Recipes, Plus Sides at the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society

By: Ahmad Graves-El

A history lesson—in spirituals, dialogue, and soul food recipes—beckons you to the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society this Saturday.

For many people, soul food is a term defined as food that is good for the soul. However, for millions of Americans who are the descendants of Africans once enslaved by those of European ancestry in the United States—and especially to one local author—this term encompasses that definition, and so much more.

On Saturday, April 27, the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society (VHAS) is hosting a book signing event featuring retired teacher, Dr. Virginia Perry, who will be presenting her book, New Century Soul Food Cooking: A Patchwork Quilt of History, Resilience, Artistry, Necessity, and Creativity, at 2 p.m.

Perry’s book begins by giving a brief description regarding the history of slavery in the United States, and reveals a cornucopia of soul food recipes that have been handed down between African American families from generation to generation.

Many U.S. citizens concede that the brutal and pernicious enslavement of Africans in this country will go down as one of the most deleterious events ever recorded in human history.

Perry, a member of the VHAS, acknowledges the fact that the institution of slavery, and inhumane acts of slave masters and others, had a devastating impact on millions of Americans of African descent.

However, while doing research for her book, she discovered a people with a unique combination of resourcefulness, intellect, and will.

“To go back and look at what our [slave] ancestors had to do in order to survive, which makes me know they were some mighty smart people,” Perry explains as her reasoning for placing the brief description of the history of slavery in her book.

“We were not allowed to be taught to read. And whoever taught you was in danger of being executed,” says Perry, who won Vineland’s Teacher of the Year award in 1988. “We’re talking about ingenuity here. There were a lot of slaves who could read, but they would not let the slave owner know they could read.

“We were smart enough to survive in a land that was altogether new and a culture that was foreign,” she continues. “Having to learn a new language, having to assimilate as well as we could, [and] having to be certain that we could survive until tomorrow. We did all kinds of wonderful things.”

One of the survival tactics used by those slaves included turning the slave masters’ food scraps into something that would provide them with an ample amount of sustenance to work and live on, which eventually would be called soul food.

“Soul food is food that we [slaves] prepared for ourselves from trash meats. Things the [slave] master threw away,” Perry explains.

Perry gives examples of what those trash meats were in her book: “The meats used in Soul Food were the things destined for the garbage heap; ears, snouts, jowls, neck bones, intestines, knuckles, stomachs, tails, [and] feet [all of these came mostly from pigs and chickens].”

A lot of us might turn our noses up at the thought of eating those parts of an animal, including the slaves themselves, but according to Perry, they had to “make it do.”

“ … [T]he one thing about slaves—those who were in the field were using a lot of calories a day and the rations that the [slave] master gave them on Saturday wouldn’t last through the week if they ate them as they needed,” says Perry. “So they needed supplements.”

Since there were no Haars Health Food Center or GNC stores back then, their proteins and supplements came from those trash meats. But, according to Perry, this is one of many situations when the slaves’ ingenuity shined bright.

“Now to make these palatable, you know they had to have some kind of imagination,” Perry says. “[They] had to realize that [they couldn’t] just take these things and cook them and eat them. They had to be marinated. They had to be cared for before they even hit the cookpot. And in learning to do that, says to me, [they] really knew a lot. [They] really [were] very intelligent people.”

Perry’s presentation at the VHAS will not only showcase soul food recipes. She, along with her daughter, Midge Spencer, will give a morsel of information about the Underground Railroad through lyric and song.

“What we’ve done … [is] put together a presentation that talks about the need for us to have had music in our lives,” Perry says. “And we’re going to be doing a number of spirituals, just excerpts, and doing the dialogue to tell folks what they were meant for.”

Perry had some admirable goals she hoped to accomplish by writing this book.

“I have two adult granddaughters who are … millennials and it came into my purview that millennials are very, very intelligent people. But, they sometimes don’t have the desire to care for themselves the way they should,” says Perry. “They’re okay with ordering out and eating other people’s food rather than preparing their own. And I thought it would be neat if I could put something together for the generations coming up, so that we keep our heritage in cooking and they can care for themselves without having to order out so frequently.”

“I was [also] hoping to achieve some sense and semblance of who our ancestors were, how smart they were, how resourceful they were, how resilient they were, [and] how ingenuity reigned supreme within us. We have such a wonderful history … [and] the characteristics that let us survive what we [went] through.”

After reading Perry’s book, the compelling history lesson and tantalizing recipes will leave readers with something to chew on.

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