Soul Food for Thought

Social studies: Soul food restaurants could dish up useful insight to cultural differences

Social studies: Food could be key in accessing Austin's rich diversity

austin photo: places_food_hoovers_fried_chicken
Seek out collaboration over collards greens. Courtesy of INSite Magazine

Remember the movie Soul Food? Let me help you out. Soul Food hit theaters right around the same time as Titanic, Good Will Hunting and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Yeah, you know all those. But is Soul Food still not ringing any bells?

Soul Food starred a mix of black actors who were in vogue back in the late '90s — Vanessa Williams, Mekhi Phifer, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Michael Beach. But the clear powerhouse character in the movie was the Mama-put-her-foot-in-this!-inspiring array of delectable soul food dishes. In a nutshell, the movie is about how illness keeps the matriarch of a family from whipping up her signature Sunday family dinners. When the dinners stop, the family begins to fall apart.

No collards, no collaboration!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Really? You’ve got a whole column to kick-start compelling conversation on cultural issues in Austin, and you want to dish about…food? To which I would respond, "Sure, sugar! We’ve all got to eat." I would further argue that food is a master key to accessing the rich diversity of culture and subculture our city has to offer.

We actually are what we eat. And maybe a piece of us is also where we’re doing the eating. And that, my dear reader, is representative of a much larger cultural issue. Because if you want to know more about a group of people, go eat where they eat. Talk to them. Ask them about themselves. Find their flavor.

Which Austin does well to some extent. You’ve Sriracha sauced your way through sushi at Uchi. You’ve taken visiting relatives to nosh on succulent ribs at The Salt Lick. You’ve wined and dined your lover all up and down West Sixth Street from Bess Bistro to Z’Tejas. There’s not a taco truck in town you haven’t unabashedly invaded, conquered and white-flagged as your Tex-Mex treasure. Whole Foods has the potential to be Austin's social and cultural food mecca, but it's so completely Caucasian, it literally scares me sometimes. Whole Foods and tanning salons — the last bastions of a segregated society.

But, enough about you. What might you learn about someone like me over hot gumbo at Midtown Live in East Austin or a pork chop po-boy at Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food Café on Rosewood Avenue? No, you won’t learn everything solely based on what's on the menu. But, for some reason, the food table has always been a safe place to hash out what it is we all bring to the cultural table. Even Fogo de Chao, if that's the only place you ever go, can get boring as all get out. 

So, maybe you’re miffed because I imply white people in Austin don’t know soul food. I know, I know… you eat at Threadgill’s once a week at least! And you love Hoover’s Cooking, which might be Austin’s quintessential soul food joint. Hoover's dishes up all the stereotypical staples — the catfish, the chicken fried chicken, the southern fried chops, the mustard greens that come with that uniquely sweet, soul-inspired goodness.

And when you look around at those restaurants, what do you see? I always see an exquisitely powerful and healthy mix of people from all around the city and beyond. Imagine if all of Austin were as racially diversified as that. What a warm peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream kind of capital we could be!