Daily Egyptian

Carbondale’s soul lives on dish by dish

By Chase Myers, @chasemyers_DE

Whether it be the sweet aroma of pork roasting, or the careful seasoning of fresh greens, something about a home cooked meal makes people comfortable.

One particular style of food, soul food, refers to the traditional cuisine of African Americans and people dwelling in the southernmost parts of the country.

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Although the term was not common until the 1960s, soul food has deep-seated roots in African American history.

While enslaved, slaveowners provided African Americans with small rations of food, forcing cooks to expand on what little resources they had, according to Encyclopedia Britannica online.

Vegetables such as turnips, kale and collards are harvested for greens and were often flavored with various seasonings.  Sweet potatoes are also easily grown in dry soil, making their harvest easy in southern states.

One specific green associated with soul food is okra, which is a common ingredient in gumbo, a West Indian dish.  Typically, okra is a fried delicacy in modern-day restaurants.

At the center of the South, the soul food king is pork barbecue, an easily preserved and seasoned meat.  

The art of smoking the meat gives barbecue its signature taste by placing various cuts over smoldering coals in an enclosed space and letting it sit for extended periods of time, sealing in intense flavor.

A local business owner familiar with this cooking technique, James Elliot of Mo Wallace BBQ and More, has been preparing and smoking meat for the last four years.

It is a family affair at the restaurant, with Elliot’s wife preparing side-dishes and his daughter helping with the cash register.

Elliot attributes his exceptional cooking to his parents. As a child, he would observe his mom and dad cook and imitate their exact motions.

“My mom used to tell me, ‘Boy, you are watching me like the police,’” he said.  “I could not help it because I had never seen anyone cook like she did.”

Elliot associates soul food with all of the women in his life–his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, and the love they put into what they cook, he said.

“When I think of soul food… I think of all the old women that loved me, and I just smile,” he said.

An intimate atmosphere cannot be ignored at Mo’s, as one can smell the smoke roll out of the kitchen and hear Elliot singing along with the radio.

Many college students consider Mo Wallace a secret spot where they can find quality food and Elliot thanks them immensely for it, he said.

Soul food, though present in many traditional African American dishes, also has southern roots. In Murphysboro, one will find soul food is not just the flavor of one race.

“We capture soul food, because barbecue is, what we feel, the original soul food,” said Amy Mills, owner of 17th Street Barbeque.  “We are putting love, heart and soul in to our food every day.”

Mills said when people eat barbecue, they usually enjoy it with their families in a loving atmosphere.

“You see very few unhappy people eating barbecue,” she said.

Regardless of the location of the restaurant, the time, the care and effort put into every bite is what highlights the “soul” in soul food and preserves the art from generation to generation.

“I’ve realized that if I didn’t care about you, I’d do it like everyone else,” Elliot said. “If someone cares about what you eat, you’re going to know they care, because everything will taste good.”

 

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