure and Danielle –– who both love great food –– want to dig deeper into the subject.
“The history of Black food is so rich and important to me,” says Toure. “It connects me to my grandparents, my ancestors.”
Danielle agrees and says “High on the Hog” taught her so many things about America she didn't know.
The four-part series about Black culinary traditions begins in Benin, West Africa before winding its way to the U.S., notably the Carolinas, Virginia and Texas. It made Danielle feel like she was “learning through eating” and giving her new respect for dishes and places with deep Black history.
“When we watch other food shows, we’re often inundated with European chefs with Michelin stars and all these things,” she adds. “It's usually largely white and largely male with very few women sprinkled in.”
Often, culinary stars don’t have a deep connection to the places they work in. They’re considered great chefs because they're French or trained under someone who is. But “High on the Hog” transports us to specific places and histories, Danielle says.
Watching the show was like “taking a journey with the entirety of the black community, getting to experience this thing we have different attachments to, but as a collective. The history that was taken from us –– exactly what makes the show so special –– we’re bringing it back.”
On this episode, our hosts tell stories about the food they love, dish on what they hate and bicker plenty, too.
Let’s dig in.
Episode Highlights –– The Black Food Episode
Slow food for thought
Toure’s grandmother, who is no longer with us, grew up in Alabama as “one of 12 children or something like that,” he says. “She made Thanksgiving dinner for the first 15 years of my life. She had this amazing gravy that just made every turkey taste amazing.”
But the biscuits were the real star –– ”just so perfectly fluffy, yet crispy, and the perfect warmth. I felt this connection to where she came from, and whoever she carried those recipes forward from,” he adds.
Danielle definitely knows how food can transport us to another time or place. Her family is Jamaican, so “for me, black food is Jamaican food,” she says. “Whenever I smell it walking around Brooklyn, or I'm home with my family, it just brings back all of these memories and all of this history.”
Learning about food, especially Jamaican cuisine, is “a way to take a journey with family,” Danielle adds.
Toure remembers visiting Jamaica and “going to the tiniest little shack on the side of the road,” where he had lobster and french fries, and a Red Stripe.
“You can see that it's just made for you, because they don't do fast food. Like, three people come in there for lunch per day. It's super fresh and you just feel so connected to the people and the place and the culture.”
Toure says the absolute best Black food he’s ever had has been in New Orleans.
“Dooky Chase’s is one of the greatest restaurants, perhaps in the whole country. The chicken, the biscuits, everything was perfect. There are certain places –– like the first time I went to Nobu. The first time I went to Dooky Chase’s was the first time I had gumbo that was perfect.”
Danielle hasn’t been to New Orleans, but she gets it.
“There's something about showcasing your culture through food … and perfecting it,” she says. She has been to Nobu, and she has “never had fish that was cleaner. And I don't mean clean as in clean, but just like, so pure, and so perfectly sliced, you feel like you're transported.”
She thinks Toure missed his calling as a food critic.
“The way you’re describing New Orleans through the food makes me feel crazy that I’ve never visited.”
It’s a must, he says.
“You could just go on a food crawl ... the gumbo shop and then the fried chicken shack, and then Dooky Chase’s and just be so happy.”
The secret is sauce
The food that intrigues Danielle the most, particularly when she travels, is what the locals describe as “what the workers, or the peasants, eat,” she says.
“A lot of the foods that made it into our everyday lives were considered workers’ foods. When I think about black American food, I think about how little folks had to make something so delicious. There's something really beautiful about that.”
That makes Toure think about the magic of sauces. He thinks “working folks will add a lot of sauces to their food because it makes the food seem to last longer and fill them up more. Less can seem like more if there's a great, thick sauce with it.”
He argues that anybody can make chicken, but nailing the sauce that comes with it is something else entirely.
“There's something about a killer sauce that will just destroy me,” he adds. “I keep coming back to New Orleans, but he po’ boys –– gimme extra gravy. Gimme a little meat with the gravy.”
