Soul Food Without the Soul?

Deep country fried chicken popping and steaming on a plate of buttered grits and collard greens, companioned by a large foam cup of sweet lemonade – a meal of decadence and simplicity that may be losing roots in the one place least expected.  It’s not too difficult to find a rendition of this meal in New York City, but most likely that’s what it would be, a rendition, recipes contorted to generate a steadier profit from a discriminating clientele, for better or for worse. 

Covered in the NY Times yesterday, soul food is losing position in Harlem.  As ludicrous as it may be to fathom, the streets once concentrated with “inexpensive, family-run restaurants operated by black Southern transplants” have given way for adapting palates, concerned with healthier diets, global cuisine or in polar circumstances fast food.

Ladles of unctuous brown gravy and neon yellow sticks of butter have become less useful in a market increasingly partial to diverse cuisines, options that have become available with the influx of wealthier residents.  The awareness of smarter, healthier dieting, and the ability to afford it, has left many soul food eateries vacant.

Johnny Manning, a Harlem resident who runs, told the Times:

“There used to be two or three soul food places on a block. Now you’ve got to look for them. When I came here, Harlem was predominantly black, so you had a predominantly black cuisine in restaurants.”

Calvin Copeland, who closed his restaurant Copeland’s last summer 50 years said:

“The transformation of Harlem snuck up on me like a tornado.  I don’t expect many of those places to last.  Soul food was supposed to be a cheap type of food that black people made at home.  What we used to call cheap isn’t cheap anymore.”

Perhaps what Mr. Manning and Mr. Copeland, and the handful of surviving soul food restaurateurs are attesting to – more than the ambivalent future of soul food – is the capacity at which this city can turn over, sometimes force over,  bygone sensibilities.  It’s an unfortunate price at the rate of being contemporary. 

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