At the inaugural event for Georgia Organics’ new Cast Iron & Collards Society, farmer and journalist Tenisio Seanima spoke with chef and author Todd Richards. They discussed everything from the inspiration behind Richards’ new cookbook, Soul, to serving purposefully, to food as activism in a troubled world. This is an abridged version of their conversation.
Tenisio Seanima: Without further ado, I want to dive into this young man's history. And I think it's very important when we look at the subject of this book, Soul. It's one of those terms that really speaks to just that: your soul, for each individual. And so what we're going to do tonight is dive into this subject of emotional eating.
You all heard of that term being used these days, right? Emotional eating. And when you think about it, typically it's discussed in this negative context. Like, you've just been coming out of work, a bad day; and you're at the gas station and there are the bon bons, and you know the end of the story. Well, when I look at this subject of soul and soul food, especially as someone of African descent, I also look at it as the positive sides of emotional eating. The things that food were designed to help us cope with, in a manner that has been perpetuated for centuries at this point.
And so starting off with you, Todd [Richards], and this journey that you've taken as a culinary expert, talk about the past. Talk about the things you remember about growing up, the things you remember about food. And I want to set the precedent with some quotes from your book if that's okay. You've got a quote that says, "I remember standing on Rainbow Beach in Chicago, looking over the lake and wondering: who are my people? I had friends from the Philippines and Haiti. They had a strong sense of their heritage and place, and staring into the water, I questioned what and where was mine."
So that's a question that's clearly stuck with you to the point that you put it in this book.
Todd Richards: I must have been drinking a lot of champagne when I wrote that.
Seanima: Well, you got some green juice here, so…
Richards: Yeah. Anything that is colored green is all right by me. My first food memory that I always go back to religiously is the first time I had rice. My great aunt, who was a very lovely person and has a very sick sense of humor, knew that I would just keep eating rice as long as she kept feeding me. And she was a practical joker: knock knock jokes, all those things we did as kids. And she cracked jokes so much that I started laughing and rice started coming out of my nose. I ate so much rice.
But her rice was just so simple. It was cooked perfectly, just with butter, salt, and pepper. And as I got older we had it—every birthday, holiday, Christmas party—we even had a bar mitzvah at our house. It was so unique that we gathered and food was always the central point for that. And if you look in the book, there's a place where I'm holding a cake, and it's my birthday. But on the cake were the names of my cousin Nikki, my cousin Romelle, all the other cousins, and my great aunt. And then my great grandparents, their 61st wedding anniversary was on there as well. But it was “my cake” you know what I mean?
So it was always entrenched in me that food was about sharing, and about how a family came together.
Seanima: Interesting. It's like you had the hand-me-down situation with clothes: basically passed into the cake it almost seems like.
Seanima: You a sibling at all?
Richards: I am. I've got a crazy family. It was myself, my older brother who passed away when I was 12, and then my other cousin Tony. We were the only male cousins. So, 16 women and us three boys. They gave me hell, but those are life skills that I learned. And I learned how to braid hair.
Seanima: Put emotional eating within the context of time: the past, present, and future. So we're going to stay a little bit more in the past. You have another quote that says, "I wondered why we ate on different sides of the room in a restaurant. And I wondered why it was when I was having fun playing with a boy of a different race that his parents told him he couldn't play with me too long. And I wondered, couldn't I share my McDonald's french fries with him? And what I learned is that in some situations in life, many have been taught just not to share."
And you just talked about the fact that with your family, you all literally celebrated collectively for that one moment. Where are you as a chef in your journey of attempting to eradicate that type of understanding that what is yours is yours and what is mine is mine—even in this decorated culinary world?
Richards: Well, at that particular time, I was four years old in Madison, Wisconsin at a McDonald's. My uncle Daniel was a corporate district manager for McDonald's and was opening this new place. And so it was great to be a kid out there just jumping into all those things, and eating french fries, and putting your french fries in the shake before Wendy's did it. And what I realized is that no one told me I was black. I didn't understand the concept at four years old of racism in the sense that we weren't equal. I just knew that I had more french fries than he had because my uncle was a manager there running the place and the kid didn't have any. So I just said, "Here, you want some of my french fries?"
