Carla Hall vividly recalls the time she attended Thanksgiving dinner at her husband's family's home in Michigan, where the meal featured such dishes as mashed potatoes, a "Jell-O thing with nuts and stuff," and a seven-layer dip that included a layer of mayonnaise and peas.
It was a stark difference from the dishes of collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, and candied yams that Hall was accustomed to eating for the holiday while growing up in Nashville, Tenn.
"It just didn't taste the same," she said. "I felt like we didn't have Thanksgiving."
The Thanksgiving Day meal for many African-Americans wouldn't be complete without soul food, the cuisine that evolved from foods prepared and consumed by black slaves. Dishes such as pumpkin pie, rolls and stuffing are replaced with sweet potato pie, sweet cornbread and seafood dressing. Mixed greens, such as collards and mustard, take the place of green bean casserole. And baked macaroni and cheese — packed with various cheeses, eggs, milk and butter — is a must.
The distinctive dishes and the traditions associated with them, many of which have ties to Africa, create the all-important sense of togetherness for the family-centric holiday.
"It's all about what you're used to," said Hall from New York City after shooting an episode of the ABC talk show "The Chew," which she co-hosts. "Soul food is important because it connects people to its culture and to its history and honoring where you come from. People come together through food. Everyone has that expression. And the expression can be made in many different ways."
Soul food dishes are reflected at the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, where Hall is culinary ambassador for the museum's Sweet Home Cafe. There, the food is as big a draw as the exhibits, reflecting the experiences of black Americans. The menu is broken up by regions: The Creole Coast, Western Range, North States and Agricultural South.
"It's important to know where [food] really came from," Hall said. "I'm going to go out on the line and say some people say that they don't want the food of the oppressor. But what they don't realize is that this is our food. It wasn't the slave owners that said, 'This is the food you're going to eat.' These were people that said, 'I'm going to make something out of this plot of land.' These are people who were making something out of the things that people said were scraps. And that's showing the creativity. As a chef, I can really appreciate that.
"The more I speak to food historians and the more I read, I am so proud of this food," Hall said. "And instead of trying to run away from it and change it into something else, I just want to go deeper into what it really was."
Thanksgiving is one of the most important holidays for African-American families, especially from a culinary standpoint, according to Wanda Draper, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in downtown Baltimore.
"The recipes have been passed on, and on, and on," she said. "I fix the collard greens my great-grandmother fixed when I was a kid. Thanksgiving is a time when different people participate in the cooking process. They have that one specialty dish."
Draper's signature dish is a five-cheese baked macaroni and cheese.
"Now my granddaughter is learning from me how to make macaroni and cheese," Draper said. "I hope that in the future, she'll teach her grandchildren how to make it. That's what makes Thanksgiving so special in the African-American community."
Thanksgiving is the perfect time for cooks to incorporate soul food elements into their meal. Just ask caterer James Britton, whose home is filled with guests wanting a taste of his soul food spread.
"I have a fried or grilled turkey, sweet potatoes, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread and sweet potato pie," Britton said. "You'll get everything that's bad for you, but it's going to taste good."
His dinner guests bring "love dishes," or complementary foods that are made with affection, said Britton, whose company, Class Act Catering, is the caterer for the Lewis Museum.
"They're putting ... love into these dishes," he said. "That's what Thanksgiving is for me. You're putting your soul into the food, and you are thankful for your family."
It's this emotion and tradition that some say is lacking when other groups have attempted to re-create soul food dishes, leading to claims of cultural misappropriation.
In September, Disney experienced backlash when it attempted to put a healthy spin on gumbo for its "Princess and The Frog" Facebook page. Ingredients such as kale and quinoa were substituted, while the dish's famous roux was axed. The public feedback about the healthy recipe was so negative that Disney eventually removed the video of the recipe from its page.
And last week, #GentrifiedGreens started trending when news broke that luxury retailer Neiman Marcus was selling heat-and-eat collard greens for $66 plus $15.50 for shipping. The dish sold out within days.
Draper was suspicious of the retailer's offerings.
"I think that collard greens are worth $66, but it depends on who is cooking them," she said.
