Reclaiming Soul Food with Chef Carla Hall

Nashville-born chef Carla Hall looks to her roots to redefine the South’s version of soul food.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Holm

By: Carla Hall

I’ve often said that I unapologetically love soul food, and I do. But the soul food I grew up eating wasn’t all smothered pork chops, fried chicken, and candied yams. Those were celebration dishes, and while I loved those, too, the soul food I knew was greens and beans and grains and the way my grandmothers cooked—with lots of vegetables.

Soul food hasn’t always been deep-fried and smothered in butter. It stems from West Africa, where the people’s diets were plant-based and nutritious. They grew and ate things like okra, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas. These foods arrived in the American South with the transatlantic slave trade. Slaves in the Carolinas grew these foods just like they had in Africa, and they became a part of the Southern palate. Meat was expensive, so in African American communities, meals like stewed beans, greens, and crispy fried hot water cornbread were part of the weeknight repertoire. But as incomes increased and folks were able to afford more, vegetables shifted to sides, and meats became the star of the supper table. Celebration foods were no longer reserved for special occasions; they were eaten every day.

When I cook, I try to imagine the ingredients that my ancestors would have brought with them on their journey from Africa. I imagine they’d be eating lots of beans, peas, and grains like millet and sorghum, and it’s that thought process that dictates my cooking. I like to think that I put vegetables first and use meats as a garnish, and the older I get, the more confident I become in making the food that is deeply engrained in my culture.

For this salad, I took one of my favorite soul foods—black-eyed peas—and created a wholesome salad perfect for summertime. To me, Southern food is the balance between acid and sweet and hot and spicy, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in this dish. You get the tanginess of the yellow mustard (Dijon will not do), a kick of heat from the hot sauce, and just a touch of sweetness from the honey. I call this a sitting salad because you put the dressing on it and nothing is going to wilt. It just sits and gets better and better.