Pennsylvania chef explores the sweet and sour flavors of Amish soul food

Elizabeth Wellington
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Hot pepper sauce watermelon salad, a blend of the fibrous summer fruit plus a generous helping of crunchy cucumbers doused with salt, apple cider vinegar, and hot sauce, sits at the heart of chef Chris Scott’s definition of Amish soul food cooking.

“My grandmother used to take watermelon, hit it with some salt and hot sauce, and she would eat it ice cold,” the "Top Chef" alum and owner of Harlem hot spot Butterfunk Biscuit Co. said in a recent Zoom chat. “It is that classic mix of German and Dutch sweet-and-sour flavors blended with soul food that defines Amish soul food. And I’m telling you, it was the bomb.”

This “bomb” recipe is one of 92 featured in Scott’s new cookbook, "Homage: Recipes + Stories from an Amish Soul Food Kitchen." "Homage" is more than a picturesque book filled with scrumptious-looking meals like lemonade-buttermilk fried chicken and peach cobbler. It’s a history of soul food cooking with essays like “The Story of the Birdman” that shares how enslaved Black men, who raised chickens on Southern plantations, were behind the introduction of the quintessential all-American meal of fried chicken.

"Homage" is also Scott’s memoir through which he weaves a narrative of how Black and Amish people’s lives in Chester County have been intertwined through food for more than 100 years. “It’s a love letter to my kids about where they come from,” Scott said. “At least 90% of the recipes in this book are recipes that were passed down from my aunts and my grandparents.”

Scott grew up in Coatesville with his grandmother, “Nana” Pearl Brown, whose parents moved to the sleepy Pennsylvania town in the early 1900s during the Great Migration. Brown — like many other Black families who settled near Amish country — infused Amish ingredients with traditional soul food. She made Eastern European staples like spaetzle and potato dumplings along with white rice. She kept several jars of chowchow, or Amish relish, in her cupboards. Chowchow, Scott wrote in "Homage," “is made with whatever could be salvaged from the garden before the last frost.” There are three chowchow recipes in "Homage," featuring pickled okra, rhubarb, and yellow tomatoes.

I chatted with Scott about his sweet-and-sour cooking legacy, how much meat in greens is too much, and why he named his company Butterfunk. Answers have been edited for clarity

Q: What gives soul food that Amish touch?

A: It’s that amplification of sweet and sourness. Take my lemonade fried chicken recipe. You have a flavor that’s not necessarily sweet, but it’s brined and it’s very bright. You know what I mean? It’s not a sweet tea brine. I’m talking buttermilk, hot sauce, some spices. I mean this not about having a jug of Country Time doused on chicken. No. No. No. It’s a bright, hot, and sweet flavor that’s distinctively inspired by Amish cuisine.

Q: Do you see "Homage" as a part of your legacy?

A: Growing up, there were all of these pictures of Black people throughout my house. Then there came a time when I was like, hold up, who are these people. Tell me more about the pictures on the wall. The more I learned about them, the more I learned about my uncles, my aunts, my grandparents, and my mother. I learned how they lived and most importantly what food they ate. My mother and my grandmother passed away before my kids were born. There comes a time when my kids are going to want to know who their people are

Q: Do you really put two pigs’ feet, two smoked ham hocks, and four smoked neck bones in your collard greens? Even my mama doesn’t use that much meat in her collards and we love some meaty collards.

A: It depends on how much I’m making. I peel the skin off and chop the meat up and throw it back in there and then you have the smoked meat in the pot likker. Potlikker, the juice from the greens, is the best part. It’s a tonic. In my case, it’s the most nutritious and enriched part, you make a stew and a stock, that’s good eating.

Q: Did you interact with Amish kids growing up?

A: Not really. But we all shopped in the same stores. There wasn’t much intermingling. We really kind of picked up each other’s culture by osmosis.

Q: What makes a good biscuit?

A: Everything must be cold. I mean cold. I shave the butter and I freeze it overnight. I take the buttermilk and whatever I’m going to add — I keep that ice-cold, too. I take my flour and mix all the dry ingredients and put that in the freezer. Then I work quickly in batches. When they rise, they rise perfectly, nice and fluffy like magic.

Q: Are you gonna bring a Butterfunk Biscuit Co. to Philly?

A: I have a lot of things cooking. Who knows, Philly might be on the horizon.

Q: Why the name Butterfunk?

A: The original idea was to name the place Hot Buttered Soul, but Isaac Hayes’ family has that copyrighted. Butterfunk was my second choice.

Q: I can dig it.

A: Ha ha, I bet you can.

"Homage: Recipes + Stories from an Amish Soul Food Kitchen." by Chris Scott. (Chronicle Books/TNS)

OKRA CHOW-CHOW

“A sweet-and-sour symmetry is inherent in my style of cooking. If it isn’t expressed through actual components of a dish, it’s delivered via side bowls or ramekins. Okra chow-chow has become one of my favorite media for attaining culinary harmony. And considering that okra is integral to Southern cuisine and agriculture, it’s also one of the clearest examples of two food cultures existing side by side and the ways they intersect. Serve okra chow-chow alongside scrapple (as I so often do), and you could consider this dish the poster child of Amish soul food.”

  • 1 1/2 cups [360 ml] white vinegar
  • 15 spears large, fresh okra, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, seeded, deribbed, and finely diced
  • 1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeded, deribbed, and finely diced
  • 1/2 red onion, finely diced
  • 3/8 cup [75 g] sugar
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoon chopped, fresh parsley

1. Place the vinegar, okra, bell peppers, onion, sugar, and salt in a small pot over medium heat.

2. Simmer, uncovered, until the mixture reduces by half and just starts to thicken, about 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.

3. Stir in the parsley and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 6 months.

CABBAGE SOUP WITH EGG NOODLES AND SMOKED HAM HOCK

  • 1/2 cup [115 g] fatback or slab bacon
  • 1 cup [140 g] finely diced onion
  • 1 cup [140 g] finely diced carrot
  • 1 cup [120 g] finely diced celery
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 8 cups [2 L] chicken stock
  • 3 smoked ham hocks
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 cup [225 g] peeled and diced starchy potato (like russet)
  • 1 green cabbage, cut into 8 wedges
  • 1 pound [455 g] egg noodles
  • 3 tablespoons butter

SERVES 8

1. Add the fatback or slab bacon to a Dutch oven or stockpot over medium heat. Cook until the fat is rendered, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes, or until translucent.

3. Add the chicken stock, ham hocks, thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and potato, which will thicken the soup as it cooks. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.

4. Add the cabbage wedges and lower to a simmer. Cook for 25 minutes more.

5. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil and add the egg noodles. Cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and toss with the butter.

6. To serve, place the egg noodles in individual bowls and ladle the cabbage soup over the top.

Reprinted from "Homage" by Chris Scott with Sarah Zorn, with permission from Chronicle Books, 2022.

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