French Soul Food?
I pondered what soul food meant to me. My initial thoughts conjured savory images of collard green and cornbread filled adventures at Chicago soul food stalwarts like Gladys Luncheonette, Army & Lou’s and Soul Queen eaten to a soundtrack of Don Cornelius’s Soul Train. Even now, decades later, as I sit typing behind my computer keyboard I still can’t just casually say Soul Train (the hippest trip in America) without mimicking the high pitched intro of the program and licking my lips.
Growing up in Hyde Park’s multicultural melting pot in the early 1970’s fostered innumerable unforgettable food experiences. Any one who lived there and had a pulse will fondly recall devouring Harold’s fried chicken glistening in pork fat served on soggy white bread heavily dusted with salt and pepper and a side of hot sauce. Us true aficionados always ate Harold’s with the obligatory grape Nehi that complimented the chicken like a Chateau d’Yquem marries with foie gras. With eyes closed I can fondly taste the lingering smoky sweetness of Ribs and Bibs where I used to get a bag of barbecue sauce drenched french fries to munch on while walking home from school. Our high school Sunday night ritual was drinking bottles of Guinness stout while watching Tom Baker as the fourth Dr. Who. As soon as the show was over we would rush to Nuevo Leon on 18th street in Pilsen for quite possibly the world’s best nachos affectionately called Mexican Donuts by us because of their massive size and creamy rich consistency. My buddy Jim and I would invariably scarf down two or three each before the horrified waitress could drop the plate and run from the stoned gringos. I actually ate there for 23 years before I tried something else on the menu. These were the comforting, modest meals of my youth that lived comfortably in my belly with the steak frites my mom made.
But what is French soul food? To better understand we better figure out what soul food is. The best definition I found came from the most unlikely of sources, a small Norwegian themed food cart in Portland called Viking Soul Food, “Soul Food is a term commonly used to refer to African American food primarily from the Southeastern states, but for many “soul food” evokes something more: it is a food that is almost indescribably comforting, makes the most of often humble ingredients, and refuses to waste anything.” So extrapolating that definition to encompass my upbringing I can safely trudge forward.
“soul food” evokes something more: it is a food that is almost indescribably comforting, makes the most of often humble ingredients, and refuses to waste anything.”
French Soul Food are the regional dishes of the common man lovingly prepared by grand-mères across the country. Simple dishes like Gratinee Lyonnaise, or French onion soup for us English speakers, loved by the world that elevates common ingredients like onions and Emmenthal cheese into a meal fit for a king. Soul Food transforms the common into the extraordinary and warms the cockles of the soul in the process.
No other cold weather dish exemplifies French soul food more to me than a simple oxtail Daube ‘Provencal’. Daubes are French stews whose only real criteria to be deemed a daube is that they are cooked in a daubiere, a pot bellied casserole with a small lid, and even that isn’t important anymore. And although daubes can be made from lamb, beef, rabbit, goat or even boar, my favorite is made with unctuous oxtails slowly simmered in red wine, tomatoes, saffron, cinnamon, orange and olives till the meat is literally falling off the bone.
- 4 pounds of Oxtails
- 1 Orange, zested and juiced
- 1 – 2” segment Cinnamon Stick
- 2 each Star Anise
- 1 bottle Red Wine
- ¼ cup Olive Oil
- 6 Carrots, cut into large dice
- 1 Sweet Onion, cut into large dice
- 2 Turnips, peeled and cut in large dice
- 2 Parsnips, peeled and cut in large dice
- 4 cloves of Garlic, mashed
- 6 ounces Applewood Smoked Bacon, diced
- ¼ cup Flour
- 28 ounces whole San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 cup Beef or Veal Stock
- big pinch Saffron
- 1 Tablespoon Anchovy, mashed
- 1 cup Picholine Olives with juice
- Marinate oxtails with orange, cinnamon, star anise and red wine overnight.
- Pat oxtails dry, season and dredge in flour,, then sauté in olive oil with carrots, onions.
- Add garlic and bacon. Cook till fragrant.
- Add flour, then tomato, stock and marinade.
- Add remaining ingredients and simmer slow for two hours, or until beef is tender.
- Serve with boiled noodles, mashed potatoes, rice, creamy polenta or whatever is your favorite starch.