I stood in Jean’s kitchen at attention—I was invited over for soul food. Not just the eating, but also the cooking.

“There’s an apron over there,” said Jean as she looked me up and down and added matter-of-factly, “you’s about to get all messed up.”

Jean at work in the Mustard Seed office

Jean tells it like it is. She’s worked for Mustard Seed for the past year, helping people as they show up at the office and coordinating events in the community. But before Jean came to Mustard Seed, she was in the military. I don’t doubt that Jean could take me (or three of me) in a fight. Luckily, I won’t ever need to test that theory because Jean is as compassionate as she is fierce, making her a great ally to the residents of the 73114 zip code here in Oklahoma City.

“Jean! How do you cut onions like that without crying?” I asked, wiping my own misty eyes from being four feet away from her as she worked.

“I’ve done this since I was little. You need to be cuttin’ more onions, and this won’t be a problem!” she instructed me with raised eyebrows. Jean’s got a way of keeping you humble.

Make sure you check your bag for holes before shaking up your chicken in four! Better yet…just use two bags.

Origins

So what gives food soul? The simple answer is it was born of the African American culture, but to Jean it’s a labor of love. Her mom taught Jean how to cook before she can remember, and she grew up helping prepare meals for her siblings while her mom worked. Soul food is a subcategory of “southern food” that includes cooking traditions from the time of slavery in the United States. Some elements—like okra—are actually from Africa and used in cooking there

But other things were formed from the conditions of slavery. As slaves, people received the less desirable cuts of meat and vegetables to cook with. They made do with pig’s feet and ham hocks and different greens. African Americans turned these undesirable byproducts into downright delicious meals that are now a part of southern cooking and U.S. culture in general. During the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, the food took on the term “soul” to identify it as part of African American culture.

It may not be the best diet food…but it’ll certainly fill you up and stay awhile.

Interested in trying it out? Well, here’s what I learned from Jean.

Zucchini Squash

Heat up a pan on the stove and add a big scoop of bacon fat (I warned you—this isn’t diet food) before anything else. Once it’s heated, start adding your veggies and seasoning:

-Zucchini squash (or summer squash, if you want) sliced
-LOTS of sliced onions
-Salt
-Pepper
-Garlic
-A little chili powder—if you’re up for it!

You can use a fryer like this one, or just a pan with oil on the stove to fry chicken.

Stir your mix together on the stove until the squash is soft and you’re happy with the amount of seasoning.

Sautéed Greens

Ever wonder what to do with the greens in the produce section of the grocery store? They’re not very expensive, and they’re good for you. You can either boil them or sauté them on the stove in a pan with a little oil:

-Start with chopped greens—mustard greens, collard greens, Kale…so many options!
-Add chopped cabbage
-Slice onions, and throw those in to the mix
-Flavor the mix with spices: seasoned salt, pepper and chili
-Mix in chopped garlic
-Lastly (of course), add some bacon pieces

Make sure to stir everything a lot as it cooks so you don’t burn anything. Keep it up until the greens are soft (they should look like cooked spinach).

Fried Chicken Wings

This one might get a little messy if you don’t have a fryer, but it’s doable. Start by dusting a whole mess of chicken wings with seasoned salt, pepper, chili (if you want) and any other chicken seasonings you like.

Put all of the wings in a plastic bag with some flour and shake it up! Keep shaking until all of the wings are coated with flour. Now they’re ready for frying.

Heat up oil in a fryer or in a pan on the stove and put some of the wings in it. If you’re using a pan, flip the wings over periodically to get both sides cooked. I’m not sure how you know when they’re done…if you’re Jean who’s helped cook dinner for her family since she could walk, you just know.

Enjoy!

For those of us who aren’t as savvy, I would just cut one open to figure it out.

Enjoy!

All of this should be served alongside corn bread and baked sweet potatoes, ensuring that you won’t be hungry again for at least 48 hours after eating. There’s also dessert, but Jean and I opted not to subject our digestive tracts to any more turmoil.

Once the food’s all prepared, there’s only one thing left to do: find people to share it with.

As Jean and I finished cooking, some of her husband’s family stopped by the house. We grabbed extra plates, made room at the table and—in the true spirit of soul food—broke bread together. I quickly learned that the food itself is great, but the people the food brings to the table really feed your soul.

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About the Author: Laura is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She graduated from the University of Arizona, Tucson with a degree in Animal Sciences and a minor in Spanish. She is constantly learning, making friends, dancing, and trying to understand her role in alleviating the suffering of others. Laura also attracts a lot of awkward situations.

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Comments

  1. Mary White said... 

    Reply

    March 7th, 2012 at 9:05 am  

    Laura – you captured our Jean so very eloquently! I’m glad she fed you while you were at Mustard Seed! Thanks for telling the Mustard Seed stories!

    • Laura Stump said... 

      Reply

      March 7th, 2012 at 9:47 am  

      Thanks Mary! It’s a privilege to get to write about all of you :)

  2. dan short said... 

    Reply

    March 7th, 2012 at 9:51 am  

    Yum! Your story made me hungry! I’m headed to AjaBleu today for lunch. Best soul food you can buy in 73114. Of course there are hundreds of “soul food” places in the zip code but I’ll have to wait to be invited to sample them.
    Another point, a good soul food meal costs about double today vs five years ago!
    One in five kids and their families in 73114 are hungry everyday.
    Each week we have someone, usually a teenager or preteen ring our doorbell and “ask” Do you have any sandwiches? or Can I come back for dinner? Especially when the grill is cooking.

  3. Carol McCain said... 

    Reply

    March 17th, 2012 at 12:24 am  

    Laura, Laura, Laura! I am again trying to type through tears…and they’re not from cutting up onions…! As usual, your story is so touching! I love the statement you made about what you did as more family arrived: “We grabbed extra plates, made room at the table and—in the true spirit of soul food—broke bread together. I quickly learned that the food itself is great, but the people the food brings to the table really feed your soul.” That is ABSOLUTELY beautiful…I think that’s what Jesus would have said if He had been invited to Jean’s house for soul food! (And so He was…invited by the blessing before the meal!) Thank you, thank you, thank you, God and Laura for this wonderful time and story! love to you, Carol

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