Soul Food In Austin, Texas: Marcus Samuelsson Comes To Town

I spend a lot of time thinking about soul food. Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, country cooking, a cousin to the genre, was on my family’s table seven nights a week. We raised our own beef, our own pork, and had a big vegetable garden on our family farm.

A typical meal on a given night: Country Fried Steak (a cousin to chicken fried steak,) sweet corn, green beans with bacon, corn bread, sweet tea and blackberry dumplings.

I grew up eating soul food.

I went on to matriculate in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the great American soul food cities. Small, famil- run, cheap as hell soul food cafes dotted the landscape back in the nineties. Brochettes Q and Bayou, Family Reunion Cafe, The Half Moon, Ensley Grill, Green Acres, The R-3…there were, and are dozens of joints in town where you can get your fix.

I grew up eating soul food.

Recently, a hot argument broke out in national media when Eddie Huang, owner of New York’s BaoHaus, took celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson to task over his Harlem restaurant Red Rooster.

It’s a fascinating read that borders on diatribe.

Mr. Huang has a serious problem with Samuelsson opening a fine dining version of a soul food restaurant in Harlem, the historically Black neighborhood in Manhattan.

Huang: “With Red Rooster, the Ethiopian-born chef behind Aquavit has given himself a difficult assignment—writing the report for a book he never read.” Ouch.

Huang goes on, “By catering to diners outside Harlem and talking down to the ones who live there—promising things like “elevated” soul food—he treats the place like a museum exhibit. He speaks in stereotypes, desperately trying to capture snapshots of villagers dancing, praying, and bespoke-suiting to display in this playhouse of a restaurant.”

All that’s well and good but how’s the food Eddie? “…while Red Rooster served a myriad of misses—the Berbere roasted chicken came swimming in broken-down murky brown sauce, the cornbread was stale, and the $18 dirty rice, with five measly U26 shrimp, was tepid—the Swedish-inflected offerings, like Helga’s Meatballs with lingonberries, were excellent.”

Faint praise?

Eddie Huang’s take-down of Samuelsson did not go unanswered. New Orleanian Lolis Eric Elie sprung to his friend’s defense. Elie is the author of the greatest book on barbecue ever written Smokestack Lightning. If it’s not on your bookshelf then you need to reevaluate your library.

Elie raises some good points, chief among them being “by what standards were Marcus, his restaurant, and his autobiography being judged?” He goes on to rather eloquently dismantle many of Huang’s points about Harlem and its citizens saying, “Are middle class Harlem residents less deserving of a restaurant that appeals to them than are their poorer neighbors?”

Brett Anderson, noted Louisiana food critic stepped into the middle of the dust-up here he offers a reasoned response.

There are few things I love more than a well-framed argument between warring camps who are gazing upon the exact same subject-and ready to implement willow switches and whittling knives to get the other side whipped into shape.

Here’s the Huang piece

Want to meet Samuelsson and buy a book? He’s at Central Market 4001 N. Lamar Blvd today 7/18/2012 from 4-6 pm tickets are $20 and include a copy of “Yes Chef”

About RL Reeves Jr

I'm a writer living and working in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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