Dishes that make you happy


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2016)

The days are becoming ever shorter, the evenings already feel cool and the sun has to try hard dispersing the morning mist. Autumn is around the corner and we look forward to cosy hours at home and cooking with friends and family. This is the best time for soul food — it tastes good and does well.

“Food holds the body and soul together”, is an old proverb and one that perfectly describes what soul food is about: food that makes you happy and conjures a smile to our faces. These dishes taste wonderful and make our bellies feel satisfied and content, regardless of whether our preference is delicious pasta with a slow-cooked Bolognese sauce or hearty soups, nutritious stews or delicate casseroles. 

“Well-being can mean so many different things, particularly when we are talking about food. Feel-good cuisine – soul food, nerve nourishment, comfort eating – whatever we call it, it is always something truly personal. It’s all about smells, sounds and flavours. It’s about dishes that precisely hit the spot at certain times and have the ability to trigger emotions and moods and to awaken memories or even create new ones (…),” states star chef Jamie Oliver, who has published a special cook book on the subject of soul food.

And this trend has long since become a movement. Typical soul food dishes are omnipresent at street food markets or at trendy food festivals: ox cheeks cooked for hours, a spicy paella, spare ribs or the currently totally en-vogue smoker hit: pulled pork. Virtually no other dish has recently attained such popularity as this grill classic from the USA. Here, pork shoulder or pork neck is first marinated for 24 hours and then cooked for many hours at just 80–100 degrees Celsius in a smoker grill or in the oven until the meat is delicately tender and can be pulled apart using a fork. It is then mixed with a spicy barbecue sauce and traditionally served with coleslaw. 

So-called soul food also has its origins in the US, where this kind of food has always been about nutritious, simple dishes. Not always low-calorie, it is however perfect for the soul. It goes back to the countless recipes from the American South, particularly those originating from the times of slavery, because soul food is a further development of the eating habits of African-Americans who were forced to work on the plantations of the South in past centuries. In principle, they only had access to the foodstuffs that their owners provided them with – paltry amounts of corn, beans and rice, along with bits of meat that the owners of the plantations considered unsuitable for themselves – such as pig’s feet, ears and offal. The slave traders had also brought some African vegetables with them. So peanuts, okra, sweet potatoes, aubergines and bananas were at that time only grown for the black population, although they are today practically fixed features in kitchens across the globe. 

The most filling components of these dishes are corn, wheat, rice and potatoes, above all. And the spices typically used in American soul food cuisine also have their roots in Africa. These include cayenne pepper, nutmeg, pimento, cinnamon, cloves, sesame, thyme and vinegar, for example. In addition to beans and peas, popular vegetables are various types of cabbage, pumpkin and turnips, while onions are also frequently used. 

In the 1960s, soul food even became part of the ethnic identity of African-Americans in the United States and the first soul food restaurants opened. This is to be associated with the civil rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King, as well as the emergence of black Muslims and the subsequently greater level of self-confidence among this ethnic group. However, dishes and recipes of this kind have also been cooked in a similar way in Europe and throughout the world, of course always using local ingredients. Today, this kind of dishes makes up many classics in our cuisine – and also includes desserts and sweets. Hardly surprising, considering chocolate is our number-one comforter, just like fluffy soufflés and flans, fragrant rice pudding, semolina desserts or wonderfully, delicately-melting polenta with cinnamon.

But soul food is anything but quick cuisine. It requires time and commitment. And it is the complete opposite of fast food. The Italian journalist and sociologist Carlo Petrini has always been an opponent of fast industrial eating and modern fast food. “I want to know the history of a dish. I want to know where the ingredients come from. I love imagining the hands of those who have grown, processed and cooked what I eat,” states Petrini. Back in 1986, he founded – in the small northern Italian town of Bra – an organisation promoting the preservation of food culture. It is committed to good food, culinary pleasure and above all a moderate pace of life. For these reasons, he called the organisation “Slow Food”. Today, the small organisation set up in Bra has become an international movement. After more than three decades, the organisation – which expanded across the globe in 1989 – has in excess of 100,000 members spread out over 1,500 local groups. There are now national organisations in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Switzerland and the USA. 

Out of the original slow food idea, awareness soon emerged that farm-based agriculture, artisanal food production and a healthy environment are absolutely essential for a good, clean and fair dining culture. “Food is about enjoyment, awareness and responsibility,” says Carlo Petrini. With this, the slow food movement is sure that we make decisions with far-reaching consequences with what we eat three times a day – namely with every meal. Our food is inseparably linked to politics, business, society, culture, knowledge, agriculture and the environment. Within this network, millions of people across the globe campaign for good food, from belief and passion.

Picture credits © Westend61/Getty Images; Olenka Kotyk

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