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When Southern Cooking Migrates North

Bill Radke

Angela Kim

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Lem's Bar-B-Q
(Amy C. Evans)
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MULTIMEDIA SLIDESHOW: Amy Evans, oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, describes Rose DeShazer White's mouth-watering process for making her delicious Caramel Cake


This weekend, people are rediscovering the Southern flavor of Chicago. The event is called "Camp Chicago: An Up South Expedition." There will be grilling, BBQ, soul food tasting and conversations on a unique topic: What does the story of food say about the American story?

Amy Evans is an oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She went to Chicago in March to collect stories from Southern food restaurant owners:


Bill Radke: Amy, we can't talk about Southern food without talking about barbecue. What did you find out about the great barbecue migration?

Amy Evans: James Lemons of Lems Bar-B-Q, he is a native of Indianola, Miss., and grew up on a farm with this family. They would have hog killings every year, so he and his brothers had an intimate relationship with hogs. And once they got to Chicago, they went back to that so they could be small-business owners and work for themselves and do something that they knew and loved.

Radke: Let's hear from James Lemons:

James Lemons: When we came to Chicago, we start working in a restaurant. Then the war came along so a lot of people went to the factories, but my brother and I stayed in the cooking business. Then years later, my younger brother came along. They opened up a barbecue place. I came in on later.

Radke: What did you find out about how Southern food has changed since it's moved North?

Really, that just depends on the individual -- how they've changed something, or used a different ingredient that they found in the city. One example is Izola White, who has Izola's Family Dining on 79th Street in Chicago. She took the South with her and opened a soul food restaurant on the South Side of Chicago. She did leave something behind, and that was yellow cornmeal. Her corn muffins are made specifically with white cornmeal and she talks about that in her interview.

Izola White: I never did like yellow cornmeal, 'cause that's all we had down South. When you in the South, and you have no money, you get the corn, and you take it to the gin and then ground it up, make it into yellow cornmeal, that's what we had. I never liked it from that day on.

Radke: What did that say to you, that here was someone purposely turning away from what she grew up with?

It's really complicated -- a lot of displaced Southerners still have a connection to their home place, whether it be through family reunions or relatives still there, or just going back to visit the place from which they came. But Izola was a standout. While she opened a soul food restaurant, she really wanted to cut ties with her memories and experiences from the south.

Radke: You also spoke with the owner of a Chicago soul food restaurant who grew up in Chicago. It was her parents who moved north, her name is Edna. What has southern food meant to her?

Well, Edna Stewart's story -- Edna Stewart is the owner of Edna's Restaurant on West Madison Street in Chicago, on the West Side -- and she, as you said, is a native of Chicago and her parents were sharecroppers in Covington, Tenn. Really, she and her restaurant are an icon of the Civil Rights movement in Chicago.

Radke: Let's hear that clip from Edna Stewart:

Edna Stewart: One day in the restaurant, it was a white girl and a black guy, and they had on jeans -- and in 1966 we didn't see too many jeans, OK? And we didn't see a mixed racial couple on Madison Street. So they would come in, and they would say 'Ooh, that looks good.' So finally they would probably have a piece of cornbread and some syrup, and they would stay probably, three, four hours. Every day, they'd come in. He said 'Would you like some more customers?' I said 'Sure I would love some more customers!' But he didn't tell me that he was one of the scouts for Dr. King's organization. And that's how everybody start -- Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dorothy Tillman and Rev. Bernard Lee -- so that's how I got the Civil Rights workers.

Food brought Civil Rights workers to her restaurant. She made a connection with them and supported them and literally fed the movement in Chicago. When in 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, the riots in Chicago -- the entire neighborhood around her -- was devastated and many buildings on her block burned to the ground. But Edna's survived, the restaurant survived.

Radke: Amy, what have you learned about the future of Southern food outside the South?

Everyone I ask across the board, I ask 'What is the future of your business, or your restaurant?' And so many people don't have an answer. They don't know. Their children aren't interested, or their grandchildren aren't interested. And there's also a revolution of Southern food -- Southern food, in its popularity, is being adapted in all different kinds of ways and you see a lot of white-tablecloth restaurants having greens and a duck cassoulet at five-star restaurants.

Amy, thank you so much for the conversation.

Thank you, Bill, for having me.

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