Food court press
If you’re in D.C., a great place to experience Black cuisine is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, says Toure.
“The rest of the museum is amazing. But on the food court, they did not skimp on details.”
The Sweet Home Café offers four different regional menus: Agricultural South, North States, Western Range, and Creole Coast.
“If you ever want to go there, you have to spend some time in the food court, because it's an important part of the whole situation,” Toure says.
“Do you think there is something white Americans are particularly connected to as it pertains to food?” asks Danielle, who thinks part of what “makes black people so incredibly extraordinary is the way food is so embedded in our culture.”
Toure thinks the answer is “embedded in the question, which we've talked about before: Whiteness in terms of culture is not equivalent to blackness. There is absolutely black culture that is meaningful to us, that we agree upon, that transports us –– music, food, language, et cetera. There is no white culture.”
Southern fried fake
Toure points out that ethnic culture is totally different. “There’s an extraordinarily rich Italian American culture, and Italian American food is fantastic. Greek American food is fantastic––”
Danielle interrupts: “But let's think about Paula Deens of the world. They say Southern cooking; we say it’s soul food or black American food.”
Toure isn’t a food historian, but he feels confident that “99% of what we know as Southern cuisine comes from black people.”
Even if Paula Deen is the one demonstrating the recipes, “you're making black food,” he adds.
“You were taught by black people. Surely you know black people who do it better than you. You're just a white face presenting black cuisine.”
Colonel Sanders popularized black cuisine, Toure notes.
Speaking of, Toure asks Danielle: KFC or Popeyes?
“Popeyes,” she replies without missing a beat.
“Really? Popeye's is for crunch. But I used to be addicted to KFC,” says Toure.
Danielle thinks Popeyes is better “at all of it –– the crunch, the seasoning … there is no real comparison.”
She knows the Colonel has rolled out “extra crunchy” options, but she can’t help but associate KFC with sogginess.
Toure points out that if it has been sitting on the rack for 10 minutes or more, it's bound to “have that sog.”
But he has a pro tip to share: “This is how ridiculous I am. If you ask for it from the hot chest, then it will have a little more crisp to it, because it's newer, and it's being kept warmer.”
You learn something new every day.
‘Strip mall food’ fight
That’s an ideal segue to the next topic –– which involves another poll going around on Twitter.
“We're a little out of the realm of black culture with this one, but Olive Garden versus Red Lobster,” Toure says.
“Umm, I'm gonna say something that's probably going to make me come off badly,” says Danielle. “But I couldn't tell you the last time I was in fucking either of them. I don't live in a chain restaurant district. It would be unfair of me to pass judgment.”
Plus, she thinks it’s like “comparing apples to oranges, because it's two completely different cuisines.”
That’s fair, says Toure.
“In Brooklyn, we definitely are not inundated with that. There are more individualistic options. Although my mom lives in Boston, and I have been to Olive Garden. I have been to Red Lobster. Red Lobster is superior.”
“Look at Toure, he's just like us,” Danielle quips.
“I have suburban culture in me!” Toure retorts before pitching up his voice and sing-songing: “I’m Danielle. I'm too good for the exurbs. I've never been to the mall. I'm a city kid.”
Danielle wonders: “Strip mall food –– I guess that's suburban culture. That sounds terrible. Maybe that's why I left.”
“I'm not saying it's good,” Toure replies. “I'm saying it is what it is.”
Chicken and waffle house party
Toure recently went to a friend's house, where the host served fried chicken and waffles.
“I let him know before we got there: high pressure, you're making fried chicken for a black man. You better step it up and come correct.”
The chicken was good and crunchy, but there was a problem.
“I hate to validate stereotypes,” Toure adds, “but it was not sufficiently seasoned. It didn't have enough salt. There probably could have been more pepper, garlic powder, onion powder––”
“What was on it?” Danielle asks. “And why do you think they were compelled to do chicken and waffles? Is it their specialty?”
