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I'm just a home cook living in the West Village/NYC talking to cookbook authors from my dining room table. Every cookbook has a story.

 

#98 | Sweet Potato Soul

#98 | Sweet Potato Soul

Sweet Potato Soul
100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice and Soul

By Jenné Claiborne 

Suzy Chase:                  Welcome to Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.

Jenné:                  I'm Jenné Claiborne, and my cookbook is Sweet Potato Soul.

Suzy Chase:                  I'm not even going to ask you the obvious first question, if it's difficult to be a vegan from the south, but I did want to kick things off by asking you about cooking on your own when you were in elementary school. I thought that was so interesting.

Jenné:                  Yeah, well, my mom didn't like to cook, so she got me some cookbooks. I found the recipes that I liked and got started, and it was great for me. I loved it, and my mom, it was good for her, too, because she got to eat well. We didn't have to eat out at restaurants all the time.

Suzy Chase:                  What was the favorite thing you made when you were little?

Jenné:                  It was Szechuan chicken, so long before being vegan, Szechuan chicken, and I loved it, because it had all these different ingredients that, to me, seemed so exotic. We had to go to the specialty grocery store. We went to the Asian grocery store to buy everything, so it was a lot of fun. All the measuring out, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and using the wok and making the sauce, and it was just so fun. And really, that was the only recipe that I can even remember making. I don't remember making anything else. That might be the only thing I was into.

Suzy Chase:                  So, my mom passed away a few years ago, and one thing I long for is sitting at our kitchen table talking while she cooks. That, to me, is home. Talk about when your love of food and comfort in the kitchen began.

Jenné:                  Like I said, my mom, she's not a big cook. However, my grandmother is, and so is my dad. So, I have those memories and those moments with those two where they're cooking, and we're sitting having a conversation, prep, and cooking, maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm just watching. So, when I was really little, my first exposure to being in the kitchen was when my grandmother moved down to Georgia and we all lived together. She was the main cook in the house, and just I was always in the kitchen with her, always helping her. Or she would give me little side projects to mix things, or even if it wasn't side projects, she would just let me do my own thing on the side, so I could say, "Oh, I'm gonna mix this flour with this baking powder, with this sugar, with this whatever."

Jenné:                  It would never be edible, ever, but she always let me be creative and let me get my hands dirty and be in the kitchen with her, and the same with my dad. It's funny. My dad actually was raised vegan, and he grew up eating vegan. He was in his 20s when he met my mom. He always blames it on my mom, the fall, he says.

Suzy Chase:                  The fall.

Jenné:                  He's back now, but it took a while. So, the type of cuisine that my dad was making is all plant based, so I learned how to cook that way from him, and I remember hearing stories about ... It was foreign to me eating so many vegetables and tofu and things like that, but he would tell me stories about what he was cooking and about the ingredients, like tumeric, and, "This is the tofu, and this is when I used to work at the vegan restaurant. We would make this ice cream using this."

Jenné:                  So, I've always been surrounded by food and by stories in the kitchen.

Suzy Chase:                  What is your soul food philosophy?

Jenné:                  My soul food philosophy is that any type of food can be soul food. However, being a black person from the south and just from the United States, it's definitely the traditional foods as well, the candied yams and mac and cheese and all those things, collard greens. So, that's the base point. Those are the celebratory foods, the things that when I think of my family, those are the foods I really want to eat the most. However, my grandmother, when I was a kid and still now, she always said that you put soul into everything you're cooking, and I started noticing that even though we weren't eating the stereotypical celebratory soul foods every single day, we were eating homemade foods. We were eating lots of fruits and vegetables and grains and beans, and she was preparing it all in that same style with the same essence. So, soul food to me isn't just the cannon. It's everything that you make with soul and love and all those things.

Suzy Chase:                  In Sweet Potato Soul, the cookbook, you explore the history of southern food. Now, what's the difference between soul food and southern food?

