I am from Detroit and I don’t remember noting the ethnic background of anyone while growing up. In Detroit we seemed to organize ourselves by way of race not ethnicity, you were either black or white. The food had more distinction of ethnicity than the people responsible for making it. For the time we lived in Detroit, it seemed like it was the center of the world. My folks, really my mother, would travel all over the city to get her taste of food she craved. Years after the riots in 68, when our family followed white flight, just like everyone else, my mom would say “hop in the car Cyn, lets go to Etta’s Shrimp Shack” or someplace else. She and I would drive into Detroit via the expressway, get off at the desired exit and travel a few miles. We would come up to Etta’s a take-out shop. The place would be packed with cars. I would wait behind the wheel and in my mom would go, a short time later she would appear with a bag of good smelling food. Sometimes it would be barbeque, but it would always be shrimp, my personal favorite. The order would be accompanied with tasty side dishes like greens flavored with pork and flavorful black-eyed peas. For dessert, my mother would order the rhubarb pie too. Too tart for me but she and my dad loved it.
For many years, that type of food, what I came to know as soul food vanished from my life. I went to college and there seemed to be very few African Americans on the western side of Michigan. Eventually I moved back to Detroit and then to New York City. Once in New York, Harlem was close by and when the urge hit, my husband I would be on the train. I was happy with the nameless spot that had the mouth watering menu in the window and I was never disappointed. Now it seems you can find soul food or a variation of soul and southern cooking in any of the boroughs. Likewise barbeque is everywhere. In the last twenty years there has been a hybridization of food styles, though the roots clearly are southern or what I would call soul food, like what I had in Detroit.
Fortunately in New York City we reap the benefits of this food revolution. Greens smothered in flavorful bacon fat (lardon or pancetta) are an offering on any number of menus in French restaurants to eclectic dining spots all over the city. Where race seemed to clearly divide us not that long ago, it’s food with its many offerings that seems to be bringing us back together.
Frederick Douglas Opie will be discussing his book Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America at the Mid-Manhattan Library this evening at 6:30 PM.