Locals reflect on food, ancestry and the joy of creating beloved dishes
The origins of soul food can be traced to the Gulf Coast states of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, historians tell us.
But although soul food didn’t originate on the upper Texas coast, chefs and restaurants in these parts have perfected it, serving up such beloved fare as fried and smothered chicken or pork chops — or any kind of pork for that matter. There’s also the rich and hearty sides of macaroni and cheese, rice and gravy, and greens, be they of the collard, turnip, mustard, cabbage or kale variety.
And let’s not forget sweet potatoes, candied yams — no, they’re not the same — black-eyed peas, a nice piece of cornbread, and a dessert, such as banana pudding, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie or a slice of pound cake.
But what’s the difference between Southern food and soul food? It shouldn’t be complicated, according to delish.com.
“While not all Southern food is considered soul food, all soul food is definitely Southern,” according to the publication dedicated to food and its cultural influence. “The expression ‘soul food’ originated in the mid-1960s, when ‘soul’ was a common word used to describe African American culture.”
Coast Monthly caught up with a few local chefs who offer their take on the cuisine, while sharing what “soul food” means to them and tips for cooking it at home. They also riff on Creole cuisine, a style of cooking originating in Louisiana that blends West African, French, Spanish, Amerindian influences, as well as influences from the general cuisine of the South and which offers soulful takes on Gulf Coast seafood.
‘It comes from my heart’
Since she was a young girl, La Marque native and resident Johnae Lynn Cotton has been cooking with her grandmother, Clarece Long, who she affectionately calls “GiGi.”
Cotton, 37, is now the owner of Johnae’s Soulfood, 4915 FM 517 E., in Dickinson, which features delectable and heaping portions of a variety of soul food dishes, including fried catfish, oxtails and baked chicken, along with other items like Creole shrimp and grits and homemade biscuits.
Cotton’s passion for cooking is clearly on display in each and every plate she serves.
“I really just love to cook — everything,” Cotton said. “I absolutely love to create new meals, and love is my inspiration.
“For me, soul food means love because it comes from my heart. I do what I do because I love to do it.”
Cotton grew up in a large family that would gather at her grandmother’s house each Sunday after church service. At age 10, she became her GiGi’s protégé, she said.
“The seed was planted after all of those Sunday dinners,” she said. “Soul food recipes and ideas were passed down through generations in my family. And, now, these same foods have grown and caught on in our region, which has made them more available throughout the years.”
A woman of faith, Cotton believes her
passion for cooking came from God, allowing her to bring people together one plate at a time through food and fellowship, she said.
“It makes me feel really good when I see people’s expressions when they taste my food,” Cotton said. “It truly brings me joy that I cannot put into words.
“From all the support of my family and friends, especially my husband, Charlton, even in the midst of a pandemic and some disappointments along the way, this has been a dream come true.”
‘You can’t go wrong’
As the owner of the largest Black-owned restaurant in Galveston County — Big Phil’s Soul & Creole Café at Mainland City Centre, 10000 Emmett F. Lowry Expressway in Texas City — Phil Palmer believes soul food and Creole food symbolizes togetherness, he said.
The 35-year-old La Marque native, now living in Texas City, began cooking at the age of 5, cutting onions and bell peppers with his mom, Thyra Jones, and his father, Phillip Palmer III, who for several years was a chef on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
Palmer still is inspired by his late father, whose presence can be found at the restaurant in the image of a large mural, and in dishes Palmer has put together for all to enjoy, he said.
“When we cook, we do so to bring people together,” Palmer said. “A pot of gumbo or a pan of oxtails is for sharing.
“This is when we’d call family and friends over for a good meal, interesting conversations and lasting memories.”
Palmer’s favorite dishes to cook include oxtails, smothered pork chops and his most popular dish at the restaurant, The Creole Connection, he said.
“The Creole Connection is a staple for Creole food because it’s comprised of Louisiana favorites such as dirty rice, fried catfish and our homemade 3C, Creamy Cajun Crawfish sauce,” Palmer said. “Who doesn’t love all three of those things? Everybody loves it.”
Other Creole entrees available at the restaurant include golden crawfish étouffée, The Leblanc, featuring a Cajun grilled chicken breast or blackened catfish fillet served with creamy mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. And there’s crowd favorite Mufasa’s Gumbo featuring dark roux, shrimp, sausage, chicken, okra and crawfish tails.
“You can’t go wrong with Creole or soul food,” Palmer said. “It’s my pleasure to be able to serve people from near or far with the lessons I’ve learned from my parents and other family as well.”
‘I learned from the best’
Oilicia Evette Alexander of Galveston began her culinary career sitting at the feet of her grandmother, Eliza Mae Gipson, she said.
Gipson, now 92 and living in Texas City, was the owner of Liza’s Soul Kitchen, 2723 Market St. in Galveston and is featured in the book “Lost Restaurants of Galveston’s African American Community.” Gipson began teaching her granddaughter the ins and outs of cooking at the age of 7, Alexander said.
Alexander, 41, went to culinary school at Galveston College and has worked as a chef in kitchens at Moody Gardens, Grotto Ristorante at The San Luis Resort, and was a supervisor in the kitchen at the University of Texas Medical Branch, all in Galveston. She has branched out, operating her own catering business and is pursuing owning her own restaurant/food truck, she said.
“I always knew cooking was my passion because of the way I felt when people would eat my food,” Alexander said. “The reaction they would give me, I knew that was my God-given talent because it made me feel complete.”