Jenné:                  Well, southern food is a regional blanket statement. So, I would think of southern food as encompassing soul food, and encompassing creole and Asian food, but soul food, specifically, is the foods that black people invented from our circumstances living in the south as enslaved individuals, a lot of us. That food was very much influenced by European cuisines, African cuisines, Native American cuisines. Yeah, I mean it all has come from that, but the difference is really that it was created by black people in the south, and so you'll see if you're in the south, everybody eats collared greens. Everybody eats mac and cheese. Everybody eats a lot of these foods, but there's a certain way that it's made when it's soul food or when a black person makes it.

Jenné:                  I don't know if there's an actual thing, like a big difference that you could pinpoint if you did a blind taste test, but certainly the person who's making it would tell you otherwise.

Suzy Chase:                  I didn't realize the term soul food became popular in the 60s.

Jenné:                  Mm-hmm (affirmative)- Me, too, until I started researching, which is another thing that I think is interesting, and I like, because now, 21st century, 2018, I look back at how this term is fairly new, but this cuisine has been around for hundreds of year, but the cuisine has been changing over and over throughout all these years, and now it continues to change. I think part of the fact that the term is so new, it makes me feel like there's even more freedom for change and metamorphosis. This is a very ... It's not the type of cuisine that has to be set in stone and the same all the time.

Jenné:                  Even for me, when I'm thinking about soul food, I don't think of being vegan and making vegan soul food as something totally new and different and exotic. I think of it as going back to the roots, right? So, our ancestors ate far more plant based diet than we do today, and even my grandmother, who is still around today, ate a more plant based diet when she was my age or really younger than me, actually and so did her grandparents and her parents and such.

Jenné:                  So, I think of soul food now as just going back to its plant based roots and reclaiming that the 60s and the 50s were a time when soul food was starting to become more fried and more heavy and more industrialized, relying more on packaged foods to prepare the soul food. Before it was just all homemade everything, and then, of course, the industrialization of the food system in the 50s had changed all American food, including soul food. So, now, we're just taking it back to pre-term soul food.

Suzy Chase:                  So, describe how many things, other than food choices, shifted in your life after you became vegan.

Jenné:                  I see. Okay, so after I became vegan, the food was obviously the main first thing that shifted, and I've always loved food, so it was really east for me to shift that, because I was in the kitchen. I was experimenting more. It was like a new adventure for me, and all I wanted to do was cook. All I wanted to do was grocery shop. We'd be at the farmer's market and buying new recipe books and things like that. But, a couple, I wouldn't say it really happened right away, but eventually, within the next year or so of being vegan, it started shifting my other consumer choices.

Jenné:                  So, the clothing I was buying, I no longer bought clothing made with animal products, leather and wool and things like that. I have since started buying ... Actually, I've since buying all fast fashion, so I'm a lot more mindful of making sure to buy thrifted clothes, and I'm just a bit more eco-friendly. And of course, a lot of the reason people go vegan is for health reason, and for me, within a couple of weeks of being vegan, I noticed the health differences.

Jenné:                  And before I was vegan, I was vegetarian. I thought I was very healthy. I realized I wasn't very healthy, because I think I just got used to my face line being whatever. And once I became vegan, I felt so much better. I didn't even realize that I wasn't feeling that great before. So, that happened almost immediately. That wasn't my main reason for becoming vegan, but it certainly, once I started feeling that shift so early on, I realized, "Okay, this is worth changing my lifestyle for."

Suzy Chase:                  So, what kind of shift did you feel? Did you have more energy? Did you sleep better?

Jenné:                  Those things for sure, but the thing was I have always, not any more, but I had always had digestive issues. From as early as I can remember, I was in the doctor on different medications, gastroenterologists. My parents were always trying to figure out what is going on with my gut. We knew that I was very sensitive to dairy, so I didn't eat things like pizza. I did eat some pizza, but very little cheese. I didn't eat ice cream. Dairy sneaks in everything.

