As its name makes clear, Serious Soul fancies itself a soul food restaurant. But as I write in this week's review of the Federal Way restaurant, the dishes served there challenge orthodox notions of soul food.
The phrase "soul food" is often haphazardly applied to the whole of African-American cooking, which does a disservice to generations of African-American cooks working in very different styles. As legendary chef Edna Lewis said, "In the sixties, the young people in the cities were missing something they thought was in the South. They coined the term 'soul food' and nobody challenged it."
The complaint from Lewis, who championed fresh vegetables and ingredient diversity, is a fairly accurate definition of first wave soul food. Whether or not Lewis liked it, the cuisine was rooted in northern blacks' nostalgia for the dishes they remembered (or misremembered) from their grandmothers' Deep South kitchens and the contemporary rage for convenience foods. Soul food is fatty, sweet and sometimes artificial.
The fryer is in heavy rotation at Serious Soul, but the chickens briefly dunked in it are all-natural. Like many latter-day soul food restaurants, Serious Soul is moving in the direction endorsed by Lewis. An increasing number of soul food restaurants, attuned to their customers' health concerns, are cooking collards with turkey and grilling catfish filets.
"In a time of rising middle-class values and improving social conditions, it was perhaps inevitable that a "new" style of soul cooking would emerge--leaner cuts of meat, lighter styles of cooking and seasoning," Margaret Jones Bolsterli, Toni Tipton-Martin and John T. Edge write in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture's soul food entry. "The Soul Food Revival exemplifies culinary freedom."
There's nothing wrong with food evolving, of course. But the current emphasis on healthy eating and natural ingredients threatens to erase a half-century of flavors - and the problem isn't confined to the soul food sphere.
I'm pretty sure the 1980s Midwestern adolescent experience isn't a hot academic topic. But if researchers wanted to fully understand what it meant to be a teenager in Michigan in 1988, they'd have to acquaint themselves with MicroMagic French Fries, the grease-soaked frozen snack that appeared at the end of every school day. The problem is MicroMagic French Fries have vanished so completely (they didn't call them magic for nothing, I guess) that the first Google search result is a 2009 blog post entitled "Micro Magic: The Most Difficult Frozen Food to Find Out About on the Internet."
It's nearly impossible to exactly recreate what our ancestors ate, although food historians keep trying. But when the obstacles include making green food coloring from spinach and jury-rigging a coal stove, as Christopher Kimball did when he set out to replicate a meal from Fanny Farmer's 1896 cookbook, they're at least manageable. Reproducing a processed food item made according to a proprietary method is hopeless, which is why you keep buying Coke, KFC drumsticks and Thomas English muffins instead of making them at home.
Highly-processed foods may contribute to the nation's obesity crisis, but their disappearance poses a real quandary for future culinary historians. If scholars can't taste red Kool-Aid and a MicroMagic French fry, their appreciation of - and ability to interpret - the cultures which embraced them is likely to be seriously compromised.