A History of Soul Food
Every ethnic group has what it calls "soul food" - soothing, comfort food that brings back warm memories of family dinners. Today, in America, the term "soul food" simply means African-American cuisine. To fully understand the concept of "soul food," you must learn the traditional foods of Africa. Many common American foods are indigenous to Africa. Grains, legumes, yams, sorghum, watermelon, pumpkin, okra, and leafy greens could be found as early as 4000 BC on the African continent. Eggplant, cucumber, onion and garlic are believed to be African in origin, while only a small number of fruits are grown on the continent: wild lemons, oranges, dates and figs.
Many culinary historians believe that in the beginning of the 14th century, around the time of early African exploration, European explorers brought their own food supplies and introduced them into the African diet. Foods such as turnips from Morocco and cabbage from Spain would play an important part in the history of African American cuisine.
As meat was used sparingly, the average African ate mostly a vegetarian diet, though seafood showed up often in stews served with a starch. Okra and native peppers were used as seasoning and salt as a preservative. Research scientist William Bascom found that a large portion of tribal Africans shared basic cooking techniques. Simplicity was the trademark in African cooking. Utensils for cooking and eating were made from earthenware or prepared gourds or other squashes. Africans cooked in boiling water and steamed food using leaves as a steamer. They often fried foods in palm oil or vegetable butters, toasted and roasted using fire and baked in ashes. Some ingredients were smoked for flavoring and others thickened with nuts and seeds. Africans also made rice dishes and created fritters.
A common African meal consisted of rice, chicken and milk while the poorest Africans ate a type of couscous with leafy vegetables. This made the African diet healthy and satisfying. The tradition of communal living with shared meals was the perfect environment for conversation and the reciting of oral history and storytelling.
When slave trading began in the early 1400s, the diet of newly enslaved Africans changed on the long journeys from their homeland. On these terrible voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, small portions of rice and beans, with the occasional vegetable or piece of fruit, replaced their normally healthy diet. A "slabber" sauce, made from old beef and rotten fish and salt, was poured over the rice and beans in an attempt to fill the slave's stomachs.
It was during this time that surprisingly some of the indigenous crops of Africa began showing up in the slaves new home in the Americas. Tall tales of seeds from watermelons, okras and sesame being transported in the slave's ears, hair or clothing could be true. The more likely idea would be that the European slave traders, urged by the African slave traders
themselves, brought the food over for trade. Whatever the case, these familiar foods would soon become part of America's southern crops.
African slaves actually had a better diet than their owners did. The owners ate mostly fatty foods, with little or no vegetables and lots of sweets and alcohol that left them lethargic. The slaves needed to be strong and energetic to work the fields, so large vegetarian meals were encouraged and drinking discouraged. Ice tea and lemonade became typical drinks. As the Africans began to assimilate into the American slave society, they "made do" with the ingredients at hand. The fresh vegetables found in Africa were replaced by the throwaway foods from the plantation house. Their vegetables were the tops of turnips and beets and dandelions. Soon they were cooking with new types of greens: collards, kale, cress, mustard and pokeweed. With a lot of lard for flavor from the slaughtered hog and cracklin' from it's skin, they made a filling meal.
Weekly rations were given out from the smokehouse of corn meal, a few pounds of meat and black molasses. The women would use these ingredients, with onions, garlic, thyme and bay leaf, to create a variety of dishes. The cornmeal was turned into a bread. The meat (pig's feet, ham hocks, chitterlings, pig ears, hog jowl, tripe, and crackling) became the main dish with generous portions of greens, and the molasses and cornmeal would be mixed to become a dessert.
The slave diet began to evolve when slaves entered the plantation houses as cooks. With an array of new ingredients at their fingertips and a well-tuned African palate, the cooks would make delectable foods for their masters. Suddenly southern cooking took on new meaning. Fried chicken began to appear on the tables, sweet potatoes (which had replaced the African yam) sat next to the boiled white potato. Regional foods like apples, peaches and berries, nuts and grains, soon became puddings and pies.
Possum was the meat of choice among slaves since hunting was done during the only free hours a slave had, after all the work for their master was complete, in the wee hours of the night.
Soon the slave's cuisine became knows as "good times" food. After long hours working in the fields or up at the house, the evening meal was a time for families to get together. The big pots became a meal for both body and soul. It was during the meal that the oral history was re-told, forbidden religious ceremonies held and family and friends visited.
Some slaves tried to escape from captivity and Native Americans took in many. From the Native Americans they learned to use the ground green sassafras leaves as a new spice. Sadly, many escaped slaves were re-captured and returned to their plantations. No doubt the ground sassafras went with them and was called "file'" by Lousiana slaves.
