Says Baby Girl

Linda Burton posting from Arkadelphia, Arkansas – Caroline Randall Williams is a poet. Her debut book of poetry, Lucy Negro Redux, came out in 2015. And so did her amazing cookbook/family history masterpiece Soul Food Love, written in collaboration with her mother, Alice Randall. Caroline is a Harvard grad, a teacher, and maybe the prettiest and most engaging person I’ve met in quite a while. The picture above I took after her lecture at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock this month; we’d finally gotten her downstairs to the gift shop so we could buy her book, and chat. “Will you be at the Cornbread Festival tomorrow?” I asked, an annual event in Little Rock’s evolving and historic South Main area, SoMa. “No, I’ll be cooking at the Smithsonian with my cover-soul-food-lovemother. We’re demonstrating one of the recipes in our book at the Food History Festival.” “Name dropper!” I laughed. “The Smithsonian! Which one?” Double answer: the National Museum of American History; the recipe Peanut Chicken Stew. The Museum’s weekend celebration, dubbed “Politics on Your Plate,” was all about the past, present, and future of food and community in America, and Soul Food Love was a perfect fit. Food history, inseparable from family; identified with love, in whatever kinds of ways we live; a record of the way we come to know the world. Let’s talk about the book. An excerpt from the preface so you’ll know exactly what the authors meant to do:

This cookbook tells the story of five kitchens—three generations of women who came to weighing more than two hundred pounds, and a fourth generation that absolutely refused ever to weigh two hundred pounds. It’s the story of a hundred years of cooking and eating in one black American family. On these pages we share the kitchen memories, kitchen gossip, and foodways that sustained two great-grandmothers, a grandmother, and us: a mother and a daughter. Dear’s kitchen, Grandma’s kitchen, Nana’s kitchen, Mama’s kitchen (Alice’s), and Baby Girl’s kitchen (Caroline’s). All are sacred places in our family. But only one is simple: Baby Girl’s.

We wanted to create a kitchen where “what’s good is good for you,” says Baby Girl.

The 80 recipes in the book came from four generations of black women; then, overhauled by Caroline (Baby Girl) and Mama (Alice) emerged as affordable, indulgent, healthful dishes that still honor their heritage.

“So how can that be?” you may ask. Sugar, salt, and grease, isn’t that the secret of the taste? Affordable and indulgent? No way! I’m flipping through my copy of the book (one of the most beautifully designed and graphically stunning cookbooks I’ve ever bought, by the way) to check. Chicken not fried? “Fried chicken is a bad boyfriend,” says Baby Girl, “time to kick that so-and-so out of the house.” She offers instead Chicken Roasted with Lemon and Onion, Steamed Chicken and Broccoli, Spicy Pepper Chicken, and oh yes, that famous Peanut Chicken Stew. I paper clip the Spicy Pepper page, I’m going to try that Saturday – cayenne pepper, olive oil, garlic cloves and a chicken, slather and roast!

On to vegetables, A Mess of Greens is first. “Traditionally cooked with a leg laying on top” said Baby Girl at the lecture. Oh yes, collard greens and ham hocks, or a hunk of turkey leg. Baby Girl retains one part of that tradition: wash the greens seven times, one for each day of the week, including Sunday, the day of rest; that’s the love. Today’s ingredients, no greasing up the pot: collards, kale, mustard greens, or turnip greens, yellow onion, garlic cloves, jalapenos, hot sauce, apple cider vinegar. Cook about 2 hours.

And what about Fiery Green Beans? Not boiled until they’re nearly black, Baby Girl’s green beans are a 10-minute roast in a baking pan, along with some green onion, parsley, cilantro, red pepper flakes and a drizzle of olive oil. When done, splash with lemon juice and just a touch of salt. “Serve hot or cold,” says Baby Girl, “they just get better as they sit.”

Chopped up fruit bits in a can with sticky syrup is not fruit salad, but “an abomination that should be stricken from school cafeterias and pantry shelves!” Baby Girl declares. “There is almost no fiber, few vitamins, too much sugar, and too many calories.” Try New School Fruit Salad instead. Chop up some seedless watermelon, cherry tomatoes, and avocado, stir in some olive oil, lemon juice, and feta cheese. Eat healthy, with a smile.

They served Baby Girl’s Meringues at the lecture, “a near-perfect dessert,” she claims, adding “I limit my sweets to those I make myself. It doesn’t mean I never eat sugar, it does mean I eat less.” Meringues are simply egg whites and sugar whipped and baked; add a bit of coffee or vanilla sugar for variety.

This cookbook goes far beyond ingredients and nutrition savvy, let’s not forget; it starts with memories, a tale of living with the limits of the times, of hurt and overcome, of strength and fire, of love and soul wrapped around the day-to-day of food.

“Dear” was born in 1897, lived in Selma, Alabama, and then Detroit. In childhood she sucked sugar-tits, raised by a black grandma, her white father from a prominent Alabama family. “Grandma” was born in 1906, married Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps, lived in Nashville, baked a birthday cake for Jesus every year, the youngest child would blow the candle out. “Nana” was born in 1927; married Avon Williams Jr, the first black senator elected baby-girl-and-familyin Tennessee since Reconstruction; their home a central spot for the Nashville civil rights movement. “Mama,” Alice Randall, (far left) has many claims to fame, a best-selling author, including The Wind Done Gone, writer of many country songs (the only black woman to have written a number one country song, XXX’s and OOO’s, An American Girl, 1993), graduated from Harvard, studied with Julia Child, worked on Johnny Cash videos. And had herself a Baby Girl.

So, back to Caroline Randall Williams, aka “Baby Girl.” When Mama Alice decided she’d be the last woman in her family line to be fat, she enlisted her daughter’s help. The work of reinventing recipes took several years, a labor of love, and common sense. All the recipes in Soul Food Love are from Baby Girl’s kitchen.

“You can cook every one from a Walmart shelf,” she says, “or from your home garden, or Whole Foods….our kitchen celebrates soul food staples….but foodways in much of black America are plain broke-down. Too many young black women have lower life expectancies than their mothers….and it’s not just black America. The Sun Belt is now the Stroke Belt. Fat-fueled diseases – diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and cancer – ravage the nation. We can change that in the kitchen, on the quick and on the cheap. We know because we did it. Our ideal is a table that delights, fortifies, and remembers.” Excerpt from Soul Food Love by Alice Randall and Caroline Randall Williams (Clarkson Potter, 2015).

 Praise for Soul Food Love

“Soul Food Love has preserved our traditions but reinvented how they’re prepared. Its focus on health is a godsend.” —Viola Davis

“This is a book about redefining soul food for the future, not romanticizing its often calorie-laden past.”—The New York Times

“The book redefines traditional soul food cooking with a healthful spin.”–Southern Living Magazine, naming Caroline one of the “50 People Who Are Changing the South in 2015


Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Little Rock, Arkansas