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Carla Hall digs into the hidden histories of some of Americans most loved foods


For chef, cookbook author and TV host Carla Hall, food doesn't just keep you alive, it's a delicious link to history and memory. It's about making ice cream and tacos and barbecue with family and about the journeys of ingredients and people from all over the world.


CARLA HALL: Ooey Gooey Butter Cake is one of Ample Hills' most famous flavors. They've mixed in cream cheese and housemade bits of St. Louis-style ooey, gooey butter cake. And this right here tastes like heaven.

MARTIN: Now she is telling those stories in a new six-part series streaming on Max - it's called "Chasing Flavor" - where she digs into the history, some of them surprising, of some of the foods Americans love most. And she's here with us to tell us all about it. Good morning, chef. Good morning, diva, Carla Hall.

HALL: (Laughter) Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: Tough job you have. You got to eat a lot of amazing food, tacos, chicken pot pie. I'm trying to be mad that I was not invited.

HALL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But it sounds like you had a really fun time.

HALL: I had an amazing time. And, you know, I've done my job - yes, I did my job by traveling to these places, but I really did my job If you wanted the thing that I'm talking about after you watch it.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah, well, we all did. As I said, you go places and you talk about the history of the thing, but you also talk about what it is and how it is accomplished. And this is a clip that I want to play where you are at Ample Hills ice cream in Brooklyn, N.Y., and you're explaining the different types of ice creams.


HALL: Premium ice cream versus a regular ice cream is the air that's whipped into it. So if you take a pint of your ice cream and a pint of regular ice cream, when yours melts it may be here, if another one melts it's way down here...


HALL: ...Because of all the air.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, we call that overrun in the ice cream business. And we keep our overrun extra low. And it gives us a good chew and a good mouthfeel...

HALL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...That we're really fond of.

MARTIN: So you're talking about, I guess, the gastronomy and the history. You talk about this is how it's accomplished. But then you take us on this trip. You start in the U.S., as we just said, and then you end up in Turkey.

HALL: I wanted to give credit to the cultures that had a hand in the dish because so often we know the latest version, but we don't understand the history. And then we're OK with that. And I'm like, I'm not OK with that, especially as a Black person, you know? And a lot of our history is wrapped up in the culture of American food. And so when we were coming up with and researching, we were looking for different voices historically. Who was telling the story?

MARTIN: There's a person you introduce us to named Augustus Jackson, who is credited as the father of American-style ice cream.

HALL: He was an enslaved chef at the White House, and so he left to go to Philadelphia. And one of the things that we tell about the ice cream story is to put egg in it or to take egg out. So there's the frozen custard that we think about, but Augustus Jackson decided to take the egg out. And he was also instrumental in the churning machine, like, adding salt to the ice and the water to make it colder, creamier, and make it cold faster. So that was his invention.

And what was so interesting to me that I didn't really think about - the ice cream without the egg is Philadelphia-style ice cream, and that became American-style ice cream, and then it just is ice cream. So one of the things about our history, as we go along, we drop things. So we dropped Philadelphia, it was American style. Then we drop American so it's just ice cream. So the language and the history and the story is no longer in the word or the term.

MARTIN: One of the other things that has gotten dropped is the role that enslaved people played in developing some of these very much loved foods.

HALL: Exactly. And it said about Augustus Jackson that he didn't patent this invention...

MARTIN: The ice cream churn, the ice cream maker.

HALL: ...The ice cream maker, right? And so what Black man was patenting anything back at that time, right? So there was another person. There was a white woman who had the patent on it. And so these stories are really important. It was important for me as a Black person to discover some of these stories. It's important to talk about who brought these flavors forward, and so - where everyone gets credit.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, you had - just in the ice cream episode alone, you started in Brooklyn, N.Y., and then you go to Philadelphia, which is, like, one of the original ice cream makers. And then you go to Europe, and then you go to Turkey, and then you point out the differences between, like, France and Italy and just how these foods have moved...

HALL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Around the world.

HALL: Yes. And what I realized is culture is the butterfly effect of food. So when people move to a particular place, they take up space and residence and they take what is there and things change, and then people move somewhere else. So you can't do it without people. And when you think about, you know, the country being a melting pot - and we're talking about everybody sitting at the table. But literally, through history, everyone was at the table, because that's why we have the food that we have.

MARTIN: We've been talking about ice cream. That's the first episode. But you also have tacos, barbecue, chicken pot pie, hot chicken and shrimp and grits. How did you pick the topics?

HALL: I would love to say that it was all about my desires and wishes, but there's also a network. So we had an executive, so we're going back and forth. So certain things that were on my list didn't make it, but I knew I wanted to do ice cream because I love ice cream. And it's also - we were looking at, what are some of the beloved dishes in America? But we were looking for the surprise. I wanted to do chicken pot pie because it runs parallel with my culinary journey.

MARTIN: What surprising fact can you tell us about chicken pot pie?

HALL: Oh, we're influenced by England for our pot pie. And then when I was in Jamaica, they're influenced by England with their pot pie, but there're other people there. So there're Africans and there're Indians and, you know, East Indians, and so that's why they had the curry and all of those flavors in their pot pie. And again, talk about the butterfly effect, we didn't get that because that's not who was here in America. The other thing that I loved, going to Rome and seeing this crust that was a pot. The crust is a pot and then you had this soup inside. It was literally a chicken pot pie, and I was blown away. I left feeling like I want to do a companion cookbook taking the journey and bringing it into a new dish today but gives everyone credit along the way.

MARTIN: OK, that was chef and bestselling author Carla Hall talking about her latest series. It's called "Chasing Flavor." It streams on Max beginning today. Carla Hall, thank you so much for talking with us.

HALL: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHLOCALYST'S "MARBLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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