Ari on African American Foods I

In anticipation of the upcoming 8th Annual African American Dinner, we’re featuring some of Ari’s past writing on African-American foods served at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse (past & present, call for current menu). 

While we may alter the type of green we use on any given day, it’s almost always either collards, kale, mustards, turnips or, on occasion, radish greens. We cook ‘em for hours with lots of applewood smoked bacon, and serve ‘em with a bottle of pepper vinegar on the side. As per Jessica Harris’ comments, the use of peppers and pepper sauces is woven through all African American cooking—sprinkle a few drops of the spicy vinegar on the greens and you’ll add a bit of zip and some cultural context to an already good offering. Secret tip—ask for a bit of extra pot likker on the side. It’s the “broth” in the pot from the cooking of the greens. Three hundred years ago it was often given to slave children to give them much needed nutrients in less than ideal living conditions. Today it’s worth having some just because it tastes so good. But I think it’s something worth raising a shot glass of as a respectful toast to the slave cooks who did the unglamorous work to develop the roots of African American eating that we get to enjoy today.

Roadhouse Fried Chicken
Sunday food from centuries past, now available every day here at the Roadhouse. Amish raised free range chickens, buttermilk batter, only subtly spicy in the style of Gus’ Fried Chicken down in Mason, Tennessee. On the Roadhouse menu it lists this as my favorite, which is true if for no other reasons than, a) it’s really darned good, and b) who makes it at home? I know I don’t. So I appreciate it every time I get to taste it at the Roadhouse. As do a whole lot of other folks—it’s the best selling item on the menu!

Carolina Gold Rice
South Carolina and the Sea Islands off its coast are probably the rice-eatingest places in the US. The story of how African slaves contributed the know-how and labor to make this very special rice such a huge economic and culinary success is too long to tell here. Take a taste of this very special rice by tasting the Deli’s rice pudding or ordering a side of “Charleston Ice Cream” at the Roadhouse. All I’m going to say is that everything about this rice is exceptional—its history, its modern day revival after 75 years of being out of production, the way its being grown and processed by Glenn Roberts and the crew at Anson Mills, and, most importantly, the way it tastes. Don’t miss this very special, if little known outside the Lowcountry, African American exercise in good eating.

Sweet Potato Fries
Probably one of the most popular dishes we’ve got at the Roadhouse. We must put hundreds of orders of them every week though few people realize that these much-loved sweet potato fries have got Gullah roots and that the recipe originates on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. I learned it from Sallie Ann Robinson’s book Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way. I love where they “come from” as much I love their flavor (both are great!) so I do my best to tell everyone I serve them to about having learned it from a Gullah cook.

I hadn’t thought to include these here but Adrian Miller’s mention of the import of Chesapeake Bay cookery as being one of the four most important areas of African American cooking made me reconsider. I had a belated recognition that a lot of our best crab cake customers (including Rose Martin, a woman whose community work with the Peace Neighborhood Center I much admire and appreciate) are African Americans. Check out the book, Crab Cakes by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James McPherson. Mr. McPherson is a native Baltimorean and a lover of crab cakes, as witnessed in this excerpt from his memoir: “These are a very special delicacy, made Maryland style. . . . All crabcakes are good, but Maryland crabcakes have special ingredients, or spices, not found in those crabcakes made according to the recipes of other regions.” Agreed fully.

Now, all that said, just offering crab cakes on the menu at the Roadhouse isn’t any big thing really. What’s special here though is that they’re made from only the top grade, fresh Maryland lump crab. None of the lower grade backfin, “special,” or frozen crab that comes here from Asia. A lot of people judge a crab cake by its size but what’s critical is the flavor and the quality of the crab (only lump!), along with the use of just enough bread crumbs to bind and coat the crabcake. Opinions on the subject run strong from pretty much everyone from the area. To quote baker and cook Mark Furstenburg, “As for crab cakes this is a very important subject not to be trifled with by anyone other than a Baltimorean.” As one, he gets to weigh in. “Everyone in Baltimore has a point of view about crab cakes. Mine, however, is the correct one.” Which seems to be true for everyone in the area! Fortunately I’m not from there so I don’t feel compelled to be correct. I just like eating the crabcakes at the Roadhouse.

Please join us in January for two very special events with Jemima Code author Toni Tipton-Martin: 

8th Annual African American Dinner
With special guest Toni Tipton-Martin
Tuesday, January 22, 7-10 p.m.

More information & reservations here

Deliciousness & Diversity: A Discussion with Toni Tipton-Martin
Wednesday, January 23, 7-830 p.m.
More information & reservations here.