An interview with Atlanta Chef Todd Richards by Beth McKibben.
I recently sat down with Chef Todd Richards of The Shed at Glenwood in Atlanta to continue our discussion on Southern food and slavery. (Read part one here.) His talk inside the slave cabin at the Atlanta History Center’s Folklife Festival in September was not only filled with little known facts about slaves and their food, but gave all in attendance a glimpse into the real roots of Southern cuisine. And guess what? It ain’t all fried chicken and gravy laden biscuits. In fact, true Southern food is neither fatty nor simple. It’s clean, complex and, most importantly, born from the economics of survival.
With the resurgence in all things Southern, our food is at the forefront. Restaurants around the country try and often fail at presenting truly authentic Southern cuisine. They doll it up with gravies, hot sauces and fry everything that isn’t nailed down in the kitchen. Then, they slap it on a plate and call it “Southern.” For Chef Richards, Southern is more than its Cracker Barrel image, with slavery at the very root of its beginnings. To know its history is to understand Southern food.
BM: Tell me why you’re so interested in food history and how it inspires you to create your dishes?
TR: My family did a lot of reading and a lot of cooking when I was growing up. The two are synonymous to me. In constructing a menu item, you have to have a direction, an understanding of the item you’re preparing. Where it came from, what kind of soil it grew in. That’s how dishes start to make sense. Take deer, for instance. Deer eat berries and acorns, so it’s no secret that venison tastes best when prepared with berries, nuts, etc. because that’s the diet of the animal. When you know how your food is grown, you understand how to achieve the greatest flavor by utilizing the elements of its creation, the methods by which it was originally prepared.
BM: Why is there such a resurgence in Southern food, and why is it happening now?
TR: People today are more concerned than ever about where their food is grown, that it’s grown in a good manner. When you have excess – excess money, excess food – you don’t worry about what you’re spending necessarily. But when you don’t have those things, which is the case for many people now, you worry about how your money is being spent and that it’s being spent on the right things. Also, I think Southern food is comforting. It bridges gaps not only economically, but socially. During tough times, you rely on two things: church and food. And in the South, those two things are synonymous. So I think when you look at the state of our economy right now and the strife we are facing, Southern food just makes sense.
BM: So you believe the country is reverting back to more straightforward, simpler foods?
TR: Southern food is really not that simple. It is an essential American storyteller along with our government and music. It has a long history. Southern food encompasses many regions, people and economics. It’s good, healing food born from strife and survival. The slaves weren’t creating Southern cuisine in order to make history, they were cooking to stay alive.
BM: How did the slaves influence Southern cooking? What were the typical ingredients they were working with at the time?
TR: You have to look at two things: what came with the slaves on the boat and what they had to work with when they got to America. There was a strong Native American influence in the early beginnings of Southern food when slaves began arriving: crops like corn and techniques like frying. Then, you have crops and techniques that came over from West Africa with the slaves, like the peanut (or goober peas), okra (or gumbo) and stewing techniques. There’s also daily survival ingredients like watermelons, which served as canteens in the fields. It’s 95 percent water. The slaves also used the rind as soles for their shoes. So ingredients like this that are now part of Americana and the Native American influence really started shaping Southern food very early on. But you can’t discount other influences like that of the Spanish and Portuguese through Louisiana or the Latin influence through parts of Texas. The slaves worked with what was available to them and adapted their daily diets accordingly.
BM: So, through a diet based on survival, the slaves really transformed Southern foodways into what we see today?
TR: What people don’t really understand about Southern food is that it is all based off of preservation methods. How can we keep the food for the longest period of time and make sure it’s safe to eat? Africans never ate beef until it was introduced to them in America. Fish, vegetables, fruits were the diets of most African people. Salting and frying meats and vegetables were simply preservation methods they learned from the Native Americans. They adapted to survive, while in the process, unknowingly transforming the Southern diet with the ingredients they brought with them from Africa. They found that they could grow these crops quite well here in the South.
BM: We know slaves were cooking these meals for themselves but do you believe the slaves began to cook using their native ingredients for their masters, or do you believe that began to occur during Reconstruction?
TR: Yeah, they were definitely cooking these meals for their masters. I mean, the thing about Southern food, when it’s cooking, it smells good! I’m sure they brought the best cook up to the house and left the more undesirable portions for themselves.
BM: What Southern cooking technique that survives today can be traced back to the slaves?
TR: Definitely one-pot cooking. Gumbo, cornbread and hoecakes were being done out in the fields. There were no lunch breaks. But, to me, the most essential technique to come out of slave-based cooking is preservation. How the food was preserved is what made it taste so good. But they weren’t thinking about that at the time. The economics of survival was the slaves’ only motivation. Preservation methods are truly what transformed Southern cooking to what we know it to be today.
BM: How did preservation methods influence the flavors?
