Soul Food Series, Part I: What is Soul Food?

By: Ashley Bode

When one thinks of American comfort food, immediately thoughts of traditional dishes like Fried Chicken, Biscuits, and Mac 'n' Cheese, or what we know as soul food, come to mind. But what exactly is soul food? To many people soul food is a tradition. It encompasses more than just the components of a meal and it's more than a style of cooking. It's not just Southern cooking, its not Creole, but it is recipes that have been passed for generations that speak to the experience of African Americans as a whole.

Just as European Americans, Latin Americans or Asian Americans celebrate their culture and heritage through holidays and common experience, African Americans share the one thing that was not taken from them during the time of Slavery: food traditions and recipes. It was the only thing carried from generation to generation, from the plantations of the South to urban hotspots and northern, suburban living.

Soul food is commonly miscategorized as Southern or Creole cuisine. While the three do share similarities, soul food can be identified by a certain flavors and varied levels of spice. Soul food is attributed to dishes from the kitchens of African Americans, consisting of regional vegetables and specific proteins. This cuisine dates back to the days before the Civil War when slaves learned to make do best with what they had. Many were given only corn, flour, molasses and salt. Protein was acquired by what was left over: livers, chitlins and fatback; and the vegetables they ate were those they grew for themselves on smaller plots of land: okra, greens and corn. Oils and butter were also inaccessible, so lard and other animal fats were used for frying, baking and cooking. This diet was not culinary refinement but instead a means of survival.

Just like all emigrant communities before and after, African Americans took their cuisine with them on their Northern flight after Emancipation and soon enough it became incorporated into the culinary heritage of their new communities. Recipes that had become staples, like homemade biscuits with molasses, collard greens, fried catfish and butter beans found their place in cities with large African American communities. These dishes were no longer eaten out of necessity but out of habit and tradition, granted with improvements made along the way.

The name soul food didn't arrive until the 1960s when the African American community, for the first time, was given an opportunity to define their place in a newly-integrated society. It was a time to celebrate all aspects of their heritage that stood out, including their music and food. Both gained the marker "soul" and the name has stuck ever since and has taken a bigger role with more cultural implications than slaves would have ever imagined. Fried Chicken and stone ground grits are served at countless dining establishments, casual and fine, across the country. Soul food classics have been given makeovers using more healthful methods. There's an organization called the Southern Foodways Alliance that holds annual symposiums on anthropological issues that often times discuss not just southern food, but the origins of soul food staples, like fried chicken and barbecue, while also publishing books and recording oral histories from those closest to the topic.

Stay tuned to rest of our series as we further discuss the history of soul food and share the experiences of regional innovators and soul food experts throughout the United States. 

Photo:  hawaii 

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