“The Great Migration is the most acute and dramatic demographic transformation in 20th century United States history,” said Dr. Karida Brown, a professor of sociology at Emory University and the author of “Gone Home: Race and Roots Through Appalachia.”
Before the migration, 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South, Dr. Brown said. When six million of them moved to points in Northern, Midwestern and Western states, the shift created a need for community in those places. Restaurants became an important vehicle for preserving Black culture, including cooking that evoked a sense of home.
“People packed up shoes, clothes but also hopes, dreams, religious practices, food and sayings,” Ms. Brown said.
Black cooks created a distinctive California variation on Black foodways, in which traditional Southern recipes met local produce. Dungeness crab became a replacement for blue crab. Cooks used rice grown in the Sacramento Valley (a legacy of the Chinese railroad workers and gold-miners who had moved there in the 19th century) to recreate dishes from Louisiana like jambalaya and dirty rice. Santa Maria-style barbecue blended with Texan smokehouse traditions.
As Ms. Holland put it, “Soul food is wherever African Americans live, not just in the South. It’s migration cuisine, really.”
The abundance and variety of fresh produce in California has also led many immigrant groups to create different iterations of their cuisines, said Brandon Jew, the executive chef and owner of Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco. That’s the essence of the California ethos, and of his own cooking, he said. “It’s really the love of ingredients, and translating them through different regions.”
The recipes in “California Soul” reflect Ms. Holland’s childhood in the Northeast, her time as a culinary student in France and the years she has lived in California. Cornmeal-based hoe cakes are topped with dollops of caviar and crème fraîche, while barbecued oysters (a Northern California specialty) are broiled with a bacon-vinegar mignonette. Her take on gumbo is brightened with fresh green herbs and kale. The dish she calls “dirty potato salad with all the peppers and onions” is based on Southern-style dirty rice, and the flavor of buttery yeasted rolls is buttressed by whipped sweet potatoes.