Writer Dave Hoekstra admits it, he’s not a food critic — and he isn’t much of a cook.
It was his editors who tested all the recipes in his new book, “The People’s Place: Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences from the Civil Rights Era to Today” (Chicago Review Press, $35.95). But the Chicago writer and broadcaster writes evocatively about America’s historic foodways, roots music and the kind of idiosyncratic mom-and-pop restaurants that are disappearing all over America. It’s something he often talks about on his WGN radio show, “Nocturnal Journal.”
And he eats. As he traveled on a long ramble up the Mississippi, across the South and into the urban north, Hoekstra savored various iterations of soul food.
In his travels, Hoekstra turned up some surprises. Who knew that former President George W. Bush was a soul food fan? “Not a good president, but a kind man,” said Leah Chase, proprietor of Dookey Chase’s in New Orleans. The 91-year-old has seen everything, so she had no problem chastising President Obama for putting Tabasco on her gumbo.
What is soul food?
“It’s food from the heart, made with love,” Hoekstra said. While it’s most associated with African-Americans, in his book, Hoekstra shows how it has crossed cultures and absorbed ingredients and dishes from other cuisines.
After he took a buyout from the Chicago Sun-Times a few years ago, he hit the road in 2014 to do research with fellow Chicagoan, photographer Paul Natkin, in tow to work on a soul food book. They mostly drove, but they also hopped a Greyhound at one point.
Northern cities have their own soul food histories. The Chicagoan came often to Detroit, one of his favorite cities, to taste and talk about the food at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and a new, healthy soul food option, Detroit Vegan Soul.
He also wanted to revisit New Bethel Baptist Church, where Aretha Franklin’s late father, civil rights leader Rev. C.L. Franklin, presided. The church was first in a converted bowling alley on that center of black entertainment, Hastings Street, until 1963. That’s when it moved to its present location, the former Oriole Theater on Linwood.
“I had been to Aretha’s church for the Sun-Times,” Hoekstra said. “I’d gone to services there, because that church is of such historic importance. And I knew of the kitchen.”
During its peak years — between 1968 and 1972, New Bethel had a congregation numbering 10,000 people — the church kitchen was going all day and into the night. Their pound cake was famous (Hoekstra nabbed the recipe, reproduced below) and the dining room served breakfast every morning with grits, bacon, eggs and ham.
Hoekstra interviewed the current pastor, the Rev. Robert Smith, and they talked about how the church’s population has dwindled.
“It’s sad, there was a bittersweet tinge,” Hoekstra said. The elders talk about how it’s not like it used to be. Younger parishioners aren’t as interested in cooking, Smith told him, adding: “What killed the kitchen is more black women became professionals.”
Baker’s Keyboard Lounge started out in 1934 as just “Baker’s,” a lunch place run by a white couple, Chris and Fannie Baker. Their son, Clarence, asked if he could bring musicians in to play, and it evolved into a jazz club that happened to serve pretty good food. Over the years, the cuisine evolved into soul food.
In recent years, Baker’s became known for macaroni and cheese, greens, pork chops, turkey and dressing, and other soulful dishes popular with musicians. But co-owner Eric Whitaker told Hoekstra that the methods of cooking those dishes has changed. Today’s menu items are healthier, often cooked with less fat and sodium.
Several recipes used at Baker’s today came from a famous, defunct Chicago soul food restaurant, Army and Lou’s, including the short ribs and the classic macaroni and cheese.
“Army and Lou’s was one of my favorite places in Chicago,” Hoekstra said. “I took Barry White down there. It was one of (former Chicago mayor) Harold Washington’s favorite restaurants.”
The recipes live on, at Baker’s.
Detroit Vegan Soul in the West Village, owned and operated by partners Kirsten Ussery-Boyd and Erika Boyd, serving “100 percent plant-based” food with no animal fat, is the ultimate healthy rendition of soul food.