And so, as a chef, the only thing I wanted was to bring people together. And it's a tireless job. Because in the world of technology, we have so many distractions. But when you have delicious food in front of you, those distractions go away. How many times have you put something in your mouth to eat, your eyes close, and then you put your phone down? Or you turn your TV off? Or you stop eating in your car? You don't eat delicious food in your car while you're driving down the street. The concept doesn't make any sense.
And we're talking about how to make people kind. So civility in the world right now, is especially what we need in our current climate.
The concept of being black in food, there's a lot of injustice from that. When you think about a pot of collard greens, that takes one day to cook. The first day they're good, the second day they're even better, the third day, you would literally fight somebody for 'em.
But it's steak, right. The steak: you get it, you cut it, you sear it, you put it in the pan. You think about flat iron steak. It's $6.95 a pound right now. But in our neighborhood we only charge x amount of dollars for oxtail stew. In other neighborhoods they can charge whatever they want for steak.
That's what I mean about the equality of food. That food done right is delicious. How do you affect your own community and how do we balance out wages? How do you have people who have living wages first of all, and how do you own your own businesses and properties? That's the backstory reason of why I wrote the book.
Seanima: So do you find there is somewhat of a chance for these experiences to potentially be lost without efforts of yourself and others who are perpetuating that type of movement?
Richards: The chances are diminishing. The chance of losing are diminishing, because access to information is so broad right now.
Richards: And cooks are now coming up with more information, more knowledge, and actually going back home and really figuring out these recipes that their families made. I look at my great aunt—when I did the book, my great aunt was 94 and still made 14 to 15 cakes a week. She's 95 and she doesn't have one recipe written down. So now my next journey is to go up to Chicago and get all the recipes and I have to sit there and watch her because she's not going to tell me.
Seanima: Very powerful, paying homage to the cuisine of your family and your ancestors.
And you talked about the fact that when you eat good food, you even close your eyes. I remember I had that experience literally yesterday with my son. We had this nice big kale wrap that we split in half. I let him have it. And I was eating. And he was all of a sudden like, "Why are your eyes closed?"
Seanima: And I got to share with him a whole world of experience I'm having just with that food, right? And so with you as a father, and as someone who's not only just eating food but clearly preparing some of the best food in the world, what influence have you seen on your own family environment, and how are your children having their own connection with this history and presence?
Richards: Well, I dispel a lot of myths in our household that chefs cook at home; I never cook at home.
Richards: Thanksgiving, maybe. Christmas, I can do that. But cooking at home, I really don't do that. But we all gather around. We have this beautiful living room, dining room, all those things, but everyone hangs out in the kitchen. It is the place where we bond. And it's required that we eat delicious food. I mean that is the only way we can get our kids to pay attention to what's going on. What's your homework? You playing soccer this year or you playing football? How about bullies? It’s those kind of conversations. Who's that girl that keeps texting you at eleven o'clock at night. Real conversations.
But the construct comes around delicious food. And I don't know if they have it in them to be a chef. I do know that the skills they are learning from eating out of restaurants can help them in many ways in conducting business with other people. It's the way the world works. And just giving them those same opportunities my parents gave me to go out to eat. To try different things.
It's equally important to learn what you don't like as it is to learn things that you do like. And I teach my kids that on a daily basis.
Seanima: So I'm going to throw a curveball.
Richards: All right.
Seanima: What would be like "Shut your mouth" meal? Y'all know what I mean when I say that, right? Now watch this. If you had to sit across the table from Donald Trump, what would be the "Shut your mouth" meal that you would give to Donald Trump?
Richards: That doesn't include arsenic, right?
Seanima: That would shut his mouth wouldn't it?
Richards: One thing that our President suffers from is a bad diet. Anyone who thinks that Cinco De Mayo gets celebrated by going to Taco Bell, that is a problem. And I would say something definitely, looking at him, something commonplace. Like for him just a burger might do, probably ground with some Benton's bacon in it. Make the pickles ourselves. He doesn't eat burgers medium rare, he eats them well done. So it needs a little more fat, that's why I'd put the bacon in there. Definitely American cheese. And for him, probably white American, would be more his mindset. Sesame seed bun.