Draper says soul food was born out of necessity and creativity.
"They were able to take those things that weren't available and cultivate something good through seasoning and creativity," Draper said of the enslaved Americans who originated the dishes. "They were able to make things very special. As a result, so few people know how to cook it."
Manger Packing Corp. turns out about 9,000 pounds a week of half-smoke sausage, considered a signature food of the nation's capital. Most of the half-smokes are destined for Washington — to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and to the beloved Ben's Chili Bowl.
These ingredients were not necessarily the most desirable, but African-Americans made the most of their resources. Sweet potatoes, assorted greens and certain organ meats were transformed into hearty, flavorful and more complex dishes using a series of spices and special cooking techniques.
For example, gizzards, chitterlings and pig's feet were fried, cooked down or incorporated into other dishes that became staples. The sweet potato was mixed with various spices and sugars to create the soul food crown jewel, sweet potato pie.
Efforts to educate the public on soul food continue. In October, NPR featured a story about Michael Twitty, a black historian and author of "Afroculinaria," whose goal was to spread the word about the origins of Southern food and properly credit enslaved African-Americans.
For Hall, the focus is on embracing the cuisine of her roots. Surprisingly, she hasn't always been a soul food enthusiast. It wasn't until during her stint on "Top Chef" that she embraced it..
"When I became interested in cooking, and I was cooking professionally, I never wanted to do soul food," Hall said. "I didn't think it was special because I grew up on it. I didn't appreciate the rich cultural history that it has for me now."
Soul food provided a sense of comfort that Hall said she needed during filming.
"I started doing dishes that made me feel comforted because I was away from home. We were sequestered," she said. "And it was really the 'Top Chef' fans and audience that helped me see that I was most happiest when I was doing these dishes from my childhood."
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roast sweet potatoes on parchment-covered sheet pan until just tender, about 40 minutes. Allow potatoes to cool, then peel and slice them 1/4-inch thick. Layer the potatoes into a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.
Place water, lemon juice and sugars into a saucepan and bring to a boil until sugars are dissolved. Add the spices, pepper and butter. Stir until butter is melted. Pour mixture over the sweet potatoes to generously coat all the potatoes. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.
Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes or until tender and golden brown. Baste several times to coat. Remove from heat and baste again before serving.
— Recipe courtesy of Carla Hall
Collards with turkey kielbasa
1/4 cup olive oil
1 turkey kielbasa, cut on the bias a half-inch thick
2 medium yellow onions, finely diced (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup fresh garlic, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 cups water
5 pounds collard greens, quarter-inch chiffonade
In a large pot, heat oil on medium heat and brown kielbasa on both sides. Add onions and saute until translucent, then add garlic and red pepper flakes. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for another 2 minutes. Add smoked paprika and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add vinegar and water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to simmer for at least 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the collards. Working in batches, roll the leaves like a cigar, cut the roll in half lengthwise, then cut roll into thin strips (1/4 -inch chiffonade). Do not take the stems out; they add texture to thinly cut greens. Wash the greens thoroughly.
Add the sliced greens to the pot and mix them well with the pot likker. Simmer until tender and seasoned, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if necessary. Serve hot.
— Recipe courtesy of Carla Hall
Cornbread and oyster dressing
6 cups prepared cornbread, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cans (8oz) wholes oysters packed in water, liquid reserved
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
1 1/2 cups celery ribs, small diced
1 1/2 cups yellow onion, small diced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh sage, chopped
1 1/2 cups chicken or veggie broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 large egg, beaten
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place cubes of cornbread in a large mixing bowl. Roughly chop the oysters and set them aside.
Heat a large saute pan to medium-low heat. Add the butter to the pan, and then toss in the onions, scallions and celery. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add in the oysters, sage and parsley. Stir to combine. Add this mixture to the cornbread.
In a medium-size bowl, combine the chicken stock, reserved oyster liquid, heavy cream, eggs and seasonings. Pour into bowl with cornbread. Stir to thoroughly combine. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.
Butter a 9-by-9-inch casserole dish and transfer cornbread mixture. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes or until cooked through and golden brown.