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emGastro Oscura Q&A series A seat at the table, we spoke to people of color who are reclaiming their culinary heritage and shaping today's food culture.
The mouth-watering meals chef Chris Scott prepares in his Harlem kitchen might seem like modern American fusion: Pennsylvania Dutch-style chicken and corn chowder paired with shrimp grits; Lemonade Fried Chicken with Bread and Butter Pickles. But really, these are examples of a cuisine that has been cooking quietly for generations: Amish soul food.
This combination of Southern and Amish cuisine hails from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where Scott grew up. “We've had this since we were kids,” Scott says. “Our fathers, [too]” Coatesville is in Chester County, Pennsylvania, home to ancient Amish and African-American communities whose cuisines have intermingled for generations. Scott is on a mission to share the unique food of the region's black residents, along with the stories of resilience and creativity in his sweet and sour cooking.
Scott's great-grandfather, Chester Howard, immigrated to Amish country in search of economic opportunity, as did the ancestors of many other African-American families who call the region home. Howard brought the cooking techniques of backward Virginia cooking to Pennsylvania, where he and his family adapted them to suit the ingredients, baked goods, and preserves available at Amish markets. Amish and African-American cuisines are natural companions, Scott says, as they share the same spirit of ingenuity. They even share certain staples like cornmeal and chow chow, a flavor made with pickled vegetables.
Howard's daughter and Scott's grandmother, "Nana," was a master of Amish soul food, serving up the "Sweet and Sour Seven" of Amish cooking, a set of condiments ubiquitous in Amish meals, along with meals like Peru. Along with scrapple, an Amish pate of boiled pork parts, she made okra chow chow, a southern flavor with West African roots.
Long hours in the kitchen with Nana inspired Scott to become a chef. Yet for many years of his professional career, Scott kept the story of Amish soul food to himself. As Scott writes in his new cookbookTribute: Recipes and Stories from an Amish Soul Food Kitchen, “I came to believe that working in European restaurants, with a focus on haute cuisine techniques, was the only career path worthy of attention and respect.” But after years of introspection and hard-earned sobriety, he decided to look to his heritage for culinary inspiration.
In 2016 and 2018, respectively, he opened the soul food restaurants Butterfunk Kitchen and Sumner's Luncheonette in New York, and in 2018 he was a semifinalist in thesenior Chief, where he coined the term “Amish soul food” to describe his style of cooking. In September 2022, she released her cookbook as a tribute to her grandmother and a celebration of the Amish soul food she cooked. At her newest restaurant, Butterfunk Biscuit Co. in Harlem, her interpretations of Coatesville's African-American cuisine take center stage. “It's intoxicating to be able to really be myself in a world I never could,” she says.
Gastro Obscura spoke with Scott about Eurocentrism in the restaurant industry, the definition of Amish soul food, parallels between Amish and African-American history, and the future of soul food.
You mention in your book that there was a period when you struggled to share the story of the food you grew up with. What has changed?
[For a lot of the white chefs around me], black food for them has always been niche. They feel like it's just having its moment, but there's no enduring or enduring power, even though we've been here for centuries.
[They'll say:] 'How hard can it be?', 'What kind of technique is that? It's not even a technique-oriented feed. They even get into it because they are not healthy. So I would say that at least nine out of ten things that come out of their mouths about black food, black culture, are all negative. So of course it was embarrassing to accept that side of me.
Once I started accepting [my food] and who I was, I started cooking some of the best food I've ever made, because it was mine, because it was from the heart, and because I could be black without apology. .
What do you think makes Amish soul food unique?
Some of the more southern flavors or dishes you know, imagine them with more lively nuances, with more vinegar, more sugar, more citrus, because Germans really do have a lot of sweet and sour components.
In the past, the slaves had their own burning grounds. Sometimes she would have chicken bones to make her broth a bit more flavorful, sometimes she wouldn't. And then that would pass for some kind of cornbread. Many Amish dishes are very similar: things taken from the garden, preserves. Lots of stews: chicken and meatballs, or brisket with potatoes and cabbage.
Are these similarities just a coincidence or is there a shared history?