Because each state had its own cultural influences, the African dishes began to take on the qualities from that region. Rich and saucy dishes with a French accent came from Louisiana, while the Carolina's Spanish culture introduced dishes like jambalaya and a strange food called sausage into the cooking pots that sat over open fires in the slave's quarters. It could be surmised that from a bouillabaisse or a cassoulet found in the French cuisine, the slaves changed it into a gumbo using the shellfish from the bayou and the okra and file' to make a dish more to the liking of African taste bud.
Unlike the dishes from other countries with names that usually told what the ingredients were, black cuisine had names that did not necessarily give you a clue to the ingredients, but did tell you a little history of how it came about.
It is said that the hushpuppy got its name from the dredging of the catfish that would have been thrown out. Being thrifty, the cook from the house would send this down to the slave quarters and the women added a little milk, egg and onion and fried it up. It is said they were tossed at the dogs to keep them quiet while the food was being transferred from the pot to the table, i.e., "hush puppy! hush puppy!."
Hoecakes are a dish said to have been a corn bread batter that was heaped onto the spade or hoe which was held over the open fire to make a quick bread. Ashcakes are a corn meal mixture baked in an open fire, and the baked bread is washed after cooking then served. A "gut strut" is another name for a big pot of chittlin's.
No matter the stories, good, black cuisine was wholesome food that used everything available. Nothing was ever wasted in the black kitchen. Leftover fish became croquettes (by adding an egg, cornmeal or flour, seasonings and breaded then deep-fried). Stale bread became bread pudding, and each part of the pig had its own special dish. Even the liquid from the boiled vegetables was turned into "pot likker" which was used as a type of gravy or as a drink in and of itself. While the master would have an apple, peach or cherry baked pie, slaves were ingenious and produced fried pies that could be tucked into a pocket for a sweet pick-me-up in the fields.
When the emancipation came in 1863, slaves soon scattered from the confines of the plantation into other parts of the United States. Black cowboys could be found in Texas, domestics in Illinois and Michigan, porters worked the railroad stations up and down the eastern seaboard. As the railroad tracks expanded across the middle of the country, black cooks could be found working in train kitchens too. Wealthy and middle class whites and blacks in large cities hired black cooks. This brought southern black cuisine into the homes of many Americans.
So as not to lose contact with family members scattered far and wide, Sunday dinners became a common time for families to get together. It was common for a son or daughter to travel some distance just for a good home cooked meal. Aunts, uncles, cousins (both real and pretend) would converge, not to the largest home, but to the house with the best cook for a meal. Occasionally there would be a potluck where everyone brought their "best" dish, but the normal pattern was for the women to get in the kitchen and cook up a storm. Men seldom took part, unless there was ‘cueing (barbecue).
In the mid 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning, terms like "soul man" "soulful" and just "soul" were used in connection with blacks themselves. It caught on with mainstream America and someone coined the term "soul food" for black cuisine and it stuck.
Today when most people think of soul food, it is a table heavy with trays of watermelon, ribs, candied sweet potatoes or yams, greens and fried chicken. Each black family, however, has its own idea of what black cuisine is. Hogshead cheese sliced on saltine crackers with hot sauce and beer is one such dish. Crab cakes. Carrot and Raisin salad. Fried corn. Hush puppies. Corn pone. Red beans and rice. Greens. Liver and onions. Lima beans with ham hocks. Stewed okra and tomatoes. Cornbread dipped in buttermilk. Fried catfish. Smothered chicken. Pickled pig's feet. Fried cabbage. Neckbones. Tongue. Chittlin's. Tripe. Gumbo. Breaded fried pork chops with a mess of greens. Black-eyed peas...and, grits. Although grits is truly a southern dish, it is considered here as a part of black cuisine because black Americans eat grits for breakfast, lunch or dinner; plain, with butter, with gravy, with cheese or deep-fried.
Black owned restaurants have begun to stray from the traditional foods for health reasons. They sometimes substitute canola oil for lard, chicken for pork; oven fried chicken for deep fried and simple fresh fruit for the sweet cobblers and bread puddings they grew up on.
The aroma of "soul food" can fill the house and let the neighbors know that a big pot is cooking. Today, many are just too busy to spend hours in the kitchen cooking up the traditional foods of black America. In the search for the best soul food restaurant, there is one piece of advice: If you walk by and the aroma does not greet you at the door, keep walking.
Bowser, Pearl and Jean Eckstein, A Pinch of Soul, Avon, New York, 1970
Counihan, Carol and Penny Van Esterik editors, Food and Culture, A Reader, Routledge, New York, 1997
Harris, Jessica, The Welcome Table – African American Heritage Cooking, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996
Root, Waverley and Richard de Rochemont, Eating in America, A History, William Morrow, New York, 1976
Glenn, Gwendolyn, "American Visions," Southern Secrets From Edna Lewis, February-March, 1997
Puckett, Susan, "Restaurant and Institutions", Soul Food Revival, February 1, 1997