Jenné:                  So, basically, without knowing it until I became 100% vegan, I had just been suffering from dairy my whole life. Like I said, in and out of the doctor, all sorts of digestive issues, and everything, and that was influencing all areas of my life. I was more moody when my stomach was not feeling well. I had less energy. I couldn't sleep as well. I didn't feel my optimal self, but I got to a point where I thought, "Well, this is just my stomach. I'm just faulty. I can't do anything about this. Oh well."

Jenné:                  And I got to that point a few years even before becoming vegan. It wasn't until I became vegan that I realized that it was really the dairy, because by the time I became vegan, all that I had left to cut out of my diet was I was eating yogurt, and occasionally, I'd have a slice of pizza, but I was hardly eating any at all. My skin cleared up after that. Of course, I had more energy after that. My whole outlook on life changed, because I wasn't uncomfortable all the time any more.

Suzy Chase:                  One food that's listed in your southern pantry staples section is peanuts, the overlooked peanut, which I happen to love. Talk a little bit about George Washington Carver's vegan recipes in the 1900s made out of peanuts.

Jenné:                  So, I've always been fascinated by George Washington Carver. In black history month in school, you learn about him and all his inventions of the peanut, the peanut butter, and revolutionized growing peanuts to fix soil, and all this amazing stuff. So, when I was writing my book, and I was doing research for the book, I started learning more about him, not just what I had learned in school during black history month. He made so many "inventions," recipes with the peanut, everything from making peanut butter to peanut meats, mock meats using peanuts. He used it for all different things, and he taught homemakers, in fact, back in the day we'd call them, how to use peanuts in their homes. Basically, they were very nutritious, obviously, high in protein and fiber and just great for the whole family.

Jenné:                  The funny thing, though, is as much as I think it is very fascinating, as much as I love George Washington Carver, I'm allergic to peanuts, so I don't really eat peanuts.

Suzy Chase:                  I know. I read that, and I read that for the longest you were repulsed by the sight and smell of peanuts, and it's almost like your body was protecting you.

Jenné:                  But the thing is, I do not have an allergy to peanuts when they're not from the United States. It might be mental. I admit it might be totally psychosomatic, but I have multiple times eaten peanuts in different countries and not realize that I was eating it until three bites in or whatever and had no reaction whatsoever. I was at a talk recently, and the presenter was passing around peanuts that she had brought back recently from Ghana, and I'm like, "I'm gonna taste this and see what happens." I'm not gonna die. I'm not anaphylactic allergic. No problem, no issue, so I don't know if it's psychosomatic with me, or if there's something about the American-grown peanuts. I don't know, but I would like to get over this allergy, because I feel like it keeps me from my roots, my culture.

Suzy Chase:                  Right.

Jenné:                  But you know, another thing ago about him, George Washington Carver, that I didn't realize until working on this book was his also fascination with the sweet potato. He really researched peanuts, because peanuts are used to repair soil, farmland that's been overused and damaged. You can plant peanuts. They're nitrogen fixing, so they will fertilize and make that soil fertile again.

Jenné:                  He also focused on sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are similar. They are very easy to grow. They are high in nutrients like peanuts are, and you can do a million and one things with them. So, in addition to making all these different inventions with peanuts, he was doing the same thing with sweet potatoes. He was also teaching homemakers how to use sweet potatoes. He has sweet potato milk. By the way, he has peanut milk, too, sweet potato butter. It's funny, because he says sweet potato lamb chops or sweet potatoes whatever, but it's 100% vegan. All this stuff is vegan. So, I just thought that was so interesting way back when it took him doing all this stuff.

Suzy Chase:                  He was so ahead of his time.

Jenné:                  Mm-hmm (affirmative)- Seriously.

Suzy Chase:                  Speaking of sweet potatoes, they've always been your favorite food, and it's also the name of your hugely popular blog, Sweet Potato Soul. Talk a little bit about that.

