When Kim Lisinicchia was 11 years old, her grandmother in Savannah, Ga., taught her how to make fried chicken, collard greens and sweet potato pie.
Her grandma didn’t use a cookbook, and her precious recipes were never written down.
“You can’t really cook soul food from a recipe, it’s from your heart,” says Lisinicchia, a mother of two who lives in Saratoga Springs. “It’s all about watching.”
Soul food dishes were stirred into mainstream American cuisine long ago, especially in the South. But for African-Americans, soul food is an expression of culture and history. And the cooking and sharing of traditional dishes links one generation to the next.
“My grandmother used to tell stories,” says Lisinicchia. “Her grandmother was a slave. They took their rations and made it into a beautiful meal.”
Soul Food Luncheon/African-American History program
WHAT: “African American History: The Facts — Ten Things You Should Know and Ten Things You May Not Know,” presentation by Alicia Richardson and Melita Fogle. Event includes a performance by the SCCC Gospel Choir.
WHERE: Van Curler Room, Elston Hall, Schenectady County Community College, Schenectady
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Wednesday
HOW MUCH: $18. Reservations are required by Monday. Contact Sandy Troiano at 381-1218.
MORE INFO: www.sunysccc.edu
Next Wednesday, in celebration of Black History Month, collard greens, black-eyed peas and other down-home dishes will be on the menu at Schenectady County Community College during a Soul Food Luncheon.
“It’s a pretty good-sized list,” says chef David Cooper, an adjunct instructor in the School of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism.
Cooper and 17 students will whip up the buffet meal, with three entrees: oven-fried chicken; shrimp and grits; and deep-fried catfish with remoulade and fresh pickles.
Soul food is known for its many tasty side dishes, so at SCCC, in addition to the collards and black-eyed peas, diners will munch on macaroni and cheese, scallion corn bread, sweet potato casserole and Sylvia’s coleslaw.
“That’s a recipe from Sylvia Woods in Harlem,” says Cooper. “And the collards are braised. We’re doing it a vegetarian way. A little bit spicy with a background of tomato.”
For dessert, the students will make peach cobbler topped with ice cream and chopped praline.
In Saratoga Springs, every day is soul food day for Lisinicchia. Besides the aforementioned dishes, she also makes okra, bread pudding, pigs feet, sweet potato pie and chitlins, a dish made from pig intestines.
“When you grow up, you put your own twist on it,” she says. “You just gotta keep tasting it.”
Last week, Lisinicchia was cooking up 4 pounds of pigs feet from Avon Meat Land in Schenectady.
The pink-skinned, 6-inch stalks of meat, each with a hoof still attached, are marinated overnight and then simmered with spices on the stove. When the pork is ready to eat with rice and greens, the tender meat, golden and savory, nearly falls off the bone.
“I make a mean pot of pigs feet,” says Angela West-Davis of Schenectady. Like Lisinicchia, West-Davis cooks dozens of soul food dishes, including oxtails. Pigs feet is one of her favorites, but she makes them only once a year.
“Not a lot of people in my family eat pigs feet,” she says. “My son doesn’t eat it. My grandchildren don’t eat it.”
Family of good cooks
West-Davis, who works at SCCC as coordinator of Multicultural Affairs and the Educational Opportunity Program, grew up in Queens and learned to cook soul food by watching her mother and sisters in the kitchen.
“Soul food just tastes good. It’s cooked with love. It’s a comfort food. These are foods that traditionally African-Americans have grown to love, have grown to embrace, as part of our culture,” she says. “It’s food that has been cooked with some flavor.”
Her father, who was from Alabama, and her mother, a Virginia native, raised 17 children. “The only recipe we have written out is my mother’s dinner rolls. And everybody in my family is a great cook, my sisters and my brothers,” says West-Davis.
Lisinicchia is known for her home-cooked soul food, and for the past five years, she’s been catering parties for friends.
“I cooked for my wedding, too,” she laughs.
At the wedding reception three years ago, after she married Scott Lisinicchia at Dyer-Phelps AME Zion Church in Saratoga Springs, guests dug into her greens, ribs, mac and cheese and potato salad.
Both women enjoy their favorite dishes in their homes or with family and friends instead of in a restaurant.
“There’s nowhere to get a good plate of soul food,” says Lisinicchia. She also likes to cook at home because it’s healthier for her family.
“Even if we have chicken fingers, I make them homemade. It’s about taking a little time, giving it a little love. You can make a good meal in 30 minutes,” she says.
