Carla Hall cooks up history of soul food at free Smithsonian event

If you’re planning a trip to the National Museum of American History this week, be sure to pack your culinary curiosity — and your appetite.

On Friday, March 15, celebrity chef Carla Hall will take the stage for a cooking demonstration and discussion on soul food as part of the museum’s ongoing monthly series, Cooking Up History.

“Food and cooking is the carrier of our culture,” said Hall, a former “Top Chef” contestant, TV host and author of the new cookbook, “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration.”

“I feel as though we’ve lost a lot of our culture … and we have to like it first — we have to love ourselves first through our culture. And so this is my way of doing things that other people have done in the past. I want to be one of the [people] driving the message home.”

Alongside Smithsonian food historian Ashley Rose Young, Hall will demo her recipes for hot water cornbread — a dish she remembers her grandmother and mother making — plus cassava with coconut and lime, and a Ghanaian peanut beef and tomato stew — her take on a traditional West African groundnut stew.

“I’ve tried to imagine what my ancestors would be eating, who are from West Africa, if they came over today,” said Hall, whose research for the cookbook included an emotional road trip through the South to collect ideas, recipes and stories.

Young, the historian for the museum’s American Food History Project, said the goal of Cooking Up History is to use food as a lens to discover a shared past, “but also sometimes the conflict that’s involved in the creation of the United States and the ingenuity that’s involved in various aspects of the American experience.”

Hall’s book explores a painful part of U.S. history through food. It also highlights “the ways [African Americans] used their culinary aptitude, their ingenuity, their perseverance, to create a cuisine that fed their souls; that fed their souls in very difficult conditions of slavery and post-emancipation United States and the structural inequalities that many African Americans continue to face on a daily basis,” Young said.

There are recipes for “celebration” dishes, such as pineapple-habanero honey fried chicken and sweet potato pie. But Hall’s cookbook also has pages of stories and step-by-step instructions for dishes comprised of greens, beans and grains.

“There’s a very healthful and diverse element to historic soul food cooking that she’s bringing back to the attention of American eaters,” Young said.

Hall hopes her demonstration on Friday will prove that “you don’t have to be black, or African American, to make soul food.” She also hopes it will inspire others to discover their own roots in the kitchen.

“Be curious about your own heritage and your own food and how you can tell those stories,” Hall said. “[Find out] what are those ingredients or those dishes that would naturally connect to you that you don’t know yet, and to look for those.”

Carla Hall’s Cooking Up History demonstration takes place at 1 p.m. in the Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza at the National Museum of American History. Following the program, the food featured will be available for purchase in the museum’s cafe, and Hall will sign copies of her book, “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration.”

The event is free and open to the public. Upcoming Cooking Up History programs feature chef Martin Yan in May, cookbook author Priya Krishna in July, and cookbook author Mollie Katzen in October. More information about the monthly series is available on the program’s website.


Recipe: Carla Hall’s Hot Water Cornbread
Courtesy, “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration”

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup fine white stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons trans-fat-free vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Directions:

Whisk the cornmeal and baking powder in a small bowl.

Combine the shortening, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 1/2 cups water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to melt the shortening. Add the cornmeal mixture in a slow, thin stream, stirring steadily with a wooden spoon the whole time. When all of the cornmeal has been added, turn off the heat. Stir vigorously, scraping the bottom and edges of the saucepan, until the mixture is firm and slapping against the sides of the pan. The mixture should feel soft and not grainy. Let it cool until you can handle it with your hands.

Scoop 1 1/2 tablespoons dough, using a cookie scoop if you have one, into your hand and shape into a 1/3-inch-thick patty. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Fill a large cast-iron skillet with oil to a depth of 1/8 inch. Heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add enough patties to fit in a single layer with 1 inch between them. You may have to work in batches.

Fry, flipping once, until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes per side. You don’t want the oil too hot or the outsides will burn before the inside is hot, so adjust the heat if necessary. Drain on paper towels and immediately sprinkle with salt. Serve hot.

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