Jenné:                  I've always loved the sweet potato, and I can remember my grandmother preparing them for me when I got home after school. She always keeps baked sweet potatoes in our refrigerator. Quick snack, healthy, energizing, it's just perfect, and I've always loved them, and everything from canned yams to sweet potato pie, my two favorite foods. So, when I wanted to start my food blog, it made perfect sense that I would have my very favorite food in the title. Then, of course, soul, because soul food means so much to me, and I want to expand what that means, what soul food means. So, yeah.

Suzy Chase:                  I never knew there were so many kinds of sweet potatoes. You have nine listed I your cookbook, to be exact. Can we find all of these varieties in the grocery store?

Jenné:                  Yes, we can. There are more that I didn't feature, because they're too hard for us to find here in America, but you can find those. If you go to the grocery store, you might see a fake garnet and jewel yams. Those are sweet potatoes. They're not yams. Yams are something totally different. Or sometimes nowadays, you'll see the purple ones. I forgot the name of those right now, but the purple on the outside, purple on inside, I see those a lot at the grocery store these days. Also, the white on the inside, white on the outside, but if you want to go for the Asian varieties like the Okinawan sweet potato, which is gray on the outside and bright neon purple on the inside or the Japanese yams with the green ones, then you'll need to go to, usually you'll have to go to, an Asian grocery store. Why would you not want to go to that, anyway? That's my heaven.

Jenné:                  So, I'll typically explore town, especially if you live in a big city, or if you live in Atlanta where I'm originally from, they're really easy to find. You might have to go to the ethnic or the international or Asian grocery store.

Suzy Chase:                  I recently learned on another cookbook podcast that I did that monks in China wanted to invite non-Buddhists into their monastery, and they would eat vegetarian, but the guests wouldn't. So, they made dishes that looked and tasted similarly to meat and seafood dishes. This was the beginning of culinary replications. I'm dying to know what your thoughts are about vegan replications that look like, let's say, chicken.

Jenné:                  Yeah, I am all for it. To be honest, I don't eat a lot of that. At home, I'm in love with vegetables and grains. That is all I need. I don't need mock meat or any of that. However, I love it for what it does for people. So many people use mock meats and these replications as a way to help in transition. Firstly, because a lot of people, they're so [inaudible 00:18:58] tastes of chicken, so they need something when they become vegan to hold them over for a while until they can figure out how to cook beans and figure out how to like broccoli and whole grains. A lot of people just don't like that, and they're not used to that. So, these foods act as a little bridge between the two. They're still totally vegan, so that's great, but they really help usher people a little closer into the real whole food, plant based lifestyle that I try to have people join.

Suzy Chase:                  I'm surprised. I thought you were gonna be totally against it. I'm shocked.

Jenné:                  No, I really don't have any ... The closest I have to that is I have two different sausage recipes, which are handmade sausages, so not store bought, vegan sausage. You do it by hand. It's very easy. And then I have the cauliflower chicken, but it's cauliflower. It's not Beyond Chicken that you get at Whole Foods and you bread and you fry. So, yeah, I'm not trying to like, "Everybody go eat this stuff," but I do think that those are good, like I said, a bridge.

Suzy Chase:                  Just yesterday, I read an article that cited a recent study on consumer trends that found the term vegan to be the least appealing food and beverage marketing term among U.S. adults. What do you think about that?

Jenné:                  Wow. Well, I'm surprised and I'm not surprised. I think vegan people, like myself, we tend to have an intuition about that. For me, though, with what I do, the marketing I'm doing and my mission is I want to be real trend, and this is vegan. I'm speaking to people who thought to themselves, they saw a movie, or they had a conversation, or whatever, they think, "I want to become vegan. I need to find vegan, specially vegan resources."

