Fried chicken, wilted greens, devil’s food cake
Toni Tipton-Martin is a multi-award-winning food journalist, historian, author and this year’s recipient of the seventh annual Julia Child Award. The jury has recognized her for her work as a writer, editor, academic and food justice warrior. She has long championed the study, appreciation and awareness of African American cuisine. As part of that mission, Tipton-Martin is sharing her Juneteenth menu, which includes Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Wilted Mixed Greens and Devil’s Food Cake from her cookbook “Jubilee.”
Like July Fourth celebrations, Juneteenth is characterized by summer cookout dishes: barbecue, baked beans, deviled eggs, potato salad, cakes and pies. Red-hued foods are classic — red drinks, watermelon and, recently, red velvet cake.
From the very beginning, praying, preaching, playing, singing, storytelling and eating were Juneteenth canons. To embrace the reminders of slavery and poverty — including the gastronomic vestiges like red soda water, catfish and the sweet treats of childhood — can be hard, but to do so is to honor the suffering and affirm the contributions made by generations of freed African Americans.
Fried chicken, for example, is a soul-food tradition that can be traced to the enterprising women who used chicken to build lives for themselves and secure their economic freedom. Serving fried chicken takes on an entirely new meaning when served at Emancipation Day picnics celebrating freedom.
With any luck, the families who share a homemade picnic in the park will recall the artistic spirit and selfless determination of generations of African American cooks who were finally able to decide how they would prepare vegetables and set the time and manner in which the family ate its suppers; they can cheer the restaurateurs who for so long were denied the opportunity to serve.
I once wrote that an informal review of the most influential Southern cookbooks in my collection revealed as many ways to fix fried chicken as there are cooks making the iconic dish, with innovations appearing in all time periods.
But, through it all, marinating in buttermilk remains a classic go-to technique for succulent chicken; the acidic cultured milk tenderizes the meat.
The dish we’ve come to know as warm spinach salad — greens tossed with a hot bacon dressing — wasn’t really a salad at all, to hear the Black cookbook authors tell it through the years. Survey the vegetables section of soul food and early 20th century Black cookbooks and look for this uber-popular combination with titles like “wilted” or “killed” lettuce or spinach, or you might miss it.
Back in the day, farm folks tossed combinations of bitter greens and herbs, such as escarole, chicory, purslane and watercress, with a warm dressing they stirred together right in a hot skillet after cooking bacon. In harder times, wild weeds like dandelion and poke, as in “poke sallet,” answered the call. Soul cooks carried on the tradition of wilting lettuce leaves instead of spinach.
I returned to the wilted lettuce tradition here with so-called power greens. These greens are dark and rich in vitamins and minerals and taste delicious. Try it my way, then experiment with your favorite combination of tender baby greens and herbs.
For generations, chocolate was a luxury food item that families stretched their budgets to afford, making its presence on our tables an expression of affluence. In flush times, bakers added extra chocolate to standard chocolate cake batter, which yields a deep, dark fudge cake known as devil’s food cake.
This quick and easy recipe is a departure from standard mixtures that start by creaming together butter and sugar — what the old cooks meant when they said, “Bake a cake in the usual way.” Coffee gives the batter a subtle richness. The cake is delicious topped with billows of fluffy white marshmallow frosting or a light buttercream or a chocolate cream cheese frosting. Baked in layers, it will make a lovely statement on your next special-occasion dessert table. A sheet cake is easier to serve and is de rigueur at the annual Martin family reunion.
If you like those Juneteenth-ready recipes, you should also try these: