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Gerald Tan
Apr 2021

Bold dishes leap right off the page: oxtail rillettes, deep-fried fish-bone brittle, braised turkey necks, candied salmon-belly bacon. And this is just chapter one of The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food With Global Flavors. “Castoffs and throwaways are the base of soul food,” says chef and author Deborah VanTrece. “It was humble food cooked in great fashion that came from the heart, and the tenacity of these incredible people who were enslaved to take those things and make something amazing out of them.”

The book’s early recipes forge the path for the globe-trotting journey in store, from duck schnitzel and sweet-potato waffles (a riff on chicken and waffles) all the way to collard-green dumplings with red wasabi vinaigrette. Traditional soul food is given a spirited, sophisticated remix—reflecting VanTrece’s 33-year career as a former flight attendant with American Airlines.

Courtesy of The Twisted Soul Cookbook, Rizzoli, 2021 / Credit: Noah Fecks

“I remember being amazed in France, where they were selling sausage made from chitterlings. This ingredient—pretty much eaten only by African Americans in the United States and looked down upon—was, in another country, considered a gourmet item,” VanTrece says. “Realizing there were so many similarities gave me the idea of intersecting cultures through food.”

Some of the ensuing creations are bewildering and mouthwatering in equal measure. Take the spicy oyster arancini, part Cajun, part Sicilian; the cocoa-crusted lamb rack perfumed with Ethiopian mitmita spice; or the ostentatious foie gras dirty rice. As VanTrece experiments with flavor, she continually draws from her heritage. Pig ear, a staple of her childhood diet, is deep-fried, slivered and tossed into a lime-drenched tomato and romaine salad inspired by travels to Mexico.

Courtesy of The Twisted Soul Cookbook, Rizzoli, 2021 / Credit: Noah Fecks

Other recipes are personal, with the author paying homage to family. A shared indulgence for a soda evolved into Aunt Lucille’s 7Up pound cake. Memories of her grandmother sipping medicinal wine formed the basis for Manischewitz-braised beef ribs. And everything she knows about barbecue, she credits to her father. “It was important to make sure those people were represented,” VanTrece says.

To the uninitiated, certain contents of Twisted Soul may appear daunting. One is invited to explore the realm of charcuterie for homemade headcheese, confit and prosciutto. Different processes are introduced, including smoking poultry and pickling greens. Ingredients, techniques, cultures all mingle and merge.  

Chef VanTrece offers a piece of friendly advice: “Get a glass of wine or a few beers while you’re cooking and just go for it. Some of it sounds intimidating, but it really isn’t. Cooking should be fun. Don’t take it too seriously and you’ll be OK.”

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