Juneteenth is Sunday, June 19. The holiday celebrates the liberation of enslaved African Americans in Texas. To remember that, all this week, WSKG is looking at the heritage of Black Americans in the Southern Tier.
Soul food is a cuisine from the southern United States, popularized across the United States when African Americans migrated to other parts of the country.
“It’s just the way we’ve seen people cook all our lives. It’s not even written,” said Tina Archie, co-owner of the Outlet Bar and Lounge in Endicott. It opened in October 2021.
In The Outlet’s kitchen, hot oil crackles as a piece of breaded chicken is dropped into a deep cast-iron pot on the stove. The restaurant serves food throughout the week, with roast chicken, mac and cheese, and candied yams, but on Sundays plays to an older crowd with old school music and a soul food dinner. The daily menu includes smothered turkey wings, prime rib, greens and potato salad.
The restaurant is a place that black people can relate to and make their own, Archie said. She brings back memories of gathering for Sunday dinners, prepared by her mother and grandmother.
“When you’re young, all you have to do is stop, sit down and eat. But now you have to prepare it. Get it ready,” Archie said.
Times are different and values have changed, but Archie said family dinners should be preserved.
“I hope I will instill this in my children, and then they will instill it in theirs. I hope so,” she added.
Archie’s daughter Rahkiya “Rocky” Brown is also his business partner. They don’t always agree on business decisions, like how to promote the restaurant on social media.
“It’s very, very stressful working with my mom,” Brown began. “It’s inspiring at the same time because she taught me how – not how easy it is, because it was hard work – but it’s not beyond our reach as than young black people to open our own establishment.”
Brown wants The Outlet to be a “refreshing and youthful” environment.
“We need the youth,” agreed Archie. “We need their ideas.”
recreate the house
Soul food has a heritage of ingenuity and ingenuity.
“And also an aftertaste of what our African ancestors ate,” explained soul food specialist Adrian Miller, “It’s a creative combination of West Africa, Europe and the Americas told through the story of food.”
According to Miller, one of the earliest documentations of fried chicken in the United States comes from a reference in the diary of Virginia Governor William Byrd, a slaveholder.
“Enslaved Africans, and later enslaved African Americans, were able to find a way to survive and create something beautiful that people around the world love,” Miller said.
Soul food evolved as African Americans resettled across the country. While the Great Migration brought millions of African Americans from the rural South to the urban centers of the North, the country’s food system was still emerging. Delicate mustard greens were not as readily available in the northern states as they were in the south, and, because collard greens were hardy and could withstand travel, collard greens became the most dominant green in soul food cuisine.
“When immigrants go from place to place, they try to get to the new place and recreate their home,” Miller explained. “And food is often an important way to recreate home.”
Home cooking also changed as black communities were exposed to the cuisines of their immigrant neighbors.
Although substitutions have been made for some ingredients, the preparation and performance of soul food has remained consistent over the decades. Dishes are heavily seasoned and spicy, blurring the lines between salty and sweet.
Soul food also uses what Miller called “funky cuts” of meat, such as ham hocks, oxtails and chitlins. Although these cuts were not seen on wealthy tables of the past, he noted that they have appeared more frequently on gourmet menus today.
Miller said society’s understanding of soul food is limited to party foods — fried chicken and peach cobbler — and often misses the much more comprehensive part of cooking.
“If you look at a lot of superfoods and what nutritionists tell us to eat – more dark leafy greens, more sweet potatoes, more fish, hibiscus and okra, superfoods. Those are all the building blocks soul food,” added Miller.
Sweet and sassy
Theo and Barbara Felton moved to the southern part of South Georgia and opened Theo’s Southern Style Cuisine in 1995. They served soul food and Creole dishes at the restaurant, located just off the Main Street arches in Johnson City, for 20 years.
“When we were at church, all I thought was, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get back to Theo’s and have a piece of fried chicken,'” the Feltons’ daughter laughed, Linda Osborne. “Even now on a Sunday, when I see fried chicken, I start to think of Theo’s.”
Osborne remembers how you could smell the barbecue before entering and the cornbread once inside. People said it felt like home.
“It was definitely a family place because the whole family worked there,” she said.
Felton’s eight children worked at their parents’ restaurant. One brother worked at the fryer while another washed the dishes or held the cash register. Even when she moved to Texas, Osborne said she would manage the finances of the Felton business and write menus.
When Theo closed, Osborne wanted to keep his family’s recipes. She started a line of sauces they used in the restaurant, including barbecue sauce made from her grandfather’s recipe, the hot and sweet sauce her father named Sweet and sassy. The sauces, sold in bulk, are available at select stores in Rochester and at Tom’s in Binghamton. Osborne also plans to launch a new honey-herb dressing, his own recipe.
After Theo Felton’s death and Osborne’s husband’s stroke, she started demonstrations of heart-healthy foods for the American Heart Association.
“I call it heart-healthy cooking, not just healthy cooking, but I want to cook — that we do things — to take care of our hearts,” she explained.
She uses smoked turkey in her greens instead of pork or bacon fat. His family still fry food, but maybe only once a week. Otherwise, they cook it with olive oil, panko crumbs, “really well seasoned”. She said the result is still crunchy but healthier for you.
Osborne published a cookbook of family recipes in 2016, Théo’s sweet and impertinent cuisine. She dedicated it to both her father and her mother, explaining that while the restaurant was named after her father, its recipes came from both sides of his family.
Sections of the book deal with their family tree and their “unity” heritage.
“Because food is also our heritage. But the undying love part, to me, is even more important,” Osborne said.
Fill your plate
Osborne participated in the Accelerator Support Black Business 607 (SBB607) program, a course that educates entrepreneurs on business models, marketing and finance. Participation also makes businesses eligible for $2,000 grants.
According to Fabiola Moreno Olivas of Koffman Southern Tier Incubator, a collaborator on the program, three people have qualified so far.
Osborne called the grant and the entrepreneur training that came with it a blessing, “which really helped me find the resources I needed to be able to take my business to the next level.”
Binghamton-area Black businesses will be featured at the June 18th Celebration on Saturday, June 18th at the downtown space commonly known as Assata Shakur Park.
Rocky Brown and Tina Archie of The Outlet serve on the event planning committee and are responsible for finding vendors. Their restaurant will distribute hot dogs and hamburgers.
“I’m kind of following in her footsteps,” Brown, who is also a new mom, said of her mother’s dedication to the community. She said they both kept their plates full.