“Hello. My name is Adrian Miller, I wrote a book on the history of soul food, and . . . I grew up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado.” I begin most of my presentations with those words, and despite the promising start, I lose all street cred on the subject by the end of the sentence. Sensing my audience’s disappointment with my birthplace, I usually win them back by sharing my pedigree. My parents, Hyman and Johnetta Miller, grew up in Helena, Ark., and Chattanooga, Tenn., respectively, met in Denver and raised me on soul food. Although both of my parents cooked, I owe all of my soul food schooling to my mom.
My parents could easily have shed their association with black culture when they moved during my childhood from a black neighborhood in Denver to a predominantly white suburb. Instead, they kept our family connected to our traditional culture in two profound ways: by faithfully attending a black church in the inner city and by feeding their children a steady diet of soul food. That integration of church and plate was pivotal in shaping my identity, and it planted the seeds that would sprout decades later and spur me to embrace the unofficial role of soul food ambassador.
My earliest food memories are not about the actual act of eating. One day when I was 5, I asked my mother what was for dinner, and the answer was tuna fish casserole. I’m not sure what possessed me – perhaps I was scarred by school cafeteria food – but I shot back, “I don’t want that micro-processed food.” Of course, I had no idea what that actually meant, but I apparently had an attitude about mashed-up ingredients: I was a big boy now, not a baby. Well, it’s a wonder that I’m still alive after telling my mother, let alone any black woman, that I didn’t want her food – which I actually loved. Yet, she extended such grace by merely laughing.
The other early memory is of hearing her soprano voice while she cooked dinner, rehearsing the songs that would be sung the upcoming Sunday. The high notes of her voice, the smells of stewing vegetables, of baking bread and of roasting beef, fried chicken or fish commingled as they wafted from the kitchen. For me, gospel music will always be soul food’s official soundtrack.
My mom was a great improvisational cook who reminded me, whenever I asked for a recipe, that she never measured ingredients. I was left to either accept her offer to cook the requested dish (“I’ll make it for you, brother man,” she would say) or sit down, watch her cook, write down each step and try to keep up.
Her culinary skills extended beyond soul food. She made a wide variety of dishes from other cuisines, particularly Mexican and Italian. Her cooking reputation extended beyond our household, too, and nowhere was that more evident than at our church. As the faithful went through the buffet line at various church potluck meals, they always asked the servers to point out what my mom had made. As anyone who has been to a church supper knows, that is the ultimate compliment.
Johnetta Miller left us too soon, nearly a year ago, after a lengthy fight with cancer. I share with you her banana pudding recipe. It wasn’t the dessert she made the most frequently, but it always sweetened my spirit and nourished my soul.
Johnetta Miller liked to chill her mixer beaters in the freezer before using them to whip the pudding’s topping; she said it helped create a stiffer meringue. And she liked to bake the pudding in a clear dish, to show off the layers.
The custard is pretty sweet when you use a full cup of sugar, less so when you use 3/4 cup.
MAKE AHEAD: If you’re making this more than a few hours in advance, assemble the banana pudding without its meringue, cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Bring to a cool room temperature while the oven’s preheating and you’re making the meringue.
From Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time” (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
For the pudding
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
11 ounces vanilla wafers (1 regular-size box)
Flesh of 8 fairly firm bananas, cut crosswise into slices (your choice of thickness)
For the topping
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
For the pudding: Heat a few inches of water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
Fill a heatproof bowl with the sugar (to taste), flour and salt; place it on top (so that it fits snugly) of the saucepan. Reduce the heat to medium; pour in the milk. Cook, whisking constantly, so the mixture becomes well combined and lump-free.
Lightly beat the egg yolks in a liquid measuring cup; whisk a few tablespoons of the hot milk mixture into them (to temper them), then whisk that egg mixture into the heated bowl. Cook for a few minutes, whisking, then remove the bowl from the heat. Stir in the vanilla extract. This is your custard.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand; make sure it’s at least 2 inches deep.
For the topping: Combine the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld mixer; beat on low, then medium-high speed until frothy. On medium-high speed, gradually add the sugar to form a meringue that holds stiff peaks.
To assemble, create a single layer of vanilla wafers in the bottom of the baking dish. Use some of the sliced bananas to create a layer covering the wafers. Spread half of the custard over the bananas; repeat those three layers, ending with the custard.
Spread the meringue topping so that it covers the custard entirely; swirl it decoratively to make it look nice. Bake (middle rack) for 15 minutes or until the meringue is lightly browned in spots.
Let cool completely, then refrigerate (with a tent of foil over the top that does not touch the meringue) for at least 2 hours or until well chilled.
Nutrition | Per serving: 370 calories, 7 g protein, 65 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 44 g sugar
Miller is author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time” (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).