WE GOT SOUL Pt1: Chef Ricky Moore


When we think soul food, certain dishes automatically come to mind-- collard greens, cornbread, fried chicken-- all the foods we trace back to our grandmother’s kitchen table sprawled out and inviting us to feed our bellies and our spirit. Talking to Chef Ricky Moore about soul food is a lively experience. Fans of A CHEF’S LIFE might remember him from Chef Vivian’s romp around Durham (Ep8: Honey, I'm Home), but, he built a name in the world of farm-to-fork dining through years in some of DC’s most prominent kitchens and later, as a contestant on Iron Chef. His Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham is where he does his best work these days. Each morning at 4am, he gets a call announcing the catch that’ll arrive straight from the NC coast to his front door in a couple of hours. Patrons of the Joint know Chef Ricky is open until “7pm or until the fish runs out.” And folks show up en mass for his ever-changing seafood selections, and his signature “Hush Honeys.”

With warmth in his voice, he recounts, a “normal downeast childhood,” and, a full house of eight aunts and uncles who doted upon his lanky frame and big afro. This was the seventies (obviously), and, even in the rural south, Blackness was represented by a certain style. “I looked like the Jackson Five, like Michael Jackson, vest and bowtie. I never went to school without being glazed down-- crisp, if you wanna call it.” Chef Ricky continues, “I was a really hungry kid; wiry, but I ate a lot.” When recalling his personal relationship with ‘soul food,’ he says, “My mother's mother cooked in the school cafeteria for years. In grade school, you had scratch-cooked meals. Lots of times, Black women worked in those kitchens and you knew who they were. And you got hot rolls and fresh vegetables. The food was always really good, homemade. Culturally, Black folks tend to eat their food rich, decadent and highly seasoned. Everything was deliciously done and wasn't a lot of meat. Meat was a seasoning component for one-pot meals. If I ask my momma about the food I grew up on, she would call it country cooking-- neckbones, turkey wings, liver and onions, lima beans, chitterlings (aka "chitlins") – only during the holidays, collard greens---all the stuff you'd see at a traditional downeast buffet. Being from that part of the state, there was lots of seafood, too. I didn't have filleted fish until I left home, everything else had a bone in it. The saying was, if you choked on your first bone and survived, you'd live to eat another fish!”

Chef Ricky also believes that style is the identifying ingredient that makes soul food a truly Black thing. “You go back to the slave row cabins and that is the roots of soul food. I think the term was coined in the sixties when Black people did a lot of things to celebrate our culture and our style of cooking. When somebody puts soul and food together, they’re talking about the Black experience. You won't find chitterlings (aka "chitlins") in a southern restaurant. You'll find them in a soul food restaurant. Soul food is also taking what you have and making it work.” When asked the difference between soul food and southern food, Chef Ricky offered a hip analogy that best sums it up. “Well, why do you call James Brown ‘Soul Brother #1’ and not ‘Southern Brother #1’? The answer is because he brought his style. Soul food to me is a Black southern representation of our style and experience.”

When patrons visit Saltbox, they are greeted by what Chef Ricky calls, ‘feel-good music’ blasting through the open window out onto the one-way street. “Soul food is freeing food. The music I like is freeing man, it really is. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm doing and figuring out what my passions are--food and music. Everytime I think about soul food, my thoughts change based on my mood. Those who understand what soul food is, know it's the expression we use as comfort to get through some serious stuff. Soul music is very much American. America is apple pie, baseball, and Chevrolet, but they need to put soul music in there too!”

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