Novelist Alice Randall and her daughter Caroline Randall Williams, an author with a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the University of Mississippi, sought to redefine soul food when working on their cookbook Soul Food Love, which highlights healthy recipes inspired by four generations of their family. The pair speak at the Essence Festival at 12:20 p.m. July 3 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The event is free. The writers spoke with Gambit about healthy eating and soul food.
How did you start writing a cookbook together?
Alice Randall: My interest in food and cookbooks ... is connected to my interest in food and women's lives. I also came from a family where many of the women were well over 200 pounds, and I became interested in the other side of cooking: How I could use cooking and healthy eating habits to revolutionize the way we relate to food.
Caroline Randall Williams: Finding myself in rural Mississippi and being faced with a food desert, I had to teach myself how to cook with what was available to me. Food was an important part of my emotional life, but also a part of my physical life.
(Working together) has been really amazing. I know [my mother] so much better now. ... It's been great hearing her stories and hearing about the things she cooked before I was around.
People often associate soul food and Southern food with unhealthy dishes, but your book attempts to change that. How?
AR: The cookbook is a dialogue between mother and daughter with recipes handed down and translated from four generations, from 1913 to 2013. We talk about some hard things in the book ... including what makes it hard for black people to re-enter the kitchen. The history of domestic work makes it hard to think positively about cooking. But there are so many black healthy food movements in the country that date back from the 19th century and were well-established by the 20th century and this is often overlooked when we talk about the new farm-to-table moment.
Cooking right now in 2015 is an active personal emancipation, a freedom act. Because right now, in America, one out of every four middle-aged black women has diabetes ... We have to work together to save our community from that.
In the book, we cook a lot of fish. People don't always associate black people with cooking fish ... but this goes back to the plantation past. You couldn't really get chicken (or other farm animals) without getting caught, but with fish, no one can keep track of what's in the rivers or sea, which made it more accessible. Slaves would often roast fish in a hearth near their cabin.
CRW: I think stripping away food snobbery in favor of understanding what is accessible to you is really important. If you can only get frozen or canned fruits and vegetables, buy them. Frozen vegetables are better than no vegetables. I love farmers markets ... but also understand that sometimes all you can get is frozen peas, frozen greens, canned tomatoes and canned corn, and that shouldn't mean you aren't able to make healthy, delicious food.
What tips do you have for eating healthier?
CRW: One is to set yourself up for success in your kitchen ... Be a smart grocery shopper. Keep healthy basics like onions, sweet potatoes, cloves of garlic and olive oil and make sure your refrigerator has some kind of frozen chicken breast in it. Invest in good spices and remember that flavor can really be in the seasoning; chicken can taste seven different ways with seven different spice combinations. Very limited ingredients can go so many different ways.
I'm also really big on Tupperware. I'm a busy woman and so when I'm planning to eat at home all week, being smart about cooking on Sunday and then saving my food and having food ready all week long is a huge help to me.