The Rich and Flavorful History of Soul Food

Please, when I mention soul food, do not think only of the food marketed by some older gentleman parading as a colonel from Kentucky.  Soul food, as I discovered while researching this post, is so much more than just fried chicken, corn bread, and sweet potato pie.  Although those dishes do play a role, they are not the end-all, be-all of soul food, far from it.  Soul food has its origins, as one might expect, from West Africa, but it also contains ingredients from Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas as well.  It is, in fact, a fusion cuisine that has evolved over the centuries and is, perhaps, rediscovering its vegetable roots (no, not like turnips or carrots).

What we now refer to as soul food has its origins in West Africa.  When millions of African slaves were forcibly removed from their homeland and brought to North, Central, and South America, as well as numerous Caribbean islands, one of the memories they brought with them were of the culinary variety.  The Columbian Exchange (the transfer of foods, animals and ideas among the Atlantic world) began almost immediately after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas in 1492.  Eventually, African plants and seeds arrived in the slave states of the South, sometimes via the Caribbean.  One of the most significant was rice, along with okra and black-eyed peas.

The West African diet consisted mostly of vegetables and meat was usually only used to flavor the dish.  This tradition easily transferred itself to America as Southern slaves usually only had access to limited amounts of meat.  And what meat they did obtain was of the variety not eaten by their owners, such as ham hocks, oxtail, chitterlings (or chit’lins…pig intestines), or gizzards.  Many slaves also were permitted to supplement their diets through the use of their own gardens, where they grew vegetables that were common to the Native Americans…sweet potatoes and corn.  Hence the inclusion of many corn based items, such as hominy, grits and cornbread under the soul food umbrella.   The slaves also grew “new” greens such as collard, mustard, turnip, cabbage and kale.

After the Civil War, many Southern blacks became share croppers, still tied to the land that others owned.  However, by the time the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917, many Southern blacks began what has come to be known as the Great Migration as they headed north in search of manufacturing jobs and they took their soul food recipes with them, along with their music.  These African-Americans then began to use lard to cook the meat that they now acquired through better paying jobs, to include chicken and pork.  Some of these transplanted Southern blacks managed to open their own restaurants and they became community gathering places within cities, both north and south.

As for the term “soul food,” African-Americans began to use that term in the 1940s, but it went mainstream with the arrival of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, as “soul” was also placed in front of man, brother, sister, and music.  Simply stated, during this time, “soul” equaled African-American, while “Southern” came to be associated with white.

Around this period, the American diet began to change with the mass consumption of processed and fast food and this is when soul food was transformed and came to be considered part of an unhealthy diet.  While a soul food diet has always had healthy and unhealthy elements, this equilibrium was unbalanced when processed and fast food manufactures altered its composition.

However, recently, many African-American chefs have been leading the way back to the roots of soul food as they take it back to its veggie-centric beginnings.  Often referred to as “down-home healthy soul food,” it features meat dishes, but they’re now grilled or baked rather than fried in lard.  Dishes are also prepared with less salt and sugar and are flavored with onions, pepper, garlic, herbs and spices.  It has been referred to as a sort of homecoming by African-American chefs and culinary experts.  Imagine, soul food as a synonym for health food…well, imagine no longer.

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