Basically, it's survival. [With the Amish] you have a group of people who have been kicked out because of their religion. They move here to the United States and land with nothing. Same as with slaves: we get nothing. You make the best of nothing because you have to.
How would you describe the relationship between African Americans and the Amish in Coatesville?
The Amish were definitely a group of people who were mostly alone, and the only type of interaction you had was when you went to their markets or stores. You would see them in the suburbs and, more on the Lancaster County side, on their horses and buggies, or [out] on farming. But much of the interaction took place in their markets.
Are there any specific dishes that stand out in your mind as examples of Amish soul food, with its sweet and sour palate?
when I wassenior Chief, I made a buttermilk fried chicken with lemonade. In the south, everyone and their mothers water the chicken with sweet tea. [I grew up] in a house where there was sweet tea in my fridge, Kool-Aid and lemonade too. It makes [the fried chicken] super shiny.
What kind of Amish soul food dishes would your grandmother cook?
He put vinegar in his sweet potato pie, not necessarily where it was sour, but where it wasn't so sweet. In his cake, instead of eggs and oil, he put mayonnaise, so the overall texture of that cake was now almost cushiony.
There were many techniques that he learned just from being in that area. In Virginia, they weren't rocking out with spaetzle and cabbage and braised egg noodles and all that. But once [my family] came north, my grandmother was making [Amish] dishes, but adding components like neck bone. Bone neck with egg noodles, with spaetzle. Okra chow chow with scrapple.
From your point of view, what does the future look like for Amish soul food and Black food culture in general?
The whole Amish soul food thing was just a doorway to show people that we are more than what people think we are. We are so much more than fried chicken, watermelon, crackers, cornbread, and all things red velvet. I want to see more amplification of us going further south.
There are so many of us right now who individually and collectively are paving the way for the next generation. I certainly believe that we are here to stay. And we hope there will come a time when all these arrogant Michelin chefs will make their way, or we will, to the global table, showing them that our food is here to stay too.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Scrapple Crujiente con Okra Chow Chow
Adaptado de Homage: Recipes and Stories from an Amish Soul Food Kitchen, de Chris Scott
- Okra Chow Chow:
- 1 1/2 cups white vinegar
- 15 large spears of fresh okra, thinly sliced
- 1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
- 1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
- 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
- 3/8 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Crunchy filling:
- 1 pound pork loin, cut into large chunks
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 smoked hocks
- 2 bunches of fresh sage
- 2 celery stalks cut in half
- 1 onion, quartered
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 5 cups of cornmeal
- 1 cup of wheat flour
- White flour, for dusting
- Butter or bacon grease, for frying
- Make the okra chow chow: Place the vinegar, okra, bell pepper, onion, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, uncovered, until mixture is reduced by half and begins to thicken, about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Add the parsley and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 6 months.
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Place the pig tail in a large roasting pan. Coat evenly with the vegetable oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake until caramelized, about 35 minutes.
- Add the caramelized pork to a large pot, along with the ham, sage, celery, onion, carrot, molasses, allspice, cloves, ground pepper, and cold water (12 cups or enough to cover the ingredients). Cover the saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook until tender, about three hours.
- Place a colander over a large pot or heatproof container. Drain the cooked solids through it, reserving 12 cups of the liquid. If you have less than 12 cups, add a little salt water to make up the difference. Discard the vegetables and finely chop or puree the meat.
- Add meat and 12 cups of liquid to a large pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and slowly add the cornmeal and buckwheat flour. Once it comes together to become a tight mush, transfer to an ungreased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Smooth the top and refrigerate for 24 hours until completely set.
- After 24 hours, remove the scrap from the baking sheet and cut into small squares. At this point you can wrap the extra squares in ziplock bags, freeze, and thaw when ready to use.
- Roll the scrap slices in flour. Add the butter or bacon grease to a heavy-bottomed or cast-iron skillet, heat over medium heat, and add the leftover squares in a single layer, working in batches if necessary. When they're golden and crisp, remove them from the pan and pat them dry with a paper towel. Serve with okra chow chow.
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