Because soul food can be high in fat, West-Davis watches what she eats.
“I don’t cook the macaroni and cheese the way I used to. I don’t eat a lot of fried chicken, but every now and then, I like a good piece of fried chicken. And a good piece of fried fish. I can’t eat it every day,” she says. “But on Sunday, I still traditionally cook a nice meal.”
At SCCC, the luncheon menu will be lower in fat than traditional soul food.
“There’s a fair amount of vegetarian on the menu,” says Cooper. “And obviously, there’s a concern about healthy cooking, which isn’t necessarily a focus of soul food.”
Following First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign for healthier eating, many restaurants, including Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, are using more smoked turkey and grilled shrimp and less pork.
While the term “soul food” probably dates to the 1960s, the dishes can be traced back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Like peasants from cultures all over the world, slaves on Southern plantations learned to cook every part of an animal, as well as vegetables that were available and abundant.
Pigs feet, also called “trotters,” are eaten not only by African-Americans, but Asians, Italians, the Irish, Hispanics, Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Portuguese, and Caribbean people.
“It was basically a peasant diet that was relatively cheap. You got your energy from fat, a very concentrated form of energy,” says Cooper.
Lisinicchia, the daughter of a Haitian mother and an African-American father, also cooks Caribbean food for her husband and children, but she leaves the Italian cooking to her husband, the son of an Italian-American father and an African-American mother.
Lisinicchia hopes to pass her passion for soul food to her daughter, Mahogany, who is 11, the same age that Lisinicchia was when she started hanging out in her grandmother’s kitchen in Georgia.
“My daughter loves to cook. Every time I’m in the kitchen, she’s observing,” says Lisinicchia.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Kim Lisinicchia and Angela West-Davis wrote these family recipes down especially for The Gazette)
Macaroni and Cheese
Recipe from Melvina L. West
1 pound elbow macaroni
1⁄2 stick butter or margarine
8 ounces of extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded or diced
8 ounces of Colby Jack cheese, shredded or diced
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons black pepper
1⁄2 cup bread crumbs (optional)
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup 1 percent milk
Boil macaroni in salted (optional) water. Drain and place back in pot with butter or margarine and half of the cheese. Mix until cheese softens and begins to melt. Add pepper and mustard, then mix. Add heavy cream and remaining cheese.
Pour into lightly coated (Pam or other spray) baking dish. Pour milk on top. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, if desired.
Preheat oven to 350 and bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown.
Smothered Pork Chops
Recipe from Angela West-Davis
6 lean center-cut pork chops
1⁄3 cup olive oil
1⁄2 cup whole wheat flour
3⁄4 to 1 cup cold water
1 tablespoon GravyMaster
Rinse pork chops in cold water and pat dry with paper towel. Season on each side with a little adobo, garlic powder and sazon. You could also use Mrs. Dash seasonings.
Place pork chops in plate of whole wheat flour and lightly cover both sides.
Heat olive oil in frying pan over medium heat. Fry pork chops for 5 to 7 minutes on each side until golden brown.
Remove pork chops from pan. Add flour left on plate to oil remaining in pan and stir vigorously until the mixture is thick. Add 3⁄4 cup to 1 cup of cold water and continue to stir. When the mixture is smooth, stir in GravyMaster.
Place pork chops back into pan, cover and return gravy to a boil on medium heat. Then turn heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes.
Serve with white or brown rice and string beans.
Recipe from Kim Lisinicchia
4 pounds pigs feet, halved
4 cups of water
1⁄4 cup of vinegar (save two tablespoons)
2 tablespoons lemon pepper
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
4 tablespoons ketchup
Rinse pigs feet. Marinate overnight in vinegar.
In a 6-quart pot, combine pigs feet with all the ingredients, including reserved vinegar. Cover, bring to a boil, then simmer for 11⁄2 to 2 hours until tender.
Serve with white rice and collard or mustard greens.
Coconut-Sweet Potato Pie
Recipe from Kim Lisinicchia
2 cups mashed sweet potatoes (boil then mash them)
1⁄3 cup butter
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄4 cup brown sugar
3⁄4 cup evaporated milk
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1⁄2 teaspoons vanilla
1⁄4 cup shredded coconut
1 9-inch pie crust, unbaked
Preheat oven to 375. Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and sweet potatoes. Stir in the rest of the ingredients, and bake for 40 minutes. Garnish with a little extra toasted coconut.