The heartbeat of Harlem

HARLEM SHOUTS OUT ITS HISTORY…. its buildings and street signs proudly carry the names of heroes and icons like MARSHALL THURGOOD ACADEMY, Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and The Schomburg Center to name just a few.

‘In the 1920’s and 30’s the upper Manhattan district of Harlem had become the flourishing capital of African American culture as writers, musicians, artists, photographers, philosophers, and intellectuals created works that probed the black American heritage with a psychological intensity and fierce pride.’

A trifecta of luck was on my side when I visited Harlem –The Schomburg Center had two ‘I-must-see’ exhibitions (upstairs, artist Romare Bearden’s work, and downstairs, a large Malcolm X exhibition of video, personal diaries, and a handwritten letter to Betty Shabazz – gold!), and it was Harlem Street Fair!

Food for thought and food for sampling…. everyone was out and about. My first stop was at a Caribbean BBQ to try Jerk Chicken and Fried Plantains. I’ve always found that street food is the best food and here I ate the best Jerk Chicken I’ve eaten anywhere – including the West Indies. I ate my way up and down several blocks in the name of research.

Harlem is serious about food. Stalls were selling seriously sized servings. It was a really hot day in the high 80F’s when I spied a stall selling huge plastic cups of Watermelon Juice. Icy cold and delicious!

Then I noticed ‘dessert’…

Red Velvet cake

An acre of Red Velvet Cake 🙂

Who can say ‘No’ to a vast tray of Red Velvet Cake? And why would you? Red is my favourite colour so why not a RED cake? Also known as Devil’s Food Cake, this cake’s history is a bit like the mythology surrounding Australia’s Pavlova – everyone from New York to New Zealand claims to have invented it. You can believe it was a signature dessert at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York during the 1920′s, or an Eaton’s department store recipe invented by store matriarch, Lady Eaton and served in their stores during the 1950s. Supposedly store employees were sworn not to reveal the recipe. Or maybe the original red colour came about through a chemical reaction between the original ingredients.

The red in contemporary versions of Red Velvet Cake comes from baking with beetroot, raspberry or red food colouring. I’ve experimented cooking with each of these and raspberry wins – with just a dash of food colouring gel added to lift the colour.

During the 1920’s Harlem was the hub of African American artistic experience. It became a meeting place for artists, poets, writers, and activists including: writers Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, Jessie Redmon  Fauset, Arna Bontemps, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston; the photographer James Van Der Zee; and the musicians Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake.

At that time Cotton Club and The Apollo Theater were the mecca for the ‘new music’ of Jazz, blues, and ragtime. These days the ‘new music’ at The Apollo includes Open Mic, and The Cotton Club still plays jazz but mostly to tourists.

Much of the area has become gentrified and there is a fight to keep some of the old areas architecturally – and culturally – intact and safe from redevelopment.

Harlem continues to inspire pride in its African American heritage and draw new artists and writers to embrace its streets and its history. I certainly felt its embrace.


Ssssh…. I’m in love with Charlotte

Outside The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte

Outside The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte

WHAT BETTER INTRODUCTION TO THE SOUTH, than to arrive at Charlotte Airport in North Carolina, and be greeted in the Arrivals lounge by rows of white wooden rocking chairs!

These weren’t rocking chairs for the elderly!  All ages including teenagers were curled up in them and busily interacting with their iPads and earbuds.

Everybody loves a Southern accent – warm and smooth as caramel – like a warm embrace on a summer’s day. I arrived very early in the morning of what stretched into a gorgeous hot summer’s day. While back home Sydney froze in winter woollies, I was applying sun screen. No complaints there!

I only had 4 days to fit a lot in and in the heat and such a short space of time I was doing well to fit 3-4 interviews in each day all over town.

I ate my first Peach Cobbler at Simmons and I heard staff and customers do ‘the Nines’ banter for the first time. All the while, cicadas buzzed loudly American-ese in the trees outside.

At Mert’s restaurant I ate Fried Green Tomatoes for the first time and chose a slice of Red Velvet Cake from among the row of tall delicious cakes on display. Who’d have thought to put the words popcorn and shrimp together, let alone create the concept that is ‘Popcorn Shrimp’? I also ate more catfish while in Charlotte … but had given up on any thoughts of espresso coffee. 😉

Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina and an important financial centre – and the second largest by assets after New York City. The skyline is full of pretty shiny pink-grey glass buildings built in the financially fluid 1980s.

A lot of people also travel here for the famous NASCAR races held at the ‘Nascar’ stadium nearby. As it happened, I travelled around town in a black SUV, as I soon realized that private car hire was more reliable and affordable than a taxi, when travelling any distance out of town.

