By DARLENE DENSTORFF

Ascension section editor

GONZALES — The traditions and heritage of soul food were celebrated during a taste fair held Saturday at the American Legion Post 81 hall.

Cornbread, stewed okra and tomatoes, fried chicken, baked spaghetti and cheese, smothered pork chops, black-eyed peas and cabbage were just a few of the dishes cooked by the members of the Howard Johnson American Legion Post 557 Auxiliary for the group’s first “A Taste of Ascension Soul Food Heritage Taste Fair.”

For organizer Sonia Mulberry-Percle, the event was more than a food event.

Primarily, she said, it was a fundraiser to help complete renovations to the post hall. Post 557, the only African-American American Legion post in the parish, has been without a home for several years, since its hall was condemned by the city, she said.

Vandalism and Hurricane Katrina damaged the hall, and the small group has worked with the Gonzales government to prevent the building from being demolished, Mulberry-Percle said.

In planning the event, Mulberry-Percle said she discovered that preserving the roots of soul food cooking was just as important as raising money.

Soul food, she said, is at the center of many African-American family gatherings, and an important part of the history of many black neighborhoods.

Mulberry-Percle said she found multiple facts about the history of soul food that are being lost .

“Did you know they used to use okra to make tea and coffee?,” she said.

“This food is important in our culture, and today’s young people are losing that,” she said. Soul food traditions, such as slow cooking, deep frying, smothering and sautéing foods, are being replaced by fast food.

Aretha Catchings of Gonzales agreed.

She said the food served Saturday is the type of food she found growing up at family reunions, weddings and holiday meals in her family. She particularly loved the array of desserts served. The red velvet cake was Cathchngs’ favorite, she said.

“It’s very important for young people to understand the history of soul food … but I’m afraid that tradition — the history — is getting lost,” Catchings said.

Cathchings said food brings families together, not just to eat, but throughout the cooking process.

“Food is a way of keeping that unity, that peace in neighborhoods,” she said.

Mulberry-Percle said other members of the post’s Ladies Auxiliary are working to keep those traditions alive by passing down recipes they received from parents and grandparents.

“We’re the birthplace of many cooking techniques and so many of today’s young people don’t know … they don’t even cook,” she said.

In an effort to ensure that those traditions remain in her family, Mulberry-Percle, president of the auxiliary, said she spent hours with her 11-year-old daughter in the kitchen preparing food for the event .

She said she explained each recipe she prepared and talked to her daughter about the history of the food.

Mulberry-Percle said her recipes for smothered pork chops, turnip greens and black-eyed peas are “part of my family , and I want to make sure those traditions don’t die.”

She hopes to continue holding the taste fair and plans to add it to the auxiliary’s February Black History Month program.