Before Covid, Mark met up with Carla Hall at a sweet little recording studio on the Lower East Side to talk about her then-recently-released book, Carla Hall’s Soul Food. Thankfully — for us and for you — their conversation remains as important then as it is now, and we’re happy to bring it to you on this week’s episode of Food with Mark Bittman. Hall is enthusiastic about so much, not surprising from a woman who has been a model, an accountant, a chef, and a TV personality, and we’re sure you’ll find her spirit as infectious as we do. Some excerpts — and the recipes featured from the episode, all from Hall’s book — are below, and, please, listen, subscribe, and review! Thank you, as always.
On soul food vs. Southern food:
“I think people try to have this intellectual discussion about the difference between soul food and Southern food, and simply put, soul food is the food of Black people. Southern food is a derivative of the food of Black people. Because who was cooking? I mean, even though Black people were doing other things. But I also like to share the example of a hymn and a Negro spiritual. You can take that same song — same notes and everything — but there is a riffing that happens when it becomes a Negro spiritual so that it is coming from your belly into your soul and out to share a passion or a story that you can't really say in words.”
On the importance of soul food in America:
“If you are Italian, you don't make distinctions about your food because that's what you know, that's what it is. So what I'm hoping to do [with my book] is to say that soul food has a place just like Italian food or French food or any other cuisine. And that it definitely influenced American cuisine.”
On the evolution of iconic dishes:
“I was really interested in talking to older people about the dishes they had before things changed — what did they remember back in the day? And one of the dishes was shrimp and grits. When you have shrimp and grits, you probably have some gravy on the shrimp, and maybe tasso, some kind of ham. And then you have these very rich, buttered, maybe sometimes cheesy grits. And it's rich.” But, Hall says, it used to be just simple grits, “and beautiful shrimp that were fresh that were caught that day so they were sweet and then you throw in some other vegetables, maybe the holy trinity or something. And it was showing off the shrimp. But today, the shrimp gets lost in all of that fat, and as an African-American and being lactose intolerant, we wouldn't have put cream and all that butter and everything in the grits.”
Smashed Carrots with Curry Oil
Smashing baked carrots cracks open crevices, ideal for soaking up a super easy curry oil. This is so easy, but it’s sooo good.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1 pound carrots, scrubbed
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a half-sheet pan with parchment paper.
2. Mix 2 tablespoons of the oil with the curry powder in a small bowl and let stand.
3. Rub the remaining 1 tablespoon oil all over the carrots and sprinkle with salt. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes.
4. Sprinkle the lemon juice all over the carrots and return to the oven. Bake for 15 minutes longer.
5. Transfer the carrots to a serving plate. With a large spatula, gently press each carrot until smashed and flattened a bit. Drizzle the curry oil all over. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Pickled Cucumber Salad
On our road trip for this book, chef Joe Randall took us to Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, a Savannah institution. You’re seated and served family-style, with a spread of at least twenty classic Southern dishes. The one I kept returning to looked the humblest. It was a little bowl of cucumber slices. But each slice packed a pickle-y refreshing crunch from the two-step technique of salting the cucumber before marinating it. I re-created it here and added chile and dill. This is exactly what you need in a parade of rich dishes.
2 large cucumbers, peeled and sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon chile flakes
Dill sprigs, for garnish
1. Arrange the cucumber slices on a large platter in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
2. Whisk the vinegar, sugar, and chile flakes in a large bowl. Discard any accumulated juices on the cucumber platter. Add the cucumbers to the vinegar mixture and toss well. Return to the platter in a single layer. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours.
3. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with dill.
Watermelon with Mint and Lime
Serves a crowd
Watermelon ain’t what it used to be. Anyone of certain generations can tell you that. And this isn’t just another “I walked eight miles in the snow” yarn. It’s a fact. Long story short: commercial growers bred out the big black seeds to make the fruit easier to eat and lost some of its sweetness and soul in the process. There are small farmers and home growers out there trying to revive heirloom watermelons and bring back the complex juiciness of the good ol’ fruit. Until I can easily get my hands on one, I do the best I can with what the supermarket’s got.
To bring out the sugars in the red flesh — and mimic the layers of flavors I remember from childhood — I sprinkle wedges with this lime and mint salt. A bit of salt actually makes the fruit sweeter, the lime adds floral tartness, and mint makes it extra refreshing. You can double or triple the mix if you’re cutting up a few melons for a party.
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly grated lime zest
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint leaves
1 small watermelon, trimmed and cut into 1-inch-thick wedges
1. Rub the salt, lime zest, and mint together in a small bowl with your fingers until very well mixed. When ready to serve, arrange the watermelon on a platter and sprinkle with the salt mixture.
— All recipes from Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration by Carla Hall