“I don't know if there was any seasoning on it. I think it was just fried,” Toure replies. “We were coming together for brunch. So it made sense to do some chicken and waffles. I guess they felt confident––”
“Did this happen last Saturday, which was Juneteenth?”
“It was not,” says Toure.
Toure thinks you can “100% tell the difference between white people and black people because white people will serve you mashed potatoes without gravy,” he says.
His grandmother used to make the best mashed potatoes,” he says. “They had some lump and texture and skin in them.”
And they always, always were accompanied by delicious gravy. Eating them without it is an utterly foreign concept: “Like, what? How did that happen?”
It probably shouldn't, says Danielle. “I don't know –– baked potato.”
Toure is incredulous: “You prefer that?”
Of course not, says Danielle. But if you’re “not going to do the proper pairing,” you should.
“It’s like a peanut butter sandwich. You want peanut butter and jelly. With mashed potatoes, one would assume gravy. If you cannot indeed make a gravy… And I feel like I'm doing a Law and Order defense here –– if you cannot afford a gravy, then one will be provided to you by the court –– no, then you should just microwave a baked potato.”
Toure can’t wrap his mind around this. “What are you talking about? You have put it in the oven for like, an hour.”
“Yeah, in an oven,” she replies. “Eight minutes in the microwave … What are you, Amish? Are you not using electricity in your home?”
Toure and his family use a toaster oven, thank you very much.
“We take our time with our food,” he says.
“Oh, look at you slowing down. How wonderful. I'm glad you have all the time in the world to make a potato,” says Danielle.
The tea on greens
Toure wonders if there’s anything on the traditional black soul food table that Danielle doesn’t like.
“I don't love everybody's collard greens,” she says. I don't like collard greens, as a green.”
Toure doesn’t either.
“I don't want anybody's collard greens.”
Danielle thinks “they taste like dirt.”
Toure “wouldn't go that far,” but he’ll always pass them up.
Danielle points out that they’re not “something that, if they’re a little bit bad, it's still okay. They’re not pizza. If collard greens are a little bit bad, you want to vomit. Not a risk worth taking.”
My cousin rigatoni
“I'm not big on mac and cheese either,” says Toure. “I don't know. It's so––”
“Are you a terrorist?” Danielle asks. “It’s so, what? Delicious? Oh, noodles that hold both milk and cheese, and the creaminess, and the levels of cheese and flavor. That's a black soul staple. People have competitions for this and it's a serious thing.”
Yeah, Toure knows. But it’s just not his jam.
“I love rigatoni bolognese,” he says. “An Italian dish that, when it's done right, is just perfect. The first time I went to Italy I had it and it was like this is heaven on a plate. It's creamy and it's meaty. And it's just everything. Mac and cheese is its cousin, and I'm like eh…”
Macaroni and cheese is certainly not a cousin of rigatoni bolognese, says Danielle.
“How is it not? It's a noodle,” Toure responds. “I mean, there's no meat, obviously, in the mac and cheese. But they're both noodles with stuff –– with cheese or cream –– on top of them. Usually you put cheese on the bolognese.”
“What kind of comparison are you making?” Danielle counters. “Why don't we throw in lo mein as well? Do you see how ridiculous that sounds?”
Toure is incredulous.
“Well, you sound ridiculous all the time.”
Have bolognese, will travel
The key difference between rigatoni bolognese and maccheroni e formaggio for Toure is that he “would travel” for the former.
“If you said someplace makes really good rigatoni, I’d drive two hours to try that. But mac and cheese –– eh. I'm good. Just me. I'm weird,” he says.
“You are,” Danielle tells him. “And I think you're going to have fewer friends after this show.”
They both might, actually.
“I'm pretty sure people will judge the collard green remarks,” she adds.
Just in case they do, pray about it.