Most people would travel to the American South to study soul food, but Charlotte Youkilis ’20, a history major, documentary filmmaker, and soul food researcher headed north, specifically to north Manhattan.
This summer Youkilis, a recipient of Bowdoin’s Alfred E. Golz Fellowship, spent her weeks touring the Harlem soul food scene, interviewing and collecting perspectives on the importance of the cuisine in the neighborhood’s history.
The interviews, which were conducted with restauranteurs, historians, and even an urban waste expert, will culminate in a short film. For Youkilis, who is minoring in cinema studies, the project is an expression of several interests, both personal and intellectual.
“I have always been interested in filmmaking, and it seemed like a topic that would translate really well into a visual story,” Youkilis said. She was first introduced to the topic in professor Brian Purnell’s seminar, African Americans in New York City, where she learned about the significance of dining establishments in the neighborhood’s history. Purnell is Bowdoin’s Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History.
While the film is a continuation of her class research, the film’s focus on food and community is also a way for her to pay tribute to her old stomping ground. “I grew up in the New York City restaurant scene. My dad is a restaurant owner, and I’ve always been interested in the role that food plays in communities,” Youkilis said.
In Harlem, a neighborhood with a black majority until very recently, soul food restaurants are more than just hubs of southern cuisine. They are also symbols of a history marked by resistance — and the Harlem Renaissance.
“Black enterprises were tools of autonomy,” Youkilis said. Making and selling food during the Harlem Renaissance was one of the only ways locals could be entrepreneurs, according to Youkilis, and restaurants in Harlem became “opportunities for black business owners to provide an establishment for Harlem communities.”
Today many of the earliest eateries are no longer running, replaced with newer restaurants that appeared in the 1960s and now attract tourists and city-goers from all neighborhoods and demographics.
Nonetheless, as for the makeup of soul food itself, not much has changed, a testament to the timeless appeal of comfort staples such as sweet potatoes, collard greens, pork, and fried chicken. According to Youkilis, these staples also reveal another dimension to soul food’s storied history.
“A lot of the ingredients used in soul food are indigenous to Africa and were brought to the Americas by slaves. Other ingredients, native to the Americas, tie back to Native American cuisine in the south,” she explained.
And while many of these ingredients are inexpensive, that has not stopped higher-end restaurants from popping up in Harlem.
“One of the things that is really interesting about soul food is it is based off really cheap ingredients, but there are places like Red Rooster that are really high-end,” said Youkilis. “It has become a lot harder for residents of Harlem and local people to eat at these restaurants because they have become very expensive.”
Out of at all the restaurants featured in her film, each of which Youkilis has dined at, she recommends Miss Maime’s Spoonbread Too as her top pick for Harlem soul food eateries. Another place worth visiting, she suggests, is Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken.
“It is one of the cheapest fried chicken places you can go to in Harlem,” Youkilis said. “It’s fantastic, less well-known, and you will find a lot of locals there.”