Richards: All right?
Seanima: I love it. Well I just want to close out with a very cliché question, which is why is soul food from your perspective still important today? Because you talked about even the health of our current President right? And many would say, "Well soul food is the food that oftentimes was rooted in chattel captivity, and it's what we had to eat." And obviously you've taken and looked at that history and said, “But there's still something invaluable about that that really needs to be perpetuated.” So what is that for you?
Richards: That's the first and foremost thing—so many people sacrificed for us to be here. It just honors our ancestors.
When my publisher got to my sea urchin recipe, they asked, "Why would you want sea urchin in a soul food cookbook? That makes absolutely no sense to any of us." You think about where sea urchins are plentiful in the water, and people will walk out there with sticks, spear 'em, put 'em on the grill, and just seeing the images of that is a celebration. That people would sit down and just open up sea urchins and eat it, is a celebration.
In Charleston, you see those areas where the slave ships came in. And there are more sea urchins in that area than anywhere else. Telling that story of the sea urchin gives me credence to know where our people came from. And with soul food and its health concerns, let's dispel a lot of those questions. First of all, nobody could afford meat, so most of the diet was vegetarian.
Seanima: That's right.
Richards: Right? So people say it's high in fat, high in this. Well first of all, what vegetables are high in fat?
Richards: Okay so that's one. That it's poor people's food. Then why do they charge so much for other ingredients that are included in soul food? What I mean by collard greens, sweet potatoes, things like that. Sweet potato fries actually came out of another area in North Carolina, where people use to come round, cut 'em thick, and fry them. They were traveling food. So sweet potato fries is in that same construct.
And then the third myth is that it's not an American food. It is the original American food. There's the old term, "Northern food." Tell me where you go in this country and say, "I'm gonna go have some Northern food?” Right? It doesn't make any sense.
Richards: When you have Southern and soul that run the same parallel lines, you're talking about agriculture. You're talking about how we were only divided by the color of our skin, not necessarily by the food that we ate. If we destroy that myth which is the most important myth, then we have a way of serving delicious food to the masses of people and bringing us all closer together. And those folks and wishes are relegated to people who really want to prepare delicious food and most importantly who want to grow delicious food, because without you all doing it; I'm nothing.
So, I'm putting the same question to you, because our legacy is not only being enveloped by how many restaurants are open and how many plots of food that we grow. It's about all the kids that come along after us, eat delicious food, know where it came from, know the heritage of the people who prepared it, and they serve it with love and kindness.
Seanima: Beautiful. It made me think of the fact that I've been a vegan y'all for 20 years now. And my family's property is in Texas. My grand aunt Odessa, before she had passed away back around 2001 was preparing some fried chicken. And she was sick and was going through her healing and wanted to prepare this dish for the neighbor who was continuously coming over to help her. And guess who she asked to do the taste testing, right?
And I was literally running to my mom going, "All right now, I'm not going to tell Aunty I'm vegan and I can't eat this chicken." Man, I swallowed that real quick, and I swallowed the chicken real quick. And I tell you it was one of those things where literally it was that moment of me connecting with her, because really she and I didn't know each other. I'd met her once before that and this was just a random visit. But she felt something about me that was like, "You're gonna be the one." And I tell you even as a vegan to this day, that was one of my most intimate food experiences ever. It surrounded us all with the food.
Richards: I just tell everyone, if you know the cuisine then you can know the people behind it. It's just very important that we take all of those things. And if you don't have that fried chicken recipe written down somewhere, we're gonna have a fight. But that's really what it's about. It's about the cuisine of the people and how we represent each other. And again, my motto is always that—it's not my motto, it's actually my dad's motto—my dad always said, "Cook with kindness, love and generosity." And I didn't understand that when I first opened restaurants, but generosity was the most important part. Because my legacy is not going to be tied only to restaurants. It's going to be about all the cooks that come out of that kitchen after me.
Photos by Jodi Cash