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'Food for the Soul' makes dreams come true for Monique Wells
'Food for the Soul' by Monique Y. Wells/ Elton-Wolf Publishing
(CNN) -- Monique Wells can tell you what it's like to live your dreams. When she was a young girl growing up in Houston, Texas, and later when she went off to college, she says, "I always wanted to live in a country where they spoke French."
She trained to become a veterinary pathologist and always took French, although she says in those days her French was not great. For a couple of years she went to France looking for a job. Then one day, when she was on the way to the airport in Paris for the flight back to the United States, a friend called: "A job has opened up; can you come down and apply?" She did and she got it, going to work for a multi-national cosmetics firm.
She moved to Paris, married an American, and settled in. But when you get what you wish for, there are some things lacking. She began to miss the dishes her mother used to make. And, she discovered there were a lot of African-Americans in Paris in the same boat.
A friend who founded an ex-patriot group for black women suggested they write a cookbook. Wells agreed, and when the friend had to drop out, she kept on with the project. She collected family recipes, researched where in Paris you could find ingredients, found a translator (she speaks French fluently now but writing in another language is a separate problem), and finished the manuscript. But after years of work, there was still no publisher.
Her second dream, to publish the book, came through thanks to a man she has never met -- one of the world's most famous chefs and the only chef with six Michelin stars, Alain Ducasse.
Her translator just happened to stop by an antique store one day where he told the elderly couple who owned the shop about the unique cookbook project he was working on. If the young lady would like to bring them a copy of the book, the couple volunteered, they would be happy to show it to a friend of theirs who is a chef.
A few months after the translator dropped the copy by the antique store, Wells got a call. "It was Alain Ducasse," she said. "He told me to get in contact with Editions Minerva because they were going to publish my book." She did and in 1999, the lavishly illustrated and photographed "La Cuisine Noire Americaine" (The Cuisine of Black Americans) appeared with a preface written by Ducasse. Now the English edition, retitled "Food for the Soul," has just been published.
A French favorite
As it turned out, the French were charmed. "They seemed to have no idea that there was this whole separate category of American cuisine," said Wells.
In addition, she said, she has benefited from the traditional French acceptance of African-Americans. Plus, she adds, it didn't hurt that her mother is from Louisiana and many of her recipes have a Creole influence.
"It was startling," said Wells. "The French loved this book. They love anything to do with Louisiana culture and the fact that half my family came from Louisiana has helped it become accepted."
And which of the recipes do her French friends like most?
Miss Grace's Chicken and Onions, said Wells without a second's hesitation. "I serve it with rice and fried okra. And I either make biscuits or cornbread. French people love cornbread, and mine is easy to make and not coarse (in texture)."
"Miss Grace's Chicken and Onions" is typical of the style of cooking in this book. The recipes are simple, straightforward, and flavorful.
In this dish, a 2-pound chicken is cut up and browned in butter with 4 medium onions cut into rings. Water is added, the pot covered, and the mixture is allowed to simmer until a sauce forms from the chicken drippings, butter, onions and water. The chicken comes out moist and tender with sauce enough to serve over fluffed white rice.
As Wells points out in her introduction, soul food is a cuisine born out of poverty. At first slaves and later black farmers who were struggling to get by, didn't live "high on the hog." The choice cuts went to the white folks. But the African-American cooks weren't going to settle for bland tasting food. Through time and tradition, little by little, they found ways to combine the simplest ingredients in ways that tasted good.
Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya
This book is shot through with ways to make things flavorful. For example, cold chicken in "Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya" is made flavorful by using a sauce built on the triumvirate of Louisiana cooking -- celery, onions, and bell pepper sautéed together. These flavors are combined with the strong, bold taste of Andouille or hot smoked sausage.
This recipe, handed down through one of Wells' maternal grandmothers, is more engaging, but hardly more complicated than Miss Grace's Chicken, and using cooked chicken is an excellent way to use up leftovers.
The dish begins with the sausage and then the celery, onion, bell pepper combination. Spices, including garlic, hot sauce and allspice are added along with tomatoes and allowed to simmer until a thick sauce is formed. Rice is added, and then the cooked chicken goes in for a highly flavored one-pot meal.
Creole Okra is a recipe that Wells' mother, Arnelle, wrote down after her mother and sisters moved from Opelousas, Louisiana to Texas. This dish begins with cut okra fried simply in oil until browned. Then garlic, tomatoes and spices are added along with chicken stock to boost the flavors. The recipe itself calls for a chicken bullion cube dissolved in water, but Wells adds, "You may wish to add one or two chicken backs or wings to the pot to enhance the flavor of this dish." There is the real secret to the flavor of this dish - parts of a chicken usually thrown away but added here so that their broth is the flavor agent for this dish.
To her credit, making a roux, the browned fat-flour mixture that is the base of gumbos, etouffees and other dishes, seems very simple. Her French readers, whose béchamel sauce begins the same way, probably weren't daunted by the idea of a roux, but the very notion of cooking flour until it browns has scared off many a U.S. cook.
Wells explains it this way: Start with bacon grease, Crisco shortening or lard melted and heated until hot. Sprinkle in the flour, reduce the heat to medium and keep stirring. The mixture, she advises, will begin creamy white and look like thin gravy. Soon, she advises, it will begin to darken and slowly thicken. "If it becomes grainy, the flour is cooking too rapidly, so remove the pan from the heat and continue stirring. When the flour blends with the fat again, return the pan to the heat." When the roux reaches the color you want, says Wells, you are ready to continue with your dish.
A family cookbook
When it comes to sweets, Wells family was no less adept at turning simple ingredients into tasty delights. In her two-page discussion of how to make a good pie crust, you can almost hear Wells mother in the background as she discusses how a crust made with butter and shortening is both tender and flaky.
We also have Grandmother Roselle's "Pineapple-Coconut Cake," a treat made, Wells tells us, for "holidays, birthdays and other occasions, and even funerals."
Any native Southerner who has ever attended a big church dinner or a wake has seen one of these cakes. A thick filling made by cooking eggs together with canned crushed pineapple separates fluffy layers of cake, laced with vanilla. The entire cake is covered with fluffy icing made of egg whites and more vanilla and then covered with freshly grated coconut.
In the end, Wells will freely admit that this a family cookbook that, with the help of Ducasse, has gone big time. The result is that most of the recipes are simple, time-tested by generations of cooks and sure to work.
There are also a couple of omissions. Wells spends a good bit of time talking about the importance of pork to her ancestors but only includes a couple of pork recipes. Why, she was asked, didn't she include a recipe for pig's feet since the French love them and they are easy to obtain at Paris markets? "This is my family's cookbook," she says straight away. "We didn't eat pig's feet." So there.
Wells says since she began it's become easier and easier to find ingredients like sweet potatoes and greens in French markets. "We're beginning to see that there really is a world cuisine," she says.
Does that mean another cookbook is in the works? No, said Wells. Her next project was suggested by an American who said he had no idea which wines, particularly French ones, to drink with soul food. Wells admits she doesn't really know either, but she adds, "the research ought to be a lot of fun."
Paris Food for the Soul
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