“The soul food version of the same dish has more flavor…it tastes better because of the ingredient called soul.”
— Restaurateur Edna Stewart, when asked the difference between Southern food and soul food
It’s February, and that means we are once again embarking on our annual observance of Black History Month — a time when we explore African American heritage, recall its most seminal figures, and celebrate the richness and diversity of its culture. This includes, of course, its flavorful cuisine, familiarly known as soul food.
Soul food has its roots on cotton plantations in the antebellum American South. This early “fusion” cuisine was heavily influenced by the climate and availability of ingredients, by the indigenous peoples in the area, and also, of course, by the culinary traditions of the home countries of the slaves who were forcibly brought here — for the most part, from West Africa. But there was one more factor that may have been even more significant: ingenuity.
The amounts and types of foods distributed by the slave owners were strictly limited: on a weekly basis each slave might receive a few pounds of a starch such as rice, yams, or cornmeal; some sort of inexpensive meat (pork, fish, or beef, often salted or cured); and molasses. The meat was generally used not as the main part of a meal, but sparingly as a condiment to stretch it further. This restrictive dietary regimen was customarily supplemented by any vegetables that the slaves could manage to cultivate in plots where they had to give half of everything they grew back to the owner. And also with anything else edible that they could hunt or forage. To make varied and nourishing meals out of this unpredictable collection of ingredients required flexibility and a willingness to share and collaborate as a community; that warm family feeling continues to surround the cuisine today.
This distinctive style of cooking eventually spread to the northern states during what became known as the Great Migration, which began during World War I and continued for decades after. Chicago alone welcomed more than 500,000 new Black arrivals over the span of about half a century. These newly minted Chicagoans brought with them their familiar foods, and the dining establishments they started on the South and West sides of the city morphed into popular community and “after church” meeting places — the “down home” cooking, familiar dishes, and homey ambiance were surely major attractions.
The term “soul food” was coined much later — some have attributed it to journalist Gertrude Gipson, who made the reference in 1960 in a column in the Los Angeles Sentinel. It seems to have really caught on, though, after author Alex Haley (Roots) used the expression in his Autobiography of Malcolm X.
What you will find on the menu in a soul food restaurant might best be described as “comfort food with a twist” — fried chicken, candied yams, black-eyed peas, fried okra, grits, collard greens, cornbread, banana pudding, and peach cobbler, to name a few. In a fairly new and healthier development, there are even a host of vegan and vegetarian options. Here are a few soul food items that might need a bit of explanation:
Hush puppies (not to be confused with the popular shoe brand): Often served as a side dish to accompany fried catfish, hush puppies are small dumplings of cornmeal batter, mixed with milk and a small amount of diced green onion, formed into balls, and deep-fried. The story goes that cooks during the Civil War era would shout “Hush, puppies!” as they threw small bits of the batter out the back door to the dogs. It’s as good an explanation as any.
Hog maw: This dish combines chopped sausage meat, diced potatoes, onion and salt — all loaded into a pig’s stomach, which is then sewn up and baked. Good news: the stomach itself is fat-free! There are variations of this dish to be found on the Pennsylvania Dutch, South American, and Chinese culinary scenes.
Red drink: This is an essential accompaniment to soul food. The reason why is best explained by soul food expert Adrian Miller: “Red is not just a color, it’s also a flavor. We soul-food aficionados don’t get caught up in describing a drink as ‘cherry,’ ‘strawberry,’ or ‘tropical punch,’ and we don’t say it has ‘hints of cranberry.’ It’s just ‘red.’ Red drinks have such a special cultural resonance that whenever African Americans gather together, there’s usually a red drink in the mix. In short, it’s liquid soul.”