Measuring the Old, Stirring the New

Feeding Hungry Hearts

by Connie Berry

Feeding Hungry Hearts

Cover image 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.

Soul Food Love, the new cookbook by the mother-daughter writing team Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams, is a guided journey through 100 years of cooking, from their ancestors’ kitchens in Detroit, Nashville, and the deep South to Harlem and all the way to Caroline’s modern Oxford, Miss., kitchen.

A novelist and songwriter, Alice writes the beginning chapters of Soul Food Love, imbibing them with tales of
strong black women (and their husbands and children) whose histories include the kitchens of white families as well as their own.

The book introduces readers to Alice’s grandparents, Minnie and Willie Randall, who owned a dry cleaning business in Detroit. Willie grew up in Selma, Ala., where white women rarely set foot in their own kitchens. His memories wouldn’t allow him to watch his own wife peel potatoes, so he did all the cooking.

It is through Minnie, or Dear as she was called, that Alice traces her family’s penchant for using sugar to comfort and console. She writes: “She reached for Russell Stover chocolates like some skinny modern mothers facing real-world-big problems reach for a Xanax. She swilled sweet tea like it was morphine. She treated pain, shame, fear, and exhaustion with the same medicine her grandmother had used to treat her pain, shame, and fear when she was a child—with sugar water.”

Decades of treating what ailed them with rich food left the women with soft and ample arms to wrap around a young Alice. One of the first recipes Alice shares with readers is an elixir called “sugar tit,” a surefire way to calm a fussy baby.

“Take a clean and unstarched white handkerchief. Drop it in a pot of sim- mering sugar water. With strong clean hands, wring it till it doesn’t drip. Make sure the cloth is still warm. Fold the cloth and twist it into a thick coil. Hand it to a howling baby whose mama has gone. . .”

Alice references the propensity of overweightness in matriarchs in her family tree, and admits to her own previous inclination to fight sadness with sugar. High blood pressure and a search for what she wrote was a “foodway forward that wouldn’t sacrifice the legacy of my foremothers” were part of the impetus for Soul Food Love and her own decision to eat more healthy food.

Alice writes her memories of Grandma Alberta Johnson Bontemps, who belonged to several Nashville social clubs. Her specialty was cooking for large gatherings and setting the table with fine china, silver, and glassware.

Alberta’s daughter Joan was a university librarian who gathered a collection of more than 1,000 cookbooks, which were inherited by Alice’s daughter Caroline, who now has more than 2,000. Recipes in Soul Food Love were gleaned from those very cookbooks.

Caroline then takes over writing duties in the familiar cookbook format of Soul Food Love, and she focuses an activist’s lens on the way we eat.

She writes in the book that the number one way to improve your health is to cook at home. Dispelling the idea of everyday rich soul food, Caroline writes that the not-so-healthy meals her grandmothers cooked were meant for special occasions. The real day-to-day soul food was made of simple ingredients, typically grown in their gardens. Dinners were made of chicken, eggs, sweet potatoes, onions, spices and greens.

She acknowledges that not everyone can eat organic these days, nor can they always grow their own food. Caroline writes: “Yes, sometimes we live in food deserts. Sometimes the only grocery store is a Walmart. And that’s okay.”

The message that runs through her portion of Soul Food Love is to use what you can afford to make nutritious meals for your family, but they should be meals prepared with love and with a nod to healthy living.

“The chief way that I am working to get rid of that elitist vibe around healthy food is by sharing this book, which is full of stories of very real women and full of recipes that can be sourced from almost any grocery store,” Caroline said.

She purposely kept the recipes simple, whittling them down to those using basic ingredients and not requiring an arms-length of explanation.

Roasted peppers with sardines and boiled eggs are featured along with black-eyed pea hummus and chicken breasts with grapes and mushrooms. For a simple and elegant dessert, chocolate communion—little communion cups filled with bourbon alongside broken bars of dark chocolate. The directions are easy: “Give each guest a communion cup full of bourbon, then pass around a tray of chocolate.”

The cookbook includes seafood recipes and other dishes with ingredients that can be gathered anyplace, with Vineyard farmers’ markets and garden stands easily coming to mind.

Alice has a history with the Vineyard too, visiting regularly for 35 years and spending part of her honeymoon with her first husband here.

“When I got married in 1985 I was given one of the 15 sugar-lift etchings Aaron Douglas created depicting what he and many understood to be the center of a black intellectual world, a landscape without houses or people, an interior of an island, Oak Bluffs,” she said.

Her copy of The Cottager’s Cookbook came from Alberta Bontemps, and Alice passed it on to Caroline.

“So that taste of the black Vineyard is one of the most treasured cook- books in her more than 2,000-book collection,” Alice explained.

In Soul Food Love, mother and daughter measure the old and stir in the new, creating a book that is both a literary and culinary delight.