Nicknamed the Queen City, Charlotte and its resident county are named in honour of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who had become queen consort of British King George III the year before the city’s founding.

Charlotte is also the home of one of my favourite artists, the late ROMARE BEARDEN. I saw more of his collage work as part of the fabulous John and Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art held at The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American arts and culture.

The Gantt is named after architect Harvey Gantt who became the city’s first black mayor in 1983 – a remarkable institution both architecturally and historically.

Across the road is another architectural milestone on the skyline – The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The Bechtler is a giant orange shape than seems to lean on one slim orange pirate’s leg, and standing outside it is the large mirrored Firebird sculpture you can see in the picture. For an Australian, it was hard to look at that sculpture and not imagine a cockatoo. Don’t you agree?

Don’t call it Chi-town!

some of the delights of Chicago

CHICAGO IS A FEAST for the senses – all 7 of them! Taste, touch, visually, sound, smell, kinaesthetically, and the essential one  hi-speed internet connectivity!

Aesthetically, Chicago isn’t a ‘tall’ city, it’s dense. Large square and rectangular buildings with glass facades slam against the city sidewalks in an architectural ‘high-five’. The city streets feel busy and buzzy.

People seem to walk faster and talk faster on the East Coast, maybe it’s the coffee. Size matters most in America when it comes to coffee. The small Italian espresso china cups of Sydney cafes might be taken as an insult here, where a cup of coffee is described by volume – ‘is that 10 ounces or 12oz to go?’

Despite Chicago’s reputation as a cold and windy city, I was lucky to feel the warm embrace of three of my Chicago facebook friends, who were as welcoming as the summer sun above our heads. And it was nice to fulfil a promise made ages ago to meet my friend Tim at The Bean – that wonderful giant stainless steel jelly bean for adults – in Millennium Park. Designed by Anish Kapoor, its proper name is Cloud Gate, and its seductive curves distort and consume skylines and people like a giant tardis. Everyone loves it.

While taste-testing for my soul food book  I found plenty on my plate and for my palate…  I ate health food, soul food, healthy soul food and became addicted to Blue Corn Chips – organic of course – with generous amounts of artichoke dip. My friends were horrified to learn these items are as rare as hen’s teeth back in Australia. This led to conversations about dry ice and air freight to Australia. Yes, they tasted THAT GOOD. But I drew the line on trying Oreo yoghurt.

There are as many soul food restaurants, diners and BBQ spots in Chicago as there are popcorn kernels in a bag of Garrett’s sweet and salty popcorn. See them all in four days? Not a chance. So my Chicago host Ms Marathon (so named as she is a frequent marathon runner unlike myself) and I headed to the South Side…

Here we found two of my favourite Chicago eateries – Pearl’s Place and Chicago Chicken and Waffles.

Pearl’s Place

Located near Bronzeville, the atmosphere at Pearl’s Place is ‘down home’ and friendly and the food tastes homemade. I liked their grits, and I liked them even better served with prawns lying on top of them. I had to tackle the prawns and the massive plate of neck bones single-handedly as Ms M is vegetarian. Such is friendship 🙂

Dessert? Who can say ‘No’ when Red Velvet Cake is on the menu – yes please! Red is my favourite colour so why not a RED cake? Also known as Devil’s Food Cake, this cake’s history is a bit like the myth surrounding Australia’s Pavlova – everyone claims to have invented it. You can believe it was a signature dessert at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York during the 1920’s, or an Eaton’s department store recipe invented by store matriarch, Lady Eaton and served in their stores during the 1950s. Supposedly store employees were sworn not to reveal the recipe. Or maybe the original red colour came about through a chemical reaction between the original ingredients.

The red in contemporary versions of the cake comes from baking with either beetroot or red food colouring. I cooked the food colouring version of the cake before I left home so I could compare my cake with the ones on sale in the USA – they tasted the same. I’m going to bake another cake using  garden-fresh beetroot. What fun!

Chicago Chicken and Waffles

The next day Ms M and I took the Green Line out to Oak Park visit Chicago Chicken and Waffle and share brunch. Here we met up with my friend’s family who generously agreed to be interviewed for my book and offered me a bag of Soul Food cookbooks and a kilo of grits and Zatarains – which sadly I couldn’t take on the plane.

At CC&W the atmosphere was friendly and I was relieved to have my microphone working again after the on-off switch popped out. I’ve since found out that this is a common experience with this model of mic and have upgraded to a Roland.

