The food we eat is personal.
It defines our very core—physically, emotionally, mentally. When we share food, we share the intimacy of our cultures, the people we love, and the people who have loved us with the communities we've created. For me, as a Greek-American, food is how I express my ancestral, ancient virtue of philotimo—a generosity rooted simply in doing the right thing.
When a skeptic questions the authenticity of our food, it's a deep dig into our very selves. Toriano and Serena Fredericks, the couple behind Durham's Boricua Soul food truck, have encountered this many times in recent years. The pair has taken to the streets to share food that speaks to their mixed heritage; empanadas of collards and black-eyed peas or Cuban pork pressed into an Eastern North Carolina hoecake have raised a few eyebrows. For some, it's a culinary adventure. For others, these blurred lines seem sacrilegious.
Recently, the Frederickses issued a post on Boricua Soul's website, titled "What is Authentic?" It made clear just how personal definitions of authenticity—and of lifetimes spent explaining cultural pedigrees—can be. I spoke to Toriano and Serena about what "authentic" means to them and their brand.
INDY: Tell me a little about your food truck, the "Soul Patrol."
TORIANO FREDERICKS: Devin, our almost four-year-old, is our first child. The truck is our second. When we started dating, Serena would mention food she ate growing up. One was empanadas, and I tried to re-create it. I started competing in N.C. State Fair food competitions. All these old ladies were there, and I come in with empanadas and dreads. It wasn't like we left there thinking let's start a food truck, but I was playing with the idea of barbecue and smoked food. Serena was like, "You're crazy." What about using what we cook at home?
SERENA FEDERICKS: Throw a rock around here, and you'll hit a barbecue truck. But that's how this soul food/Puerto Rican fusion was born. It's how we've been cooking all along.
What prompted you to write about authenticity?
SF: When we started dating, it helped us to connect, this weird idea of "we're not authentic enough, but we're authentic together." My dad is black and Italian, and my mom is Puerto Rican. All my life, I've really straddled this multinational question. My authenticity and my ethnicity have always been questioned—you're not Puerto Rican enough, not black enough, not Italian enough.
TF: Do you remember when [culinary historian] Michael Twitty was at Stagville? That dinner was just an eye-opener. Every culture has their food that they're proud of. And it almost seemed like black people had been ashamed of their celebration food. Everybody has the food that they hold up as celebration food, and it's almost ashamed of what ours is. It got us thinking about Puerto Rican food and Southern food and the commonalities—the Indians that were in Puerto Rico, Europeans that came here from Spain and the African slaves.
Do people immediately get that your food—and your family—is a blend of Puerto Rican and soul?
TF: Most people do, actually. It's more on the side of some people who see that their favorites aren't there. You almost feel defensive, explaining that this truck is a mix of two cultures. A lot of people see the Puerto Rican flag and assume it's all Puerto Rican. We have one guy who actually came up, trying to heckle Serena. Serena heckled him back, New York versus New York. He was asking, "Where's all the Puerto Rican things?" He was naming off things that were missing, his favorites.
SF: "There's no arroz con gandules!" He might have been six people back, and he was screaming.
TF: It was in a bit of fun, but at the same time, there was a real level of disappointment. He didn't try anything. We find that when most people get a closer look at the menu, they really see it.
Did those experiences help spark your thoughts about authenticity?
TF: A mix between that and something both of us have faced our whole lives. Once a guy said, "You don't know anything about cornbread," because I'm from Connecticut. I told him I knew just as much as he did, because my grandmother was from Hillsborough. Both of us have had people say you're not black enough because you talk a certain way. I went through the same thing with family, cookouts with aunts and uncles—"Why do you talk so white?" No matter what I talk like and what I do, I am absolutely black. I will be looked at that way. That post was a cross section between food and actual life.
It's obviously important to you. Even in the "about" section of Boricua's website, you mention the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North as part of your identity.
TF: Reading Adrian Miller's book Soul Food, I hadn't heard it coined as "migration" before. All this food is brought up North. There's soul food in Connecticut because all the people that came from the South brought it with them. That's what I ate, what my grandmother was making for me.
That mixture, that's America.
TF: Devin is a product of Serena and I, and our history to make that kid is Puerto Rican, black, Italian. He's what this truck is. This is what America is.
SF: Our son refers to it as the family truck. He knows we're Boricua Soul. The questions that I had growing up, I don't want Devin to face. If you look at our son, we've never cut his hair. We let it grow wild. I want him to grow up to be a confident man, confident in his own skin. Tori and I had all these questions, surrounding race, surrounding who we were, growing up in towns where we didn't feel like we really fit in. Food, I think, for everyone is such a tool in breaking down barriers. If we're using what is our authentic food today as our pathway for our son, what a blessing would that be for this fuzzy-headed little boy.
How does appropriation play into this?
TF: You see a lot of times where white people are cooking and you think, "Is it soul food? Is it Southern food?" I always look at it as someone kind of respecting the history. I look at Shawn [Stokes, the chef-owner of Durham's Luna Rotsisserie]. The guy traveled and lived in South America for years. He was obviously highly influenced by it. It's the same thing with music and other art. You have to play judge to know whether or not someone is being respectful to the history.
Do you feel like you have the clout necessary if someone were to question your respect?
TF: There's been times Serena hasn't been on a truck, and I hope a Puerto Rican doesn't call me out. I read a Yelp review about Roberto [Copa Matos] at Old Havana [Sandwich Shop], where some ass was going off, saying the owner isn't even Cuban. That type of shit scares me. When you're artistic, you're putting yourself out there for judgment to strangers. It's the scariest thing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "An American Van"