In 2012, Alice Randall penned a very important article published in The New York Times titled “Black Women and Fat.” The article called attention to the body images of black women over time and how the high obesity rates among Blacks is a clear indication that a change needs to take place. The change she was talking about is how we cook, eat and feed our families as well as some of the culinary traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. For Randall, it was the tradition of cooking and eating soul food recipes taught to her by her mother and grandmother that would contribute to her own weight gain over the years causing the scale at one time to tip over 200 pounds. In the article, she also made a goal “to be the last fat black woman in my family.” A goal she took seriously when publishing the book “Soul Food Love” this year with her daughter Caroline Randall Williams which is a collection of 80 healthy soul food recipes to help others enjoy food while making healthier lifestyle changes.
I caught up with Randall and her daughter to talk about the book as well as tips that everyone can put into action whether they are trying to lose weight or just be a little healthier.
“Caroline was cooking things for me and sharing these healthy recipes so that my diet journey to be under 200 pounds wasn’t just about deprivation, it could be about wonderful food. I said to her, ‘Sweetie, you could write your own amazing cookbook.’ And she said to me, ‘And you can write it with me and cover a lot of the food history,’” says Randall who is a professor at Vanderbilt University in African-American and Diaspora studies as well as the first black woman in history to write a number one country song. In fact, she has more than 20 recorded songs credited to her name.
Reclaiming Health Through Food
Fighting her own battle with weight, Randall knew family members shared a history of being overweight and she didn’t want her daughter to face the same fate. Luckily, Williams was already on that path of creating her own healthy traditions inspired by the three generations of women before her. “I grew up knowing that entertaining and feeding people were a part of my legacy,” says Williams.
“As I got older and was starting to build my own kitchen, part of the reason behind the cookbook was finding ways to cook healthfully day in and day out for myself in my own kitchen which is something that I hadn’t really seen with any of the three women who I grew up with when I was growing up with them,” shares Williams. She shopped at Walmart while pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and learned how to prepare recipes using some of her favorite ingredients such as sweet potatoes, roasted red peppers, sardines and peanuts. She even created a sweet potato broth that is used as the base for several of their soups and stews such as the Peanut Chicken Stew recipe found in the cookbook.
The book deal came at just the right time with an initial interest in Randall by Random House following her New York Times article. Randall and Williams said the full concept of the book was conceived in a bookstore in Mississippi. A proposal was submitted in August of 2012 and by that December they had an offer. Once accepted, they would have a year to complete the book. “The book had been a decade in the making. It had been the two years that Caroline had been refining everything that she had inherited from all the grandmothers into a healthy kitchen that she could cook [with products] out of Walmart because that is what she had down in the Delta and on a limited teacher’s budget,” says Randall.
The mother-daughter duo team, who both completed their undergraduate work at Harvard, previously only shared memories of cooking together for special occasions and even then the food was not healthy. As adults, not only are they cooking everyday meals together that are healthy, they were writing a book to inspire others to do the same. In addition, Williams says the book includes love letters to her mom about how to reclaim her health.
Reinventing Soul Food
Their approach is easy and affordable and truly involves going back to the basics with ingredients and preparation techniques that Blacks have used for centuries. Baking and roasting vs. frying, exploring your spice rack to bring out flavors and naturally seasoning foods with herbs. Randall says she loves how Williams uses the smoky flavor from heavily roasted red peppers to add that extra kick to greens. “It is so delicious,” she declares.
Other techniques they use and share in the book include their take on the French cooking method, en papillote, where they use foil instead of parchment paper to steam fish topped with a fresh selection of herbs. Simply place the fish in the foil, top with herbs, seal the corners and in less in 25 minutes, you’ll have a healthy and savory dish.
Being realistic that change doesn’t happen overnight and that living a healthy lifestyle is very much a journey, their mantra is, “The struggle is real but the joy is too.” The book is about how to modify recipes so that you can still enjoy food. This even extends to cocktails as Randall shares this tip. “Alcohol mixers are not your friend. If you are going to drink, drink a fine spirit or wine and let it be that. You don’t need 400 or 500 extra calories of pure sugar and dye. I haven’t missed anything. ” Both Randall and Williams are big fans of winemaker Andre Mack’s Horseshoes & Handgrenades.
Be sure to follow Randall and Williams on Facebook for upcoming appearances which include Atlanta, San Francisco, Miami, and Baltimore. Randall will be appearing in October at the Southern Food Ways Symposium to talk about fried chicken and the Mahalia Jackson franchises. You can also follow Williams on her website at www.carolinerandallwilliams.com.