Food historian and scholar Dr. Jessica B. Harris wrote of soul food, “It’s a combination of nostalgia for, and pride in, the food of the ‘who’s’ who came before.” In the 1960s, as African Americans took on the work of retelling their history with pride rather than shame, soul food was as much an affirmation as a diet. The Oprah Winfrey Network and Discovery Plus have partnered to create an original series that highlights the rich tradition and diversity of soul food. “The Great Soul Food Cook-Off” pits eight African-American chefs in a competition to create dishes inspired by the past and present of Black American food traditions. Two of the show’s judges, Eric Adjepong and Melba Wilson, joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the history of soul food and how these ambitious chefs can take it to the next level.
How do you define soul food?
“For me, soul food is food that evokes warm and wonderful memories,” said Wilson. “It’s food that was really the food that people considered to be the bottom of the pit. It was the pig’s ears, the tails, the bitter of the greens — which, of course, we know as the collard greens — and it’s food that had to sustain us while we worked on the plantation. It’s food that epitomizes history, class, sustainability, but it’s food that also tells a story that resonates with its people.”
“Soul food is innovative food,” said Adjepong. “It’s an innovation out of necessity. We … didn’t have the most quality or the highest, I guess, lauded ingredients or parts of the animal, so through innovation and through necessity, obviously, we needed to sustain ourselves. We made these amazing dishes, and that’s carried on through tradition. So it’s orally passed down. It’s one that has a rich history and one that we hope, as ambassadors of this cuisine, we’re doing as much justice as possible.”
How “The Great Soul Food Cook-Off” works:
“It’s two rounds, so on each episode, there’s a ‘Soul Starter,’ and then there’s an elimination round,” said Adjepong. “So ‘Soul Starter’ is really just, I like to call it, a ‘fast twist.’ Just within 30 minutes or so, how much flavor, how much story, how much technicality and really, how much soul can you put into a dish in a short amount of time? And whoever wins that challenge then gets an advantage into the elimination round where one chef is, obviously, taken out of the competition with each episode.”
“We were able to not only judge from our seating tables, but we were able to walk around and kind of get a glimpse of where the cooks are at and what their process is when it comes to cooking greens when it comes to cooking mac and cheese, or whatever, honestly, that the challenge needed them to do,” Adjepong added.
“We had no clue as to who the contestants were, and … I think that was the right way to do it,” said Wilson. “This way, we came in with no preconceived notions, nothing. We didn’t know anything. It was important for us to judge each dish and each chef on their own, and what they presented before us at that time, and I think that we really did do an amazing job at doing just that.”
A one-of-a-kind platform to celebrate soul food:
“We had the format pretty much followed every episode, but there were times where we kind of broke character,” said Adjepong. “In the previous episode, chef Alexander Smalls was there, and he was saying something so profound where Kardea [Brown] was just like, ‘Okay guys. I know we’re in competition mode, but let’s just break it. Let’s listen to the tutelage and the knowledge that chef Smalls is offering for us now…’ Everyone was just enamored with the stories and with the importance of what this show was.”
“This show is like no other. There has never been a cast of all-Black chefs on television before,” said Wilson. “There’s never been a table set like this one before. So with the show comes amazing food, great stories, a lot of pressure, a lot of pain … It takes us down memory lane. There’s no way to cook soul food without going back to the roots of Africa. There’s no way to cook soul food without going back to the South. So it tells a story.”