Soul Food, Hold the Ham Hocks

As the granddaughter of Mary Alice and Willie Lee Foreman, folks who were raised on the fine Southern cuisine known as soul food, I grew up eating whatever fell prey to the clutches of my family’s patriarch, who unapologetically hunted rabbit and snapped the necks of the same chickens I fed and befriended. Even our vegetables were ‘seasoned to perfection’ with some animal’s foot, neck, or thigh. I suffered from the emotional guilt of consuming generations of flesh, and after years of fried chicken, collard greens with smoked pork bones, and pork chops with gravy, I became what I ate: sedentary, slow, and a bit stout.

In college I watched a Barbara Walters television special about the effects of meat on people’s health, and I immediately divorced red meat and pork from my diet. That was the genesis of my lifestyle shift. Six years later, I was in my second year of graduate school when I met ‘Mr. Vegan,’ now my husband of seven years. While we were dating, he introduced me to a vegetarian lifestyle full of tasty foods that left me satisfied, not catatonic.

I began to see changes in my refrigerator: soy cheese, veggie burgers, and lots of fresh veggies, but no lips or ears for seasoning. There were liquid aminos and seitan, a chewy, protein-rich food that resembles meat and is made from wheat. What had this Midwestern man done to me? Having family from Mississippi, surely he had had soul food before. What happened to him? What television special had he seen? He was an excellent cook, so it became my goal to create equally scrumptious meals.

Since then I have offended every member of my family at meals. I never made announcements about my diet or proclaimed the dangers of meat, yet I was considered a public offender. My grandmother wanted to know how I could eat like that. It’s just not natural. She would shake her head as we brought our substitutes to Thanksgiving and other family gatherings. I can still hear her when she was first introduced to our vegetarian lifestyle:

‘What do you mean, you don’t eat meat? Well, get some fish. What? You don’t eat that either? Get yourself some vegetables. There are greens and lima beans and cabbage. What do you mean, ‘What are they cooked in?’ A little smoked ham and a few necks. What do you mean you can’t have any? I ain’t never heard nothing so crazy in my life. You ate it all your life and now you too good to eat my food! Fine then. Sit over there and eat you a bread sandwich. Can you eat that?’

I began to realize that I did miss the taste of seasoned greens and baked macaroni and cheese, so I pledged to get my soul back without losing my new lifestyle. I began looking for cookbooks about vegetarian soul food, and to my dismay I kept coming up empty. Instead, I found Seoul food, Zen cooking, liquid diets full of smoothies and vegetable juices, and pasta, pasta, and more pasta. I felt like an anomaly. So what does a sista do? Create.

My ancestors used their masters’ leftover scraps of pigs and cows to make dishes that sustained them while they were working on plantations in the hot sun. They perfected and passed down recipes that have been recreated all over the world. In the spirit of these ancestors, I have been rendering my own version of fried-chicken-style tofu, cabbage and carrots, nondairy potato salad, fried-fish-style tofu, baked macaroni and cheese, and 80 other recipes. I am currently experimenting with vegan baking.

It’s amazing how a lifestyle change can convert even the most reluctant family. I have two energetic ‘veggie babies,’ ages 5 and nearly 3. My mom now drinks soy milk and no longer uses amputated parts as seasoning. Even my grandmother orders my lima beans and my cabbage and carrots once a week. Who ever would have thought it?

Meshelle’s Vegetarian Baked Macaroni and Cheese

10 ounces unbleached or whole wheat elbow macaroni
12 ounces Soya Kaas mild-cheddar-style cheese
7 ounces shredded Galaxy rice cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons Earth Balance non-hydrogenated buttery spread
4 ounces vanilla soy milk
1/4 cup Egg Beaters
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook macaroni according to package.

While macaroni is boiling, shred Soya Kaas cheese and place in casserole dish. Drain macaroni, place on the shredded cheese, and stir. Add rice cheese, soy milk, Egg Beaters, and natural buttery spread. Stir until ingredients are melted and evenly distributed. Add salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle paprika on top. Bake for 40 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Meshelle Foreman Shields plans to publish a book of her soul food recipes; Excerpted from Urbanite (Jan. 2007), a magazine for Baltimore’s curious. Subscriptions: $18/yr. (12 issues) from 2002 Clipper Park Rd., 4th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21211;

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