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Carla Hall Is in Atlanta This Friday Discussing Soul Food’s Complicated Heritage

Hall hopes to inspire African Americans to reclaim their cuisine during a talk about her new book at the Atlanta History Center 

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Chef and author Carla Hall
Melissa Holm

Top Chef Carla Hall will be at the Atlanta History Center this Friday, October 26, to discuss her latest cookbook with journalist Gail O’Neill and her journey to change the perception of soul food as an unhealthy cuisine born out of necessity from scrapes of food that slaves used to sustain themselves.

Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration explores Hall’s own heritage and her responsibility to educate people about the beauty behind a uniquely American cuisine. Hall, a chef, Emmy winning co-host of The Chew on ABC, two-time Top Chef competitor, and writer, hopes to shine her light on soul food.

“[Soul food] didn’t have a name until the late-1960s, early 1970s, so I didn’t look at it as this thing. It was just the food that we ate,” says Hall. “The premise of my cookbook is to not only show other people outside of the community what soul food is (and what it isn’t,) but it’s also to say to African Americans, ‘Look, I know that you think that this food is going to kill you, but actually all of it is not.’”

But, what is the difference between soul food and Southern food? For Hall, it’s “black people.”

With her newest project, Hall — who was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee — is determined to use her platform to reintroduce African Americans to foods that many have traditionally viewed as a painful and unhealthy vestige of slavery.

“African Americans will run away from this food, and they think it is the food of their oppressors, and I beg to differ,” explains Hall. “It is the food of our culture and our heritage. And, if you don’t honor, it will go away. If you don’t understand how to make it, if you don’t understand its history, it will go away.”

Traditional soul food, according to Hall, is a far cry from the fatty fried foods it has come to be strongly associated with in recent decades. In fact, soul food was primarily a vegetarian-based cuisine, relying heavily on seasonal produce and sustainable farming.

“You know, when you think about Africans who were coming over from West Africa and they have those okra seeds and the black-eyed pea, and all of this, they were eating lots of vegetables,” she says. “That’s where our cuisine came from. It is when we became more migrant and we didn’t have those gardens, things started to change. The Great Migration, I mean, probably changed our food a lot.”

While Hall wants to make sure soul food gets the respect and acclaim it deserves, she doesn’t want it to “have a moment.”

“[In Atlanta] everybody knows Paschal’s. When you go to a restaurant like [that] I look at the collard greens and I say, ‘oh this is what they’re supposed to look like’,” says Hall. “It may or may not be the best food, but there is history in those kitchens, and that’s what I’m interested in. I don’t want those people to be lost in the newness.”

Reclaiming the soul food narrative is not only what inspired her to write the book, but also what she plans to spend most of her time focusing on during her discussion with O’Neill on Friday evening at the Atlanta History Center.

“The thing that I want people to know is that soul food is more than smothered chicken, fried chicken, pork chops, mac and cheese, all this heavy food that is going to quote unquote ‘kill you’ because those are the celebration foods. There are foods that people were eating every day.”

Hall will be at the Atlanta History Center this Friday, October 26 at 7 p.m., discussing some of her favorite recipes from the book as well as her hopes for soul food moving forward.

Tickets are $40 per person ($35 for AHC members) and includes a copy of “Carla Hall’s Soul Food”.

Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta.