Illustration by Connor Sullivan

Soul Food & Wine

Heartfelt pairings for history-soaked dishes

By Annelise Kelly

Tender, juicy chicken on the bone encased in a savory, shatteringly crisp crust. Gooey, creamy, decadent macaroni and cheese. Gleaming, lacquered ribs redolent of smoke and enrobed with caramelized barbecue sauce. Supple greens melting into porky, tangy broth.

While the traditional good-luck collards and black-eyed peas of New Year’s Day are still fresh in our memory, we’re celebrating soul food. It’s Black History Month, and soul food is one of many culinary accomplishments of the African diaspora. Naturally, we’re going to enjoy it with wine.

Soul food is as deserving of thoughtful wine pairing as any cuisine, but it’s often served by casual eateries or food trucks where a wine list isn’t part of the menu. For advice on matching Oregon wine to soul food — perfect for takeout —we talked to Chevonne Ball, a sommelier who was raised on it.

Cultural Context

We caught up with Ball in France, who was wrapping up a three-month business trip extending from Portugal to Norway and points in between. While there, she’s researching the tours she’ll host this June to Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley. Ball did not earn her spot on the Wine Enthusiast Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2020 list by being a slouch.

Before we could discuss wine pairings, Ball emphasized the origins of soul food. “I think it’s really important people know where it comes from,” she says, noting enslaved people had access to the worst cuts of meat, sometimes spoiled, too. “This is a reason soul food tends to be really heavily seasoned.” Post-slavery, poverty kept those less-desirable cuts on the table, including squirrel, rabbit and possum. “That’s where a lot of the stews come in and, again, the seasoning.” Ball continues, “[Creating] such an incredible food that now has a kind of cult following outside of Black culture is a pretty amazing thing.”

The culinary label originated in the 1960s, “when the term soul was commonly used for music and clothing during the movement of Black culture. In fact, it was coined by a famous poet who was also in the Black power and arts movement, Amari Baracka.

“For me, soul food is made with feeling and love and care. So as much as it is a part of Black culture, I also think it’s a kind of peasant food, food that’s made with heart and soul. Like in France, most of the food that I love is what peasants were cooking back in the day.”

Such cuisine in Italy is recognized as “la cucina povera” (poverty cuisine); in France, “de campagne” (countryside). Ball was raised on a parallel cuisine in the Pacific Northwest. “I think it’s so funny, my grandfather was a hunter — he’s from Mississippi — so eating elk, deer, salmon and things like sweetbreads, liver and heart was normal when I was growing up. Then, I went through that phase of it not being cool. But then, working at Le Pigeon, people were paying exorbitant amounts of money for what would be considered terrible cuts. It’s sort of a full circle kind of thing, but it’s part of our history and culture.”

Ball notes how even humble macaroni and cheese maintains lofty ties to our founding fathers. To her, the history of food is essential. The first recipes incorporating pasta and cheese date to 14th century Italy; the dish evolved and migrated across the continent. Thomas Jefferson tasted the dish when visiting Europe, bringing back the concept to his chef. Ball explains, “He was an enslaved African man named James Hemings, who perfected macaroni and cheese as we know it today, which is a staple in soul food and a big deal in Black culture. If you don’t make it right, you could be ostracized from the family.”

Wine Pairings from Somm Chevonne Ball

As for the pairings, why not start with mac and cheese? “With all of those creamy flavors, a high-acid rosé would be delicious here, or a really nice, bright white wine, like Leah Jørgensen Cellars Blanc de Cabernet Franc.” Creamy, cheesy grits deserve the same crisp treatment. For example, shrimp and grits demands a rosé or a skin-contact Pinot Gris, that’s “kind of bright but has some complexity to it.”

As for the other pinnacle of soul food, fried chicken, Ball has simply one word: bubbles. “You’ve got this beautiful, crispy chicken, hopefully not too greasy, but definitely has some oil to it, with the spices — and you’re eating it with your fingers, hopefully. So, take this crunchy, crispy, salty, hot fried chicken and cut it with an acidic bubbly with a fine mousse (foam) in your mouth. You’re cutting all of that fat and getting all this beautiful citrus, brioche and toast coming out. Then, you go right back to that fried chicken. It’s a back-and-forth play.”

Ball continues, “Not to get off the subject, but Champagne goes with any food, literally any food, salty, sweet, doesn’t matter.” She further advises that sparkling wine is not just a celebratory drink. Bring it to the table. Two of her favorites: sparkling Pinot Gouges Blanc by Dolores Wines and Cramoisi Vineyard Blanc de Noirs.

For fried fish, Ball recommends a high-acid white such as Pinot Gris or Riesling. “Anything that’s dry and bright and has high acid. Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris comes to mind.”

Concerning crawfish étouffée, Ball asks, “Can I throw my own wine out there?” Absolutely. “The Dirty Radish Gamay Noir would be delicious with crawfish étouffée, which is personally one of my favorite dishes. My Eola-Amity Hills Gamay Noir from Jubilee Vineyard has a really beautiful balance of bright fruit and high acid. That’s going to pair really nicely with the spices and that creamy roux, and all the flavors and crawfish, too.”

With gumbo, Ball proposes serving with “a white wine blend from Shiba Wichern. There are really beautiful florals in her wines, and some really beautiful bouquets of seasoning in gumbo. And there’s just enough spice that would balance with the white she makes.”

For barbecue, she suggests a fuller-bodied, fruity red, like her own Gamay or Gamay from Brick House, Ridgecrest and Evening Land. Ball explains, “These high-acid chewable reds will go really nice with all those smoky flavors in the barbecue.”

As for Oregon’s flagship, Pinot Noir, Ball recommends serving it with smothered chicken (or turkey), because it’s a great match with the herbs characterizing these dishes. Pinot is also the winner for greens, yams and baked beans, all of which contain earthy and/or smoky flavors that play well with the wine.

When faced with a variety of dishes on the table, Ball observes, “If you’ve got this many dishes, I’m assuming you’re sharing with a lot of people, so don’t be afraid to open multiple different bottles.” But when in doubt, “Bubbles can go with everything.”

Read & Reap

Gain more knowledge in the kitchen and celebrate the diverse culture of African American food with these award-winning Black-authored cookbooks 

Black Food by Bryant Terry. Oct. 21, 2021.
A beautiful, rich and groundbreaking book exploring Black foodways within America and around the world, curated by renowned chef, food activist and author of “Vegetable Kingdom” Bryant Terry.

Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin. Nov. 5, 2019.
Toni Tipton-Martin brings African American culinary masters — current and historical — into our kitchens with this James Beard Award winner. Explore more than 100 recipes, including techniques.

Black Girl Baking by Jerrelle Guy. Feb. 6, 2018.
Jerrelle Guy takes readers on a baking journey using the five senses, retelling and reinventing food memories while using ingredients that make her feel more in control and more connected to the world.

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