Jenné:                  So, they might Google vegan recipes, and they'll find me. I want to be specific. I want those people. I don't want to proselytize to people. I'm not out there converting people. I'm more of a resources. However, I have thought about how if I want to reach a more mainstream audience, reach people who are not already looking for vegan resources, then using the term vegan is probably not the best way for me to do that, because it is a turn-off for a lot of people. Frankly, I think the biggest issue is that people have an image of what a vegan is and what a vegan lifestyle is, and they say, "That's not me, and that is not for me. I'm not interested."

Jenné:                  So, until we can change the image and people's perception of what it means, I think it's a little bit more wise to influence people, get people on board without using ... I shouldn't say people. I should say more the mainstream on board without, I don't know. I don't want to say without using that term, but just maybe be a little bit more undercover with the term.

Suzy Chase:                  So, yesterday, I made your recipe for sweet Jesus mac and cheese on page 113, and it's interesting, because for a different cookbook podcast I did, I made the original James Hemings recipe. First off, talk a little bit about James Hemings and who he was.

Jenné:                  So, he was the enslaved chef of Thomas Jefferson, and he went with Thomas Jefferson when he went to Europe and spent time in France, and he studied food or cooking in Europe, and he brought it back to America. And he wrote down his recipes at Monticello, his estate, and that's probably that recipe that you made. I know Monticello, they have a lot of their recipes on their website. I have one of their books that's a cookbook, and it's all old recipes from James Hemings.

Jenné:                  How was it?

Suzy Chase:                  It was so bland, because they didn't use any salt.

Jenné:                  Yeah, right, back then, can you imagine? So, the food back then was so much more bland, I think it's not until you really needed to combine. Mac and cheese, as soul food as it is, it is a European invention. He made it what it is, what that recipe is that you tasted, but it's definitely using all that cheese and the noodles, that's a European thing. But it wasn't until he brought it here and then folks started playing around with it and adding more flavor that it became what it is today, tasty, gooey mac and cheese.

Jenné:                  But I think it was really necessary for this blending of culture. I mean, it is unfortunate the way that the cultures had to blend, but for these foods, these European foods to become tasty, they needed the African influence and the Native American influence.

Suzy Chase:                  They sure did. So, your recipe for mac and "cheese" calls for sweet potatoes, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard, three flavors that never come up when I'm thinking about mac cheese. How did you create this recipe?

Jenné:                  So, I played around with different mac and cheese recipes that I found on the internet and other cookbooks. My dad used to work at a famous vegan restaurant called A Soul Veg in Atlanta, and at Soul Veg, they make a mac and cheese. Everything they make is tofu, soy based. I love soy, but you don't have to use it for everything, very oily, very down-home vegan mac and cheese.

Jenné:                  But I didn't want to do that. I wanted to make it a little healthier. I wanted to use whole foods, but you still need a lot of flavor. So, the mustard, the Dijon that I use and the lemon, it's to add tang. And then you also use nutritional yeast, which has a naturally cheesy flavor, but you can't just use it by itself. You need to add that tang that real cheese has. It's a different take on mac and cheese, really. Obviously, it has sweet potato in it, too, which is totally unexpected.

Suzy Chase:                  Totally. It was light, though. It looks really heavy. I posted a picture on Instagram, but it is light.

Jenné:                  Yeah, it is. Good.

Suzy Chase:                  Where can we find you on the web and social media?

Jenné:                  You can find me at sweetpotatosoul.com. That's my blog. There are hundreds of recipes, and on social media, you can find me at sweetpotatosoul, including YouTube. I have a big YouTube channel as well. So, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, sweetpotatosoul.

Suzy Chase:                  Thank you for writing this beautiful cookbook, and thank you for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.

Jenné:                  Thank you.

Suzy Chase:                  Follow me on Instagram at CookerybytheBook. Twitter is IamSuzyChase, and download your Kitchen Mix Tapes, music to cook by on Spotify at Cookery by the Book and always, subscribe in Apple podcasts.

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