Soul food recipes make family legacies in the Southern Tier
Juneteenth is Sunday, June 19. The holiday celebrates the liberation of African Americans enslaved in Texas. To remember it, all this week WSKG is looking at the legacies of Black Americans in the Southern Tier.
Soul food is a cuisine of the American South, popularized all over the United States as African American people migrated to other parts of the country.
"It's just the way that we've seen people cook all of 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 kitchen at The Outlet, 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 Sunday plays to an older crowd with old school music and a soul food dinner. The day's menu includes smothered turkey wings, beef ribs, greens and potato salad.
The restaurant is a place Black people can identify with and call their own, Archie said. It brings back memories of gathering for Sunday dinners, prepared by her mother and grandmother.
"When you're young, all you gotta do is pull up and sit down and eat. But now, you gotta prepare it. Dish it up," Archie said.
Times are different and values have changed, but Archie said family dinners should be preserved.
"I'm hoping that I'm gonna instill this in my children, and then they will instill it in theirs. I'm hoping," she added.
Archie's daughter, Rahkiya "Rocky" Brown, is also her business partner. They do not always see eye-to-eye on business decisions, like how to promote the restaurant on social media.
"It's very, very stressful working with my mom," Brown started. "It's inspirational at the same time because she taught me just how—not how easy it is, because it was hard work—but it's not out of our reach as young, Black people to open up our own establishment."
Brown wants The Outlet to be a "refreshing, young" environment.
"We need the youth," Archie agreed. "We need their ideas."
Soul food has a legacy of resourcefulness and ingenuity.
"And also an aftertaste of what our African ancestors ate," explained soul food scholar Adrian Miller, "It's a creative combining of West Africa, Europe and the Americas told through food story."
According to Miller, one of the first documentations of fried chicken in the U.S. came from a reference in the diary of Virginia Governor William Byrd, an enslaver.
"Enslaved Africans, and later enslaved African Americans, were able to figure out a way to survive and create something beautiful that people around the world love," Miller said.
Soul food evolved as African Americans resettled throughout the country. As the Great Migration brought millions of African Americans from the rural South to northern urban centers, the country's food system was still emerging. Delicate mustard greens were not as readily available in northern states as they were in the South, and, because collard greens were sturdy and could withstand the journey, collards became the more dominant green in soul food cooking.
"When immigrants go from one place to another, they try to get to the new place and recreate home," Miller explained. "And food is often an important way to recreate home."
Home cooking, too, changed as Black communities were exposed to the cuisines of their immigrant neighbors.
While substitutions for certain ingredients have been made, the preparation and performance of soul food has remained consistent over decades. Dishes are heavily seasoned and spicy, blurring the lines between savory and sweet.
Soul food also makes use of what Miller called the "funky cuts" of meat, like ham hocks, oxtails, and chitlins. Although these cuts were not seen on wealthy tables of the past, he noted they have shown up more frequently on fine dining menus today.
Miller said society's understanding of soul food is limited to celebratory foods—fried chicken and peach cobbler—and often miss the much more comprehensive part of the cuisine.
"If you look at a lot of the superfoods, and what nutritionists are telling us to eat—more dark leafy greens, more sweet potato, more fish, hibiscus, and okra, superfoods. These are all the building blocks of soul food," Miller added.
Sweet and Sassy
Theo and Barbara Felton moved to the Southern Tier from South Georgia and opened Theo’s Southern Style Cuisine in 1995. They served soul food and Creole dishes at the restaurant, located right next to the arches on Main Street in Johnson City, for 20 years.
"When we were in church, all I'm sitting there thinking about is, ‘Oh, I can't wait to get back to Theo's and get a piece of fried chicken,'" the Feltons' daughter, Linda Osborne, laughed. "Even now on a Sunday, when I see fried chicken, I start thinking back to Theo's."
Osborne recalls how you could smell the barbecue before you came in, and cornbread once you were inside. People said it felt like home.
"It was really family oriented place because all the family worked there," she said.
The Felton's eight kids worked at their parents' restaurant. One brother would work the fryer while another washed dishes, or manned the register. Even when she moved to Texas, Osborne said she would manage finances for the Felton's business and write menus.
When Theo's closed, Osborne wanted to preserve her family's recipes. She started a line of sauces they used at the restaurant, including the barbecue sauce made from her grandfather’s recipe, the hot and sweet sauce her father named Sweet and Sassy. The sauces, sold wholesale, are available in some stores in Rochester and at Tom's in Binghamton. Osborne plans to release a new herb honey vinaigrette, too—her own recipe.
After Theo Felton died and Osborne's husband suffered a stroke, she started heart-healthy food demonstrations for the American Heart Association.
"I call it heart-healthy cooking, not just healthy cooking, but I want to cook—that we're doing things—to take care of our heart," she explained.
She uses smoked turkey in her greens instead of pork or bacon grease. Her family does still fry food, but maybe only once a week. Otherwise they bake it with olive oil, panko crumbs, “seasoned up really good.” She said the result is still crunchy but healthier for you.
Osborne released a cookbook of family recipes in 2016, Theo’s Sweet & Sassy Cuisine. She dedicated it to both her father and mother, explaining that while the restaurant was named after her father, its recipes came from both sides of her family.
Sections of the book are about their family tree and legacy of "togetherness."
"Because the food is our legacy too. But the unfailing love part, to me, is even more important," Osborne said.
Filling your plate
Osborne took part in the Support Black Business 607 (SBB607) Accelerator program, a course that educates entrepreneurs in business models, marketing and finances. Participating also makes businesses eligible for $2,000 grants.
According to Fabiola Moreno Olivas with the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator, a collaborator on the program, three people have qualified so far.
Osborne called the grant, and the entrepreneur training that went with it, a blessing, "which really kind of helped me to find resources that I needed to be able to take my business to another level."
Black businesses from the Binghamton area will be featured at the Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18, at the downtown space commonly known as Assata Shakur Park.
Rocky Brown and Tina Archie with The Outlet are on the event's planning committee and responsible for getting vendors. Their restaurant will give out hotdogs and hamburgers.
"I'm kind of following in her footsteps," Brown, who is also a new mom, said of her mother's dedication to community. She said they both keep their plates full.