As the Chicken and Waffles arrived I noticed that waffles served on the East Coast are thinner than those I ate on the West Coast. Maybe it’s simply ‘old skool’ soul food vs. ‘Nuevo gourmet’ soul food? Or maybe it’s a great excuse for me to research waffles!

No matter, these slim-line waffles and juicy fried chicken still managed to add to my waistline! Both were worth the ‘sacrifice’.

I was grateful that CC&W serve a batter-free fried catfish with vegetables as well as regular fried catfish. I also munched through a plate of truly delicious red beans and rice. And speaking of beans … who can say ‘No’ to Bean Pie?

“You can eat a lot for such a small person” probably describes just how many meals I sampled during my Chicago stay.

The Bean, Red beans, Bean pie – there’s a lot more to say about Chicago but I think you get the picture.

Oh Brother, I’m in Oregon!

“Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” ― Jimi Hendrix

JIMI HENDRIX is alive and living in Portland, Oregon – at the Saturday market.

OK, I lie. But entertainer Ritchie Rodgers really looks like Jimi’s double. My girlfriend and I met Jimi, er, I mean Richie, at Portland’s Saturday produce and craft market.

Soul Food in Oregon? Ritchie kindly suggested a handful of Soul Food restaurants including: Yam Yam’s or MA’n’PA Strong’s Kitchen (north Vancouver Ave). Yam Yams has closed down and I didn’t get to MA’n’PA’s which is disappointing, having read online reviews describing it as having a great ambience…  ‘…it seems everyone who enters is both a regular and a part of a family. The only sign is a street placard and the barbeque grills outside to let you know where it is at. The ambiance is also very homey. The space is very clean, and covered in old family pictures and knick knacks.’

I interview some other Oregon Soul Food restaurants in my book, but the burning question of the moment was….

‘Are there any Soul Food to be found nearby?’

As we wandered the markets, my camera had a photogasm taking pictures of food, art, and body art! There were so many artistically inked body parts, so many mouth watering cheeses, and so many things I’d never seen before, including black radishes, white carrots, mini artichokes, and a man neatly attired in a short pink dress, man bag, and black business shoes. Perhaps his was the proper attire for a Saturday stroll through the markets – certainly more creative than my jeans and T Shirt (not that 1980’s Australian band the Triffids could ever be described as un-fashionable!).

Oh! My heart raced … amid the labyrinth of stalls sprouting organic goodness I spied a van selling Soul Food!

And here I am making one big mess of sticky finger-licking BBQ Ribs in between slurps of sweet tea from My Brother’s!

For me it was more like Oh Brother! because as well as ribs and other soul food staples I saw my elusive Bean Pie!

How far had I travelled to eat Bean Pie? How hard is it to actually find Bean Pie? Well as I crossed the continent from West to East I saw another Bean Pie on the menu in Chicago, and then in Harlem. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough?

Please tell me if you know the best place to buy Bean Pie – as a community service! Back in the day, African American communities cooked Bean Pies to sell them to raise money for their community … but more about Bean Pie when I get to Chicago.

Portland also has some wonderful mural art depicting and celebrating African American heritage.  There are quite a few in the NE Alberta Avenue Arts area – populated by numerous arty cafes and bars. I made a mental note to find out more about these murals. A nice surprise was a wall mural of Malcolm X painted in oranges and greens by African American artist Lew Harris. I was told by a woman involved with Murals of Portland that the Malcolm X mural was ‘painted over two decades ago when the Black Educational Center was located in that building’. Sadly only one section remains of what was once a triptych. At the time of posting I don’t have the artist’s permission to post the picture here, but I hope to reproduce it in my book.

So many beautiful murals and so little time!

My friend indulged my need to try to find each and every one, as we drove – umm, I should say she drove – the streets of Portland looking for more.
A special treat was finding a larger than life-size mural version of African American artist Elizabeth Catlett’s painting Sharecropper, tucked around a nearby street corner.

Oregon was really a side trip on my Soul Food journey. It was an opportunity to meet up with a facebook friend I’ve ‘talked food with’ over the past two years. It was such a treat to meet her face-to-face and explore her world – and talk food. I spent a wonderful 4 days in Oregon being spoilt by a generous host, eating food cooked with soul, and learning the correct way for an Australian to pronounce Oregon is ‘Orr-e-gun’.

I didn’t visit any soul food restaurants, but I can tell you that Oregon has soul.

