Gina Taylor-Pickens learned to cook soul food from her aunt and her grandmother while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. But she had family in the South and she noted that the dishes there were different, often including ingredients that are indigenous to the area.
“Take a Creole casserole for example. Most people in LA are familiar with French-influenced Creole (typically has tomatoes, onions, celery, peppers and meat or fish served over rice). But if you go to the Carolinas it is served “perloo”-style (steamed rice with meat, shellfish or vegetables in a broth seasoned with local spices). And if you get Creole on the Gulf Coast, you’ll see more seafood in it.”
In 2011, with encouragement from her husband of 36 years, actor Jim Pickens (Grey’s Anatomy), Gina embarked on a two-year “fact-finding mission.” She traveled through the South to learn about soul food by region, visiting six states—Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida.
Returning with hundreds of recipes, Gina spotted an opportunity. “When it came to soul food here in LA, it was always the same thing: fried chicken, collard greens and coleslaw. So many dishes weren’t being served.”
Plus, as Jim explains it, Gina also wanted to encourage healthy eating habits.
“With diabetes and high blood pressure as major health concerns in the Black community, Gina is passionate about encouraging healthy eating. But she didn’t want to compromise on the history or flavor of the dish,” he says.
Black Bottom Southern Kitchen puts a healthy spin on soul food favorites like smoked meats, “Texas caviar” (served atop grits in the Soul Bowl) and fried chicken.
So the couple, who have two adult children, opened Black Bottom Southern Kitchen in 2016. In the beginning, the small takeout eatery got a lukewarm reception from lovers of traditional soul food.
“We didn’t have fried food or ribs. People just didn’t seem willing to accept a healthified soul food,” Gina explains.
Then Gina started reimagining traditional dishes with less bad fat and more veggies. Fried chicken and ribs were introduced to the menu, with healthier preparations.
Take for example her fried chicken, dubbed Genuine Broaster Chicken and cooked in an oil-filled pressurized cooker. The high temperature allows for shorter cooking time, so less grease is absorbed into the meat.
The Soul Bowl has cheesy grits topped with greens, fried okra and “Texas caviar” (black-eyed peas with tomatoes, bell peppers, corn and onions) and Monterey Jack cheese.
Other dishes aren’t remarkably different in preparation from traditional soul food dishes. The smoked brisket, cooked in a smoker for eight to 10 hours, has a savory flavor that this writer had never experienced before. The smoked St. Louis-style ribs are a carnivore’s delight.
Gradually the word got out about Black Bottom and customers started sampling it. Then, on a dime, everything accelerated.
During the civil unrest in May, a friend pushed a list of Black-owned businesses out on social media and suddenly people started lining up. “We’ve had an overwhelming response. But the best part is how that list has helped other Black-owned businesses in the Valley,” Gina says.
It’s also been a joy introducing customers, some of whom have never enjoyed soul food, to this part of Black culture.
“There is so much that people don’t know about the African American experience. There is such a wealth of history in the South, and food is an important part of it. Anything can happen over a plate of food. We are all much more closely intertwined than we think.”