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Soul Food with Chef Wheeler del Torro

Soul Food with Chef Wheeler del Torro

Family. Survival. Communal. Love. Tradition. Home. 

Those were some of the answers from audience members when asked the question, "What do you think of when you hear the term 'soul food'?"

About 40 people assembled at the Seacoast African American Cultural Center on February 25th to join renowned Chef Wheeler del Torro for a pop-up event in celebration of Black History Month. The Cuban Chef, who splits his time between Paris and Boston, is famous for hosting pop-up restaurant events in venues of all kinds, ranging from hair salons to warehouses. As a food anthropologist, del Torro is interested on building relationships through sharing healthy meals. 

As the Chef was busy preparing a seven-course tasting menu for guests of the event, his assistant and public health professional, Liz DiLuzio, delivered a thoughtful lecture on the history of soul food as we know it today. While the term "soul food" itself only first appeared in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1964, DiLuzio delved into its origins, dating back to the period known as the Antebellum South (1619-1865) of American slavery. Blending aspects of cuisines from parts of West Africa, Europe, and the Americas, African slaves were forced to get creative with extremely scarce resources and unsavory cuts of meat from their masters to create wholesome meals. 

Traditional foods were shaped by access, and by the desire of a community to establish their own identity. The central ingredients of soul food were items accessible during slavery.
— wheelerdeltorro.com

Following the end of slavery, with resources still scarce and many still impoverished, soul food developed into a mode of shared gathering, community, and celebration. Their best dishes were reserved for special occasions, holidays, and church events. However, over the years and through the period DiLuzio referred to as "The Great Migration" (1910-1970), Southern African Americans began to leave the South and recreate these foods to be reminded of home. Gradually, these popular dishes (such as fried chicken, pork-infused meat dishes, candied yams) became more frequently eaten, and were even politicized through desegregation to exhibit pride in a separate black culture. Since, there has been debate among the African American community over the proper role of soul food moving forward: 

In the decades following slavery, there have been movements to reject these foods in an effort to reject the state of discrimination and oppression under which the recipes were created, as well as movements to reclaim time-honored meals as important cultural foundations.
— wheelerdeltorro.com

"We are at a crossroads," said DiLuzio of the higher incidence of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke plaguing the African American community. To combat this, DiLuzio and del Torro are empowering the Black community through education and culinary innovation to eat a healthier diet, comprised of the nutrient-rich foods eaten by our ancestors: leafy greens, legumes, vegetables, fish, and whole grains. DiLuzio's presentation offered healthy alternatives to the traditional soul food diet, highlighting the importance of using healthful methods of frying (i.e. swapping vegetable oils for hydrogenated oils and shortening) and incorporating more plant-based foods and lean protein. Visit their website to learn more.

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