New York: Food for the soul in Harlem

By Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

Head to Upper Manhattan for a real taste of New York, writes Charlotte McDonald-Gibson.

Soul food is essentially food from the Deep South, transported up to New York by successive waves of economic migration.
Soul food is essentially food from the Deep South, transported up to New York by successive waves of economic migration.

Where do you go to get a true taste of New York City? The pizzerias of Little Italy? The hip ramen noodle joints of the East Village? Or do you head to the United House of Prayer mega-church in Harlem and tuck into a plate of pigs' trotters with collard greens?

Ask Jacqueline Orange, a former banker who now runs culinary tours, and within the space of a few hours she will have convinced you that nowhere encapsulates the Big Apple's ever-shifting communities and their cuisines, like the neighbourhood north of 96th Street. It's finally flourishing again after decades off the tourist radar.

"Harlem has a very rich history," she says over a plate piled high with fried chicken and waffles during the lunchtime rush at Amy Ruth's soul food restaurant.

I had never imagined those two ingredients competing for space on the same plate.

"Just think of it as meat and bread," Jacqueline assured me. After a bit of a faux pas with the hot sauce (it goes on the chicken, not the waffle), I was a convert, the saltiness of the fried, moist chicken melding with the fluffy sweetness of the waffle.

Amy Ruth's was a good place to start our tour it serves one of the few uniquely American cuisines. New York's inhabitants rave about its multi-faceted restaurant scene, but when it comes to indigenous fare, many struggle to define it beyond hamburgers and hot dogs.

Not so in Harlem. In its soul food restaurants, the food is bold, flavoursome and laced not only with the salt and fat that has dieters running for the hills and gourmets licking their lips, but also the history of the nation.

Soul food is essentially food from the Deep South, transported up to New York by successive waves of economic migration. The food has its roots in slavery, when African-American families were using whatever ingredients they could get their hands on.

"They were just trying to get a meal to the table,'' said Jacqueline.

"Whatever was around, you're trying to make something out of it, stuff from the ground, parts of the pig that the slave master would not want."

Flavours of pork suffused many of the dishes sampled throughout the day, giving particular richness to the collard greens, best described as a cross between spinach and cabbage. We tucked into oxtail, short ribs, baked macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, buttered corn and catfish. A particularly delicious side dish on every soul food menu was candied yams mashed sweet potato laced with brown sugar.

As the civil rights movement swept America, this traditional home-cooked fare became linked with African-American empowerment and thus became known as soul food. Jacqueline's tour takes in much of the history of that time.

But the tour didn't just focus on soul food the entire history of a neighbourhood was encapsulated by tasters at one eatery after another. Next up was Mr Lee's, a tiny bakery with an elderly African-American man seated behind the counter. Although his cases were filled with peach cobbler and sweet potato pie, it was another treat that has New Yorkers flocking to his shop: rugelach, a traditional Jewish pastry that a rabbi taught Mr Lee how to bake. At the turn of the last century, Harlem was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, with a sizeable community staying until the 1930s.

The next big demographic shift was in the 1940s and 1950s, when Hispanics, West Indians and African-Americans starting making Harlem their home. Since the 1980s, the West African community too has grown, and our tour included a stop at a French-Senegalese caf, Patisserie des Ambassades, for spicy lamb chops.

Another taste of history came at the Tropical Grill and Restaurant, a Dominican restaurant where we tucked into a barbecued chicken with black beans and plantain. Dominican food made its mark on Harlem in the 1950s when the US granted asylum to victims of the murderous regime of Rafael Trujillo. Looking for ways to get by without their husbands, women opened food stalls, giving the area yet another delicacy for its culinary mix.

Nowadays, if you ask long-time Harlem residents, they will say the fastest-growing demographic is middle-class families and young professionals who flock to the neighbourhood for its relatively affordable property prices.

Although there are grumbles of inflated rents pushing out the businesses that gave Harlem its character, it has made it an attractive prospect for visitors. A number of brownstone buildings have been converted into delightful B&Bs, where you can escape the exorbitant prices of Lower Manhattan. Harlem even has a modern-fusion soul food restaurant: the Red Rooster, with a Swedish-American-Ethiopian chef whose CV includes cooking a state dinner for President Obama.

But whether you decide to eat blackened catfish with salsa verde and caperberries at the Red Rooster or pile your plate high with the more traditional delights of Amy Ruth's, the effect will be the same.

"When you eat soul food, it's going to lift your spirits," Jacqueline sums up.

- INDEPENDENT

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