TR: To me, greens tell the unique story of Southern food. There was no refrigeration, so slaves used meat, mostly pork, and salt to preserve the greens by laying the meat on top. Not only did the pork preserve what was underneath, but it flavored it as well. They didn’t necessarily eat the meat after the greens were finished. They might repurpose it. Frying was another technique. Many people are shocked to learn that fried chicken is not Southern-born but actually Scandinavian and Native American. Animals in West Africa were not fatty. It was hot; they didn’t require fat to stay warm. Frying was a preservation method the slaves adopted.
I found this out when I was up in Louisville, Kentucky, researching Native American foods. They were teaching the method to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It was meant to preserve the meat underneath the skin during long journeys. They would fry rabbits, squirrels, small game birds in bear oil. Slaves in certain regions of the South caught on to this method, finding the skin of the chicken, for instance, to be quite tasty. Jerky is another example of preservation turned tasty snack in the fields. You take the meat off the bottom of the shank, slice it very thin and dry it out on tobacco leaves. They learned this preservation method from the Native Americans, because in the early days of slavery, Africans knew little of preserving meat. The slaves economically had no choice but to stretch every last morsel of food they had. Food preservation is the key to all Southern cooking. It is the essential ingredient.
BM: In hearing you speak at Atlanta Food and Wine in May, you talked about the misconceptions of soul food. What are those misconceptions?
TR: Soul food is tricky. It’s a category African American chefs get placed into not by choice. That term wasn’t coined until the early 1960s and implies that our contribution to food, most importantly Southern food, has only occurred over the last 45 years. Most African American chefs don’t embrace that term. It’s not the full story. If you ask me if I put my soul into my food, yes, I do, but you could ask Guy Wong from Miso Izakaya and he would tell you the same thing. ‘Soul food’ has a long lineage. The African American contribution to Southern food doesn’t start in the sixties, but is deeply rooted in its beginnings.
BM: Do you think people began to eat specific foods in the sixties, and that’s why the term was coined?
TR: No, people have been eating it all along, but African Americans just didn’t get any credit for it until then. Like now, the sixties were a turbulent time in America. People were seeking comfort. Slavery also destroyed families. The only thing that remained the same was the dinner table. Your fellow slaves sometimes became your family. A meal brought comfort to the slaves, not so much as nourishment but by keeping the family together.
BM: What do you want people to know about slaves and Southern food?
TR: Southern cuisine is regional and really can’t be categorized under a big umbrella. Key ingredients like greens and preservation methods are the great equalizers in our story but, after that, it’s all regional.
Georgia and Alabama Southern is totally different from Appalachia Southern. Frying is more prevalent in the colder climates of the South than in the Deep South. They have more animals with fat on them whereas in Georgia, for instance, it’s warmer and so our native animals are leaner. Where would the slaves have gotten the oil to fry the chickens? They didn’t reach for a bottle of peanut oil like we do now. Those influences came into the picture much later. There are more cornbread recipes in Georgia and Alabama than in the Carolinas, where rice is more prevalent. In Appalachia, stews are more common. The slaves knew how to preserve and cook with what nature had to offer. Each region had its own micro-climate and trade routes. The food of the South is as diverse as its people.
BM: Do you believe that your slave ancestry has influenced your cooking? Any special family recipes that were passed down?
TR: I don’t really have any family recipes that were written down, but I do know how my family constructed meals. My grandmother and great-grandparents were fantastic cooks. Family meals were big when I was growing up. They were like celebrations. We had barbecue every summer, prepared by my Dad. Everything revolved around food, even the gifts we gave to one another. But there were two different Southern influences in the family. I can’t tell you exactly where each side comes from in the South, but I can tell you the region by the way they cook. My Mom’s side is more Appalachia/Carolinas/Ohio with stews, rice and frying. Whereas my Dad’s side uses smoking methods and vinegars when cooking, like in the mid-South. I can tell my family’s story through food. So essentially, my Dad’s more cornbread, my Mom’s more biscuits.
I’ve never really thought about this before, but I just discovered my family tree through what I do every day: food. This is my family tree.
Chef Todd Richards’ Greens
In a heavy bottom pot, simmer cider vinegar with some water. Add a bit of smoked meat (Chef Richards prefers turkey) and continue to simmer. Add crushed red pepper flakes to taste, then add seasonal greens (collards are good for fall). Depending on the bitterness of the greens, finish them with a bit of sorghum. Cook until almost tender, then turn off as they will continue cooking.
Chef Richards prefers to prepare his greens a day ahead, but only refrigerates if serving them more than 24 hours later, since the vinegar is a preservative. If refrigerated, heat in a heavy bottom pot.
Final thought: “If you’re putting more than six ingredients in your greens, you’re doing way too much.” – Chef Todd Richards
Photo credits, from top: Chef Todd Richards courtesy of Green Olive Media; The Shed Tuna Crudo by Chef Todd Richards; Chef Todd Richards speaking at the Atlanta Folklife Festival by Beth McKibben; The Shed’s Braised Collard Greens, Housemade Ding Dong and Hamachi with Onion Rings by Chef Todd Richards.
Beth McKibben is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She enjoys telling a good story and day tripping with her husband and two kids. To find out more about Beth, see her full bio in our “Contributors” section.
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