Alexander’s favorite dish to cook is her grandmother’s famous oxtails recipe, and macaroni and cheese, which is a staple in the soul food arena, Alexander said.
“We came from making meals stretch and getting the scraps and turning them into something amazing,” Alexander said. “Macaroni and cheese is a good filler for those hard times, but we’re still able to put our heart and soul into it.”
The key to good macaroni and cheese is in the roux, cheese sauce and seasoning, Alexander said.
“Where we come from, seasoning your macaroni and cheese is a must,” she said.
Alexander’s inspiration also comes from the many people who’ve had a chance to enjoy her food, leaving a clean plate with a smile, she said.
“I remember when my grandmother used to cook and bring the family together,” Alexander said. “I still try to carry on that tradition, because no matter what, the family will come running when some good soul food is being prepared. I learned from the best.”
‘Home and Ancestry’
Author, playwright and business owner Bryan-Keyth Wilson is a jack of all trades.
Wilson, 42, grew up in La Marque and now lives in Friendswood. He has been cooking and baking since he was 13 years old, he said.
Wilson’s grandmother, Noilen Chanel-Menefee, and his mother, Shirley Wilson, both owned restaurants, so he had great teachers, he said.
“Soul food means home and ancestry,” Wilson said. “It’s an opportunity to cook dishes that are near and dear to my heart and pay homage to those who’ve come before me.”
As with most who love to cook soul food, Wilson enjoys preparing smothered oxtails with collard greens. But he also enjoys making a good peach cobbler, he said.
Wilson wants to be clear he makes peach cobbler and not peach pie, he said.
“So many people like theirs with pie crust, but that’s actually just a peach pie,” Wilson said. “The secret is in your batter. It must be full of butter and thick, and also include a pinch of lemon juice. Orange juice helps to balance the sweetness.”
Anytime Wilson has the opportunity to cook, he brings the ancestors into the kitchen with him, he said.
“I ask them to guide my hands as I prepare and to give me ideas on how to create whatever dish I’m preparing,” Wilson said. “Cooking and baking for me is more than a time to eat; it’s a time to reflect and give thanks, too.”
Creole Shrimp and Grits
Serves: 6 to 8
4 quarts water
2 sticks salted butter
1 quart grits
¼ cup heavy whipping cream
8 ounces tomato paste
8 ounces tomato sauce
1 cup crushed tomatoes
4 cups water
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 sweet bell pepper, sliced
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
1 cup flour
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound smoked sausage, sliced thin
Garnish: Chopped bacon, green onions, shrimp with tails on
To prepare the grits, bring water to a boil and add 1 stick of the salted butter. Add grits under medium fire, stirring frequently to avoid lumps and sticking. After grits are cooked, add second stick of butter and heavy whipping cream.
Prepare the topping in a separate pot by combining tomato paste, tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, water, onions, sweet bell peppers granulated garlic. Stir together and bring to a low boil.
On the side, combine the flour and Creole seasonings and mix it together and pour into the low boil and whisk until it becomes thick. (Add water and/or chicken broth to achieve desired consistency.)
Take shrimp — save some with tails on for garnish — and clean it with lemon juice and some of the Creole seasoning. Add to a skillet and cook until it reaches 145 F. Add the topping mixture. Add sausage and cook in a skillet until browned on both sides.
To plate, spoon grits into a serving bowl. Add topping mixture over grits, then garnish with chopped bacon, green onions and shrimp with tails. Serve immediately.
– Johnae Lynn Cotton
Macaroni and Cheese
2 pounds elbow noodles
16 ounces heavy cream
1⁄3 cup all-purpose flour
1 pound Velveeta cheese
1 pound mild cheddar cheese (reserve ½)
1 pound colby jack cheese (reserve ½)
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
½ cup freshly chopped green onions, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Unsalted butter, optional
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Cook pasta until al dente (about 7 to 15 minutes – make sure it isn’t mushy. In a separate pot, turn burner on medium/high temperature and start your roux with equal parts flour and butter; mix with a wooden spoon until well incorporated and a light color. Add heavy cream and cheeses while stirring on medium temperature; continue stirring to desired consistency (it should be smooth and lump free).
After pasta is cooked, drain and pour pasta in a pan and season with garlic and onion powders and Old Bay Seasoning. After mixing well, pour cheese sauce on top of seasoned pasta, ensuring the cheese is well incorporated throughout pasta.
Top pasta with reserved cheese and bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Cheese should be golden brown. Garnish with chopped onions if desired. Serve hot.
– Oilicia Evette Alexander
1 (29-ounce) can sliced peaches, drained
1 tablespoon of cornstarch (make slurry*)
2 sticks butter or margarine, melted
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup sugar
1 cup Original Bisquick mix
½ cup orange juice
Juice of ½ lemon
Melt 1 stick of butter. Drain the juice from the peaches into a stock pot. Do not add peaches. Add sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon and nutmeg, orange juice, lemon juice and cornstarch slurry to the pot. Once the mixture gets to a thick syrup, cut off heat and add peaches. The peaches will cook in the oven.
Stir together Bisquick mix, milk and nutmeg in ungreased square baking dish, 8-by-8-by-2 inches. Stir in butter until blended. Stir together sugar and peaches; spoon over batter.
Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until golden. Add scoop of ice cream and garnish.
*To make a slurry, start from 1 to 2 ratio of cornstarch to water. For example, prepare 1 tablespoon of cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water. Then whisk together really well.
– Bryan-Keyth Wilson