The Historical and Cultural Significance Behind Soul Food
Author’s Note: When I initially sat down to write this article, I had a very strong image in my mind of what a plate of “soul food” would look like. Now, after learning more about this culinary tradition, one abundant in history, lifestyle and relationships, I gained a new appreciation for traditional African American foodways. My research challenged me to rethink this socially constructed term and encouraged me to delve deeper into the factors that led to my generalization of “soul food.”
When you hear the term “soul food,” what images come to mind? What flavors can you taste? What scents do you imagine swirling through the kitchen? If you were to be presented with a plate of “soul food,” what foods would you expect to enjoy?
Today, it seems most people typically associate “soul food” with a heaping plate of fried chicken and waffles or okra. However, there are many complex historical factors that crafted this image. As a result, the term “soul food” has pigeonholed the incredibly rich past of African American food culture.
As Rachel Finn, director and founder of Roots Cuisine, explained, the term “soul food” provides a very narrow glimpse into African American culinary traditions and contributions. This socially constructed term can be limiting when trying to understand African American culinary traditions and practices in a broader sense. Simply put, the term “soul food” doesn’t do justice. That being said, hopefully this story of “soul food,” or more appropriately, the story of traditional African American cooking, is eye-opening.
The journey begins in 14th century Africa. A typical African meal was communal, often consisting of grains, such as millet, rice, sorghum or fonio, vegetables and small amounts of chicken, fish or other animal protein. However, the slave trade interrupted this satisfying mealtime tradition and uprooted millions. Once in America, enslaved Africans included new, local ingredients with traditional preparation techniques from their native countries. Out of necessity, new culinary traditions emerged. These dishes became associated with sharing a meal with family and friends after an long day. Like in Africa, these mealtimes were used to relive oral history, share stories and celebrate their roots.
After the Civil War, these foods took on unique identities that manifested themselves regionally.
Eric Acree, librarian at Cornell University’s Africana Center, explained that these culinary styles are largely a Southern tradition.
“There’s food of the African American experience, but they are all so varied,” he said.
Louisiana was known for food with a French flair. The Deep South favored grits, country ham and barbecues. Those on the coast, or the “Low Country,” developed a love of “shrimp, fish, oysters, and plenty of rice,” Finn said. A handful of dishes have been associated with “soul food,” but this generalization overlooks the extensive varieties of African American foodways.
Unfortunately, it seems today that “soul food” is associated with heavy, deep fried or unhealthy ingredients. It’s important to reinforce that traditional African American foods were prepared from scratch and came straight from the ground or farm.
Edna Lewis, author of the Gift of Southern Cooking, reflected on the natural goodness of the ingredients her family used.
“We had thick soups of homegrown dried beans with slices of pork and hot, crusty breads,” she wrote. “And for dessert there would be bread puddings, deep-dish pies and compotes of canned fruit.”
Lewis also wrote that in the winter, her family savored “canned vegetables and fruits that had been prepared during those unbearable hot days of the past summer . . . there was sausage, liver pudding, spare ribs, wild game from the hunting parties, and wild watercress. No winter meal was complete without a fat, old Barred Rock hen saved for a cold day, stewed and served piping hot with dumplings made of a rich biscuit dough.”
Finn explained the ingredients that were used depended on the season.
“The elements of African American cooking that are considered unhealthy — the frying, the pork, the high salt content — were all necessary in the context of the lives of the enslaved,” she said. “Hard, backbreaking work in scorching hot sun and high humidity called for food packed with energy, which meant high caloric contents, carbohydrates.”
The range of culinary techniques was as diverse and complex as the wide array of ingredients used. She added that this culinary style “comes from a tradition of people who lived off the land, raised, grew, gathered and processed their own food.”
Just as the roots of traditional African American cooking are so much more than just the ingredients roasting on the stove top, your own experience of preparing these recipes will be more than what you dice on the cutting board.
Page through cookbooks like Lewis’ The Taste of Country Cooking or Gift of Southern Cooking by Lewis and Scott Peacock and sample a few recipes to share. Fully savor your meal, made richer by the history.
Elizabeth Stoltz is a junior IMC major who hopes this article spiced up your life. Email her at estoltz1[at]ithaca.edu.