Ritual soul food dinner

March 1, 2012

What if soul food was served like kaiseki? What if collard greens were as celebrated as nanohana? What if dinner in a reclaimed-wood dining room on the south side of Chicago was as revered as a meal in a tatami room in a ryokan in the countryside of Japan?

We are, in fact, experiencing this cultural and culinary moment.

As mentioned previously, one of the ongoing, off-site works of the exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, are a series of ritual soul food dinners, hosted by the artist Theaster Gates, in collaboration with chef Michael Kornick, his mk Executive Chef Erick Williams, and soul food expert Erika Dudley. The first dinner, titled "The Geography of Soul", featured a menu with cooked greens and promised that "discussion will center on the migratory nature of soul food over time"—but in fact served so much more.

Theaster Gates: Soul Food Pavilion from Smart Museum of Art on Vimeo.

I asked Dudley what foods she felt had to be served. First and foremost, watermelon, she said. She's served it in one form or another—including pickled rind—in every soul food dinner she's hosted. "So many black people have told me they're afraid to eat watermelon in front of white people," said Dudley, "and we can't be afraid."

For this dinner she created a watermelon cocktail (above) with gin, Midori, juniper berry, and mint.

The program and menu (above) detailed the first of a series of five dinners at the Soul Food Pavilion at Dorchester Projects, Gates' home and studio. The Projects is his growing collection of buildings in the South Shore adjacent neighborhood of Grand Crossing.

"And we had to have chitlins", said Dudley. They were the "Small Bites (hors d'oeuvres)" on the menu, which she personally served to each guest during the "Black Sacrament". Dudley asked that it be kept a surprise. I'll only say their form that spoke fluently in culinary and religious terms.

Kornick said Williams "did all the heavy lifting with the menu," including a black-eyed pea fritter with southern red bell purée—his take on falafel, said Williams.

The fried okra was served with Leroy's rémoulade (above), a sauce named in honour of Leroy Thomas, once Paul Prudhomme's head chef. Thomas, then a 48 year-old illiterate black chef, taught the then 22 year-old Kornick how to cook Cajun specialties—and then some. "I've had Leroy's rémoulade on every one of my menus—since I was 23," said Kornick.

The poached Mississippi shrimp with creole mayo (above) was passed on one of the 3,000 pieces made specifically for the dinners by Gates, also a potter, and his friend, Japanese master potter Kouichi Ohara, and Ohara's assistants, Haruka Komatsu and Yoko Matsumoto.

Why Japanese pottery? "It's simply valuing food at such a high level that you're making a utensil to honour it," said Gates.

At the Feast exhibition within the Smart Museum itself, there is an installation by Gates, titled "Soul Food Starter Kit". He describes it in this video, as "part fancy bento box, part big country pantry...It would have everything you need to have the perfect soul food meal for twelve."

Except the food and twelve guests.

Each ritual dinner seats 20 guests: 15 friends and family, plus five chosen by lottery.

Chefs Williams and Kornick plating catfish (above).

The smoked Gulf catfish, pickled banana peppers, wild watercress, yellow mustard seed, and lemon (above) was inspired by Williams' recent discovery of Cajun chow-chow, the regional pickled relish.

I was surprised to see bowls set out for the collard greens and hoecakes. But as Gates and Ohara say in the above-mentioned video, the bowls were designed in consideration of the juice released during the cooking of the greens—aka potlikker.

The collards and smoked turkey; turnip tops and bottoms with fatback; and hoecakes in ceremonial soul food wares (above) served family style on the dining table.

Madea's pot roast and braised potatoes were served with pot liquor (above).

Dudley created the trio of desserts: buttermilk panna cotta with blackstrap molasses and cornbread crumbs; black velvet cake with cream cheese frosting; and red velvet cake.

Her grandmother's cornbread and buttermilk dessert inspired the panna cotta. "She'd crumble cornbread in a bowl with her fingers," said Dudley, "and serve it with Alaga syrup on special occasions, like when her sisters came over."

"You'd eat it with your fingers."

At the end of the night, Gates asked his guests, "Instead of 30 people, how about 100 people every night? Would y'all come to a restaurant if this food was served every night?"

Yes, we answered unanimously.

So how could we? I asked Kornick, chef/owner of mk, DMK, Fish Bar, and Ada St.

He envisions a project centered on a non-profit cooking school, like the Jamie Oliver Foundation.

"And we could produce a packaged product," said Kornick, "We could sell BBQ and boxed lunches in 800 square feet in the State of Illinois building and United Center."

Soul food expert Erika Dudley, chef Erick Williams, and artist Theaster Gates (above).

Gates, Dudley, Kornick, and Williams will continue to collaborate on the four future ritual soul food dinners to come, each described as follows:

The Art of Soul: Tonight’s menu features cooked grains in gorgeous ceramic pots that are to be eaten with various kinds of gumbo. The conversation will focus on how we color our food.

The History of Soul: Tonight’s dinner highlights how soul food fed resistance movements and heads of state. The discussion will focus on the differences between soul food, home cooking, and Southern cuisine...and how we see and don’t see ourselves reflected in what we call our food.

The Politics of Soul: Tonight’s menu showcases the scraps that people have transformed into main dishes and sought-after delicacies. The conversation will center on who has access to food and water, and how cultural icons in America are determined in part by pride, creativity, and privilege.

The Community of Soul: Tonight’s dinner showcases the cultural, gastronomic, and ritualistic similarities in African American and Asian traditions.

Food for the soul indeed.