The couple stressed to Hoekstra that many of the healthy, vegetable staples we have in our diet today came from Africa, and that classic soul food — heavily meat-based — was “a residual effect of slavery.”
“We didn’t come over here with the way we eat food now,” Boyd told Hoekstra. “We ate what the master did not want. Now we have choices. We’ve been educated.”
Hoekstra includes their recipe for black-eyed pea hummus in his book, an example of how vegan food can be soulful, and he swooned over their “catfish.”
“Their tofu catfish is so good,” Hoekstra said. “I eat meat, although not a lot. But that tofu fish substitute was amazing.”
A fading art
Many of the older places are endangered. Hoekstra is used to writing about vanishing cultures, and he fears that many of the soul food restaurants he visited may be gone next time he visits.
“It’s a struggle for these guys to stay open,” Hoekstra laments. “It’s economics, and changing neighborhoods.”
Hoekstra was particularly interested in how the history of soul food intersected with the 1960s civil rights movement.
“I can’t even get my head around what that food meant to the movement when they were in the South in the mid-1960s, what that feeling of warmth meant,” Hoekstra said. “All these people of that era really energized and provided sustenance for the movement. They are underchampioned heroes.”
Audrey Towns’ Pound Cake (New Bethel Baptist Church)
Recipes from “The People’s Place: Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences from the Civil Rights Era to Today.”
The New Bethel Baptist Church began preparing food in its main floor kitchen in 1963. The historic pound cake recipe was handed down to Audrey Towns, church member since 1985. Fellow church elder Karla Ross pointed out the basic nature of the recipe. “You know old ladies didn’t write down specific amounts of ingredients. I usually add more of the ingredients until it tastes as I remember.”
1 pound butter, softened
3 1/2 cups sifted flour
8 tablespoons whipping cream
2 2/3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Separate the eggs. Whip the egg whites and set aside.
In a large bowl, blend all the other ingredients, adding the egg yolks two at a time, and the whipped egg whites last.
Pour into a greased Bundt cake pan and bake for 1 hour. Serves 10.
Per serving: 793 calories; 45 g fat (27 g saturated fat; 51 percent calories from fat); 88 g carbohydrates; 54 g sugar; 263 mg cholesterol; 354 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Black-Eyed Pea Hummus (Detroit Vegan Soul)
1 15-ounce can black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons tahini
1 teaspoon minced garlic or 2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend for 3 to 5 minutes on low speed until thoroughly mixed and smooth. If hummus is too thick, add warm water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it reaches desired consistency.
Place hummus in a serving bowl. Create a shallow well in the center of the hummus. Add a small amount (1–2 tablespoons) of olive oil in the well. Serves 6.
Per serving: 172 calories; 13 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 68 percent calories from fat); 10 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 339 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 2 g fiber.
Army and Lou’s Macaroni and Cheese (Baker’s Keyboard Lounge)
1 pound dried elbow macaroni (4 cups)
1 8-ounce package shredded sharp cheddar cheese (2 cups)
1 8-ounce package pasteurized prepared cheese product, (such as Velveeta), cut up
1/4 cup butter, cut up
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 cup processed cheese dip or 1 10.75-ounce can condensed cheddar cheese soup
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
Cook the macaroni according to package directions. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Meanwhile, let the cheeses and butter stand at room temperature. Drain the macaroni and transfer it to a very large bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheddar, the cheese product, and the butter to the hot pasta, stirring well. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, cheese dip, and white pepper until combined. Stir the egg mixture into the macaroni mixture. Transfer mixture to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, spreading evenly.
Bake, covered, for 25 minutes. Uncover and stir well. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup shredded cheddar. Bake, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes more or until the cheese is melted and mixture is heated through (160 degrees). Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Serves 10.
Per serving: 509 calories; 28 g fat (16 g saturated fat; 50 percent calories from fat); 44 g carbohydrates; 9 g sugar; 146 mg cholesterol; 958 mg sodium; 22 g protein; 1 g fiber.