SAN FRANCISCO – an Australian on a Soul Food Journey

“The history of Soul Food reminds us, and the sharing of Soul Food binds us…” Awia Markey

First stop on my Soul Food journey is San Francisco, one of my favourite cities. But there’s no time to visit familiar icons like the MOMA, Fisherman’s Wharf, or shop for Ghirardelli chocolate – on this trip I’m here to eat Soul Food!

After 13 hrs in the air, I step off my United Airlines flight full of purpose. My purple carry-on bag never leaves my sight.  It’s my toolbox of essentials: camera gear, laptop, French Press coffee plunger and bag of Grinders pre-ground coffee. My check-in bag is packed with gifts and DIY essentials…  and less important stuff like clothes and shoes.

Following me everywhere like an enormous shadow is my black ‘Puff Daddy’ coat.  I was warned about cold temps on the West Coast and I really don’t like the cold!

San Francisco greets me with warm sunshine and I peel off my coat, as a friend pulls into the curb at the airport in his black SUV. Although the windows aren’t black, it does look like we’re on a mission. My friend grew up eating home-cooked soul food, so when he eagerly – and generously – offers to drive me to Soul Food diners around Oakland and the Bay area, I smile – ‘Absolutely!’

Next morning we’re driving through Oakland and parts of the ‘hood’. Our first stop is Bootstrapper. I’m told they are ‘one of the few Black-owned soul food diners left’ in the Oakland area. The sign in the window says SOUL FOOD $10, but they are closed today, so we go on our way.

I eat my first-ever meal of Soul Food at our next stop, Brown Sugar Kitchen. Tanya Holland owns this popular and more upscale Soul Food restaurant. I order Fried Chicken and Waffles and eat my first plate of Collard Greens. Collards taste like a delicious peppery spinach. Collards don’t grow in Australia, but I’m an instant convert, so I decide to buy seeds and plant them in my garden when I get back home.

The Waffles arrive and they are wickedly good and wickedly large, but no complaints from me! BSK serves their waffles with a jug of mysteriously delicious sweet syrup. My tastebuds smile, seduced by new flavours. I’ve poured almost all the syrup over my waffles, so I guess I should ask what it is. ‘Apple Cider Syrup’. These three words can hijack anyone’s diet or willpower. I forgot to ask Tanya for her recipe so instead I’ll share a recipe that I found online.

Another new flavour for me is Root Beer! Even in Australia I’ve heard of it but never tasted it. I’m not a fan of sugary carbonated drinks – but it was time to step up and drink the fizzy stuff.

I found it refreshing, with a more subtle flavour than Coke or Pepsi, and I really liked the aftertaste.  But even in the name of research, enough sugar is ‘enough already’ so I left the bottle half empty – or half full.

For the next 4 days I ate a lot of soul food in San Francisco. I visited a range of restaurants including a hip bar serving upscale ‘modern’ soul food to hip clientele, ‘old school’ family-run diners, and several iconic soul food establishments. And as people opened their hearts to me, I learned a lot about Soul Food and what it means to the people who cook it and serve it.

In the same way 50 artists might draw the same model in 50 different ways, Soul Food flavours change as each cook enriches a recipe by adding their own touch, their own personality.

Being newly addicted to Waffles I couldn’t help but notice how they changed in style and size as I travelled from the West Coast to the East Coast. It was the same with another Soul Food staple – Chitlins. I ate my first serving of Chitlins on the West Coast, and ate my last mouthful on the East Coast. How did they taste?  Find out when I blog from the East Coast, from an iconic Harlem restaurant. My next blog post will be from Oregon.

Meanwhile, here’s a good excuse to cook up some Waffles.

Apple Cider Syrup

1/2 cup brown or white sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, nutmeg
1 cup apple cider
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter

Mix the sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon together in a saucepan. Stir in the apple cider and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat until mixture begins to boil, and boil until the syrup thickens. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter until melted. Serve warm. Pour over waffles.

My Soul Food journey book project

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

~ Chimamanda Adichie

In a few days I’ll happily swap seasons and leave the rain-soaked streets of winter in Sydney, for North America’s summer heatwave. I’m on a journey to the home of Soul Food – to eat, meet, and tweet about Soul Food.

I have a head full of hopes and distractions, and a camera and microphone I’ve just started to learn how to use. Also packed is my first aid kit – a coffee plunger and emergency coffee!

From Oakland (California), to Raleigh (North Carolina), I want to interview people who cook and eat soul food – home cooks, food writers, friends, neighbours, and all their extended families!

As I travel around the USA I will be asking people to open their heart. By sharing their stories with me, either face-to-face or online, each person opens a door to their world of memory, community and personal history.

