When Carla Hall set out to write her latest cookbook, Carla Hall's Soul Food, the South was heavily on her mind. She brushed off efforts from her agent not to journey for the project, and set her sights on experiencing soul food and its roots on her own terms.
In her latest chat with Capitol File, the D.C. resident dishes on her journey through the South, how its people influenced her cooking, and what her return to TV will look like.
You journeyed far and wide to write your latest cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food. What was it like to travel through the South and meet with some of the people who helped define its cooking?
CARLA HALL: It was so incredible, and I think one of the best parts was meeting chef Joe Randall. I had heard Joe's name, but I hadn't met him and when you meet him and you see all of the things that he has done over all of these decades and the people that he's inspired and what he continues to do including wanting to inspire young black cooks, I was just sitting there at breakfast pinching myself. I was like, “Oh my God, here I am with Joe Randall!” And then to hear all his stories. It was just amazing! This entire journey and the people that I've met and been inspired by has been life-changing experience. I remember interviewing Jessica Harris about her book and I was on the stage at one point, and couldn't believe I was interviewing her! And it was really the work that Jessica did at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture that encouraged me to be proud of so much of my heritage and culture and that I didn't know had put me on this path. She was actually the one who put together the format of Sweet Home Cafe with the different stations that emphasized how African Americans influenced the West and the South and the North and the Creole coast. All of this has been a journey that continues to unfold.
I felt, after reading the cookbook, that it was both a culinary and spiritual homecoming for you. Did you feel that way?
CH: I did and I didn't know that was what it was going to be. I remember having this book deal with Harper Wave and setting out to do this book on revolutionizing soul food, and I was like, this just doesn't feel right. It doesn't make sense. Why am I changing something? You know? I don't want to revolutionize it, I really want to reclaim it. But then what am I reclaiming? And so I said to my literary agent, I have to take a trip down South and it would be great to take Genevieve Ko, who worked on the book with me, and Gabriele Stabile, our photographer, and she was like, "No, you shouldn't do that, it'll be expensive as hell." And I said, "Oh no, I'm doing it, I have to do it," and it was the best thing. We didn't even know what was going to unfold, and I was working with a culinary historian, Tanya Hopkins, and I just made sure she sort of helped us, Genevieve and me, curate this trip, and I said, just make sure we're covering our bases. I don't want to miss obvious things because I don't know them, and once we had this loose map of where we wanted to go, all these surprises just unfolded.
Hall's journey through the South was a spiritual homecoming for the chef.
There is a photo of you at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was quite striking. What did it mean for you to stand on that bridge and experience its history for the first time?
CH: You hear about the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as well as Bloody Sunday—and I heard my parents talk about it growing up, I saw pictures of it too—but to actually walk on the bridge and energetically feel all of the energy that is on that bridge and the pain, when I was walking up the bridge, I was just overwhelmed by the sense of sadness and horrific pain. I crossed the bridge, and I was crying and Genevieve is asking me, “What are you feeling?” and Gabriella is taking all these pictures, and I just felt this injustice. Throughout my life I've always felt this sense of helping the underdog, or the person or people who aren't seen, and all of those feelings on this bridge while the sun was setting, forced me to get myself together. As I was walking down the bridge, I felt a sense of moving forward in spite of all of that that happened there. Because of the people who were on this bridge, I know that I have a sense of freedom. And that was the moment that Gabriella took that picture. And every time I talk about it, I just get so welled up. It was a pivotal moment for me and how I wanted to tell this story with all people who came before and all these chefs and farmers that I've interviewed. It was a powerful experience.
You start the book by tackling the differences between soul food and Southern food. I'm sure you've been asked this a hundred times, the difference between the two, for you, is what?
CH: I mean, it's simple, and I say that soul food is the food that is made by black cooks. I used the analogy of a Negro spiritual and a hymn to explain it. Southern food is that hymn and soul food is that Negro spiritual. But it's become more than that as I talked to people and I talked to Africans who have come through the middle passage in recent years, and even in the last two decades, and they say, “I got to the States,” and they came to New York, and they hated the food. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, what is this food?” and then they went down south to South Carolina and they were like, “Whoa, this is my food!” They had a connection to the food and they're seeing people who look like them. So, if this person who was African, from West Africa, comes to the South and they see their food—the food that was cooked by slaves and that informed what Southern food is today—then that means that Southern food is a derivative of that food. Now, soul food was given its name in the late 60s, but it deserves to be a cuisine that has informed Southern food, and hence, American food, and I think it has its own lane. You don't have to be black to make it, just like I don't have to be Italian to make Italian food, or Chinese to make Chinese food, but you give credit to those cultures.
I miss watching you on The Chew, which is why so many people, myself included, would love to see you with your own cooking show. Would you return to TV? What are you planning for us next?
CH: I want to do that! I am talking to many people about what that next step is. I felt so blessed to do The Chew for seven seasons and that last year, spending more time with Clinton Kelly and Michael Simon was magical. It was absolutely magical. When I left, I said I never thought I would have had this job, but I do know that my next job will be on television because I really enjoy it. And so, I'm figuring out what that show will be like and working on that. It takes just as long to put a show on television as it does to create a restaurant. I want to do a little bit of acting, that was my first love. I don't want to just do food. So I'm excited about what that looks like and I'm not putting any parameters around it.
Photography by: Photography courtesy Melissa Hom