Miller was midway through a years-long project on the history of soul food in America, and I was fascinated to hear his insights into a cuisine that I really was only tangentially knowledgeable about. Sure, I've eaten chitlins and greens and neckbones at Bailey & Cato, but my real understanding was pretty superficial. That's why I was so excited this month when his book was finally released by The University of North Carolina Press.
Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time is a wonderful combination of sociological examination of African-American culture and identity, travelogue and cookbook. It is a very entertaining read as Miller injects his personal experiences as he traveled the country seeking out the best in American soul food. The chapters are divided by specific foods, from fried chicken to candied yams to red Kool-Aid as Miller examines the history of each dish and the impact on soul food through the years.
I met him for an entertaining supper at Swett's while he was in the middle of his research, and it was readily apparent how passionate he is about the topic. I suggested the hot water corn bread at the Sands Diner near the Nashville Farmers' Market as an interesting Nashville dish, but he was already on top of it. (And they made it into the book.) Readers can use Miller's book as a travel guide to hunt out the best soul food in the country or as just an entertaining read on the underappreciated complexity of the cuisine.
It's also a mini cookbook with 22 recipes for such classic dishes as black-eyed peas, fried chicken and "Red Drinks." And ah, yes, about those koolickles.
Koolickles are pickles steeped in Kool-Aid. Miller says that while kids love them, they've been around for at least a generation; older folks remember enjoying them too, along with practicing another trick, sticking a peppermint stick inside a pickle and letting it dissolve, "thus creating the same sweet and sour effect."
Miller is a particular connoisseur of the sweet red beverages that are available at most authentic soul food restaurants. He offers these cheeky tasting notes on the topic:
If you are eating something spicy, I recommend an agua de Jamaica, less than a day old with great body — it's floral and foxy with hints of cranberry.
Barbecue calls for a red drink with a big personality. I suggest the effervescence of a 2013 Big Red soda born from the terroir of Waco, Texas. It has the crisp structure of red berries, with undertones of cotton candy.
For anything else, I recommend a 2012 Tropical Punch Kool-Aid. It pleases the eye with hints of seduction. the attack on the nose is vigorous without being overbearing. The true connoisseur doesn't object to the proper sweetness, especially when there is a great aftertaste. Naturally, it must be consumed from a jelly jar.
It's exactly this combination of earnest curiosity and an unwillingness to take his topic too seriously that makes Soul Food such a great read. After all, any author willing to dip into the koolickle jar at Delta Fast Food in Cleveland, Miss., and sample one of those sweet/sour, green/red, fascinating/horrifying treats in the name of social science is someone worth seeking out.
Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time sold out its first printing in advance of release, but it's now available again at Amazon and at some local bookstores. If the topic at all interests you, I highly recommend this book!