I hope to share meals as well as stories. Chitterlings, Bean Pie, Velvet Cake, Smothered Chicken – pig’s ear perhaps – aren’t available on menus in Australia. My journey will be measured in mouthfuls. I look forward to eating soul food at Sylvia’s, Pearl’s Place, and Aunty Ruth’s, but I’m saddened to hear how many soul food restaurants have closed, including the iconic Edna’s,  and the home of the Bean Pie, Salaam.

So many names and places on my journey echo history: Malcolm X Boulevard, Frederick Douglas Avenue, John Baptiste Point DuSable, Ferdinand L. Barnett, Charlotte Hawkins, Emory Douglas, The Apollo, Duke University, Greensboro, New Bern, The Schomburg, Bronzeville, and the Lenox Lounge, to name just a few.

It is essential for my book to include the history of Soul Food from its roots in Africa and fateful journey to the Americas – and ultimately into the heart and soul of American culture.

Like jazz and the blues, I believe Soul Food was born from the heart and soul of ingenuity and creativity – as well as survival.

Soul food is a potent symbol of African America’s history of survival and ascendancy, and an integral part of America’s past and present. I believe the history of soul food reminds us, and the sharing of soul food binds us.

My Soul Food journey begins in August.
Follow me @SoulFoodStories or visit

Dining on possums and pigs’ ears

‘In what we choose to eat, we express who we are and where we came from,’ says Anne Trapido in Hunger for Freedom, her book about the story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela, loaned to me by a South African friend.

I totally agree with her. Food is more than fuel – universally, it’s part of our history, our memory, our identity and our survival.

The term ‘soul’ in SOUL FOOD was used by African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement – as a reference to their roots in Africa. The creation of Soul Food as a staple, and then a cuisine is a direct result of slavery – the soul-less kidnapping of Africans who were transported to the Americas to work as forced labour to build the American economy.

SOUL FOOD is a combination of ingredients and cooking styles that originated in Africa, recreated using what was available in America.  Cooking styles originating from Africa became African ‘slave food’ which became ‘soul food’. From the African continent came foods new to America, including okra, watermelon, eggplants, peanuts, bananas, rice, and garlic.

In America, sweet potatoes replaced African yams, and ‘new’ plants like collards, kale, cress, and pokeweed were added to African cooking pots to create new flavours.

Without the ingredients from their homeland to cook and eat, African slaves had to improvise using what they were given, and what could be hunted in the wild, including raccoon, possum, turtle, rabbit and squirrel.

Soul food recipes and cooking techniques were passed on orally. Few of these recipes were written down, because until after Emancipation it was illegal in many American states for enslaved Africans to learn to read or write.

After working long hours, the evening meal was a time for families to share stories, get together, and  to eat together. In this context, Soul Food was also known as Good Times Food.

Slave owners fed their captive workers as cheaply as possible, so the recipes of Soul Food grew from surviving on cheaper cuts of meat – particularly pork. The expression ‘high on the hog’ describes the choice cuts of meat from the top of the hog that were taken for the slave owner and his family. Slaves had to make do with what was left – the intestines, organs, feet, head and ears.

With ingenuity and creativity, nothing was ever wasted in the soul food kitchen: Hog maws (pig’s stomach lining), chitlins’ (hog intestines), livermush (made from pigs liver), pork brains, pork fat, pigs’ feet, tails and even pigs’ ears.

Soul Food – and its African origins –  became a vital and uniquely African American cuisine that profoundly influenced American cooking and continues to be a huge part of contemporary African American and American culture. Chitterlings – or chittlins’ – are still on the menu at many Soul Food kitchens, cafes and restaurants. And if the mood takes you, a Pig’s Ear Sandwich will cost you just one dollar, including salad.

These are cooked on a pan not in a fireplace, unless you feel like a challenge! Moisten salted corn meal with scalding water or milk. Allow it to stand for an hour. Put 2 or 3 teaspoons of this of this on a hot greased griddle. Smooth it out to make cakes around 2cm thick and let it cook. When one side is cooked, turn over and brown the other. Serve hot for breakfast with sausages, or stewed fruit.

6-8 pigs’ feet
/ 2 onions, sliced / 4 sticks of celery cut in thirds / Salt and pepper
Place a piece of aluminium foil in the bottom of a large pot to stop the feet sticking. Wash pigs’ feet thoroughly and place in pot. Cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer, covered about an hour. Add onion and celery, salt and pepper. Keep the water at least 1” (3cm) above the ingredients. Keep cooking, covered, until the meat is tender and almost falling off the bone – 2 to 2.5hrs.

Photo credits: Pigs Ear Sandwich by Michael Stern