Ari on African American Foods II

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). 

Anson Mills Heirloom Cornmeal
This stuff is to standard issue cornmeal what the Zingerman’s Bakehouse’s Farm Bread is to Wonder®. I feel fairly confident that it’s head and shoulders more flavorful than any other cornmeal you’re going to find around here. It’s one of the most popular items on the Zingerman’s Roadhouse menu and we sell it for folks to take home and make mush (which I love!), use for “breading,” for frying fish, making hush puppies (don’t forget the bacon fat!), fried green tomatoes or really marvelous cornbread.

Fried Catfish
It’s probably old news to many but I first heard this in my conversations with Adrian Miller, who mentioned that old saying that “Fish should swim twice: once in water, and the second time in cooking oil.” Any reading of West African cookery will show how big a part fish plays there—catfish were common to both continents, and Africans likely brought the deep fat frying used in their homelands to North America. Although Mississippi is the catfish capital of the world, the frying went north during the Great Migration. Back in the ‘30s there were sidewalk signs all over Harlem promoting “Hot Fried Cat.” We’ve long had it on the Roadhouse menu both in whole fish form for dinner or fried fillets on a sandwich for lunch. Comes with hush puppies, slaw and homemade tartar sauce. And be sure to ask for a little hot bacon fat on the side to dip the hush puppies in.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue
Now this is a subject of great length in its own right, and the issues of race and politics that go with it are numerous; so much so that I’m going to leave them alone here for the moment. For a lot more background see the really fantastic oral histories that Amy Evans did on the Southern Foodways Alliance website. For the moment, we’ll defer to the words, wisdom and views of Mr. Ed Mitchell, the North Carolina native and long time pit master, who trained us how to prepare Eastern North Carolina pork many years ago. Mind you, this is merely Ed’s truth so there’s no need for folks who have a different view (of whom I know many) to refute it.
“Culturally,” Mr. Mitchell told me, “BBQ was started by black folks. During the era of slavery, they made barbecue for white people and then they were given the innards and undesirable cuts. That’s why they got used to cooking all those cuts.” He paused while I processed what he was saying, and also to let me savor the taste of his barbecue which I was eating while he talked. “My point,” he added, “is that it was a necessity for them to survive.”
The Eastern North Carolina barbecue is easily one of the most popular dishes at the Roadhouse. We’re using free-running, antibiotic-free, heirloom breed hogs (which have far more fat and much more flavor than commercial hogs), smoked on the pit (that Mr. Mitchell helped us build) over oak logs for a good 14 hours or so, then dressed with a traditional Eastern Carolina vinegar sauce. A lot of folks now know that they’re supposed to put the slaw that comes on the side on the pork sandwich, not eat it as an extra and we get far fewer people asking “where’s the barbeque sauce?” I’ll say thanks to Mr. Mitchell and to Frank Pratt, Roadhouse pit master and Mississippi native who’s carrying on Mr. Mitchell’s teachings. Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans-based essayist and author of the great book on the subject, Smokestack Lightning, gave our pulled pork very high marks to when he came up here to visit a couple years back.
Perhaps the most interesting point in this context today was Mr. Mitchell’s aside to me: “Barbeque now crosses all social and ethnic lines. Prepared for any special occasion. It’s a mediator. When conflicting sides put down what they’re doing and eat together.” Come on down and ask for a taste!

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.