“You just balance it out.”

“I’m going back to the way I grew up and finding out, darn it, I was very healthy. Even though people will tell you today that soul food cooking and African American cooking is very bad for you.  It clogs the arteries.  And, I’m like: No, you balance that out.  You don’t have to have fried chicken.  You don’t have to have fried fish. You bake your fish. You bake your chicken. Maybe I can’t have greens every day, but I can have salad… You just balance it out.” Dorothy Horton-Jackson

This quote is from one of the interviews featured in the forthcoming “Shoebox Lunch” audio book-in-a-box. I want to highlight Ms. Dorothy’s words today as I reminisce about some GARLIC & GREENS activities from the past few months.

Last year, I was approached by Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis to create an artist multiple for their collaborative project, Regional Relationships. Regional Relationships is a subscription based art/culture project that commissions artists, writers, scholars and/or activists to create projects that materialize work across spaces or between places. The project website will tell you that RR is interested in work “that investigates the natural, industrial and cultural landscapes of a region.”

This is the logo for the Regional Relationships project described in this blog post.

Sarah and Ryan were interested in featuring something related to the GARLIC & GREENS initiative for the third edition of Regional Relationships. I had been a fan of Sarah and Ryan’s work from afar, so I was quite honored to be asked and I couldn’t say no! The project took some time to materialize. My goal was to highlight a story from the many interview clips that would not make it to the final edit of the audio book. As any editor will tell you, there are many wonderful moments that have to be left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I decided to focus on a conversation with my friend Joy Smith, who shares her description of a noodle dish called yock or yak-a-mein.

This image is a sample page from the final yock project, a comic book with line drawings. This page shows bottles, referencing the different ingredients that make up yock.

I went to college in a small town with no fast food chains. Students managed industrial kitchen co-ops where they subjected their peers to strange cooking experiments. There I learned how to make burnt yogurt and large batches of wet rice. But from time to time, we indulged in the convenient foods well loved by our peers at other schools: microwavable, rehydratable, and unhealthy.

I probably ate less ramen than most people in college. But I ate a lot of a cousin noodle dish called yock. I don’t remember the first time Joy prepared yock for us to share. I remember it was something made with spaghetti, ketchup, and soy sauce. There must have been something else in it, but I’m not sure what. I remember it was delicious. It was our version of ramen, but tastier.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan after graduation that I was reacquainted with ramen as an actual food, not one that comes in freeze-dried bricks, but one with whole restaurants built around slurping.

But I never ate yock before or after that time. Was this dish just a product of Joy’s culinary imagination? If it was so popular in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where I grew up, how come I had never heard of it before? These are some of the questions that inspired the Yok Yock project.

Language is constantly evolving. Humans try to contain it with dictionaries.

It’s the same with food. People have cookbooks to claim the definitions of food. But go down to the coastal areas of Virginia and Louisiana, you’ll find everyone’s version of yock is THE version yock.

This is page 4 of the project. It depicts LEAH CHASE from  Dooky Chase restaurant who says: “No, I don’t have a recipe for yaka mein, honey. It is not Creole - it’s Chinese. I know a customer has a hangover when someone comes in asking for it. It is sold only in the black community, usually from small Chinese takeouts.”Below that is a drawing of LINDA GREEN, known as the New Orleans “ya-ka-mein lady”. She serves up the noodles from her famous food truck at festivals and second line parades. She says:"Ya-ka-mein in New Orleans, specifically in the black community, is like red beans. Especially...if you’ve been out drinking or whatever, you get some ya-ka-mein to sober you up." It may not be evident at first glance, but a lot of research went into this 20-page booklet that was hand-rendered by comics artist Neil Brideau, who collaborated on the project. We decided to mix fact and fiction, quoting from actual newspaper stories that featured yock, and mixing in fantasy, cryptozoological elements, and specific references that only some people might pick up on. One of these was a shout-out to Braddock, PA and the famous ketchup company located in nearby Pittsburgh. The final project, Yock Yok, came packaged with a CD of my conversation with Joy, and a dishtowel showing the coastal areas of southeastern U.S. where yock is commonly found. It’s distributed by Regional Relationships, so you can contact them to sign-up for a subscription.

Like a lot of popular comfort foods, there isn’t just one definitive way to make yock. The basic thing you need to know is that yock is a hybrid noodle dish with a broth made from ketchup and other ingredients such as soy sauce, vinegar, cayenne, onion, and egg.

This image depicts a screen capture from a Facebook page for fans of yock who hail from my hometown.

There’s even a Facebook page for fans of yock who hail from my hometown.

Most versions of yock are super salty and greasy. Its key ingredient is ketchup, which some people might categorize as a super-processed “edible foodlike substance“. But you can make a healthy bowl of yock at home by taking control of the process and making a few changes here and there. The basic premise of the dish can be hacked to be delicious and nutritious, and this is evidenced by Joy’s vegan version of yock which is tweaked to incorporate fresh vegetables.

Recently there is growing awareness around the intersection of health issues and soul food, from Ms. Dorothy’s assertion above, about all things in moderation, to Byron Hurt’s documentary film, Soul Food Junkies.

This is a photograph of a panel discussion about food justice after a screening of the documentary film Soul Food Junkies.

Panel discussion about food justice after a screening of the documentary film Soul Food Junkies.
18 November 2012 at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago

In November last year GARLIC & GREENS helped host a screening of the film at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. It later aired on PBS and has made it to various screenings across the country. It will be playing again at the One Earth Film Festival, happening this weekend in Oak Park, IL.

Celebrating the healthy origins of popular food traditions is one of the catalysts for the GARLIC & GREENS initiative, and I look forward to discovering other projects that do the same.

How about you? Are you hacking the cafeteria food at your college dorm? Making your own ketchup from home-grown tomatoes? We’d love to hear from you. And if you make your own version of yock, send us some photos and let us know how it turned out!

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