Soul food can be best defined as the cuisine of the millions of African Americans who left behind the Deep South when they moved West, Midwest, and North during the Great Migration. It has a rich history with a focus on leafy greens, legumes, and pork but it encompasses a variety of other ingredients – you can check it out below.
The origin of soul food
Trying to define soul food can be more difficult than one expects since this type of cuisine has many layers and it is common for it to be thought of as the African-American style of cooking when in fact the reality is a bit more complicated.
Soul food is the food of the interior Deep South, the area of mainly Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. It is the food of the Deep South that has been transported across the US by African-American migrants who left there during the Great Migration. So a better definition of soul food is what the African-Americans are eating outside of the South.
Nowadays, soul food is one of the most recognizable and popular types of cooking that is coming out of the US. During the Transatlantic Slave trade, enslaved African people did not get a lot of food and what they got was very low in quality and nutritional value so century-old recipes had to be adapted with the resources the people had available.
Slave rations used to be given weekly and the enslaved got around five pounds of some sort of starch which could be rice, cornmeal, or sweet potatoes; a couple of pounds of smoked, dried, or salted meat, which could be pork, fish, or beef; and a jug of molasses.
Other than that, the enslaved had to figure it out for themselves how to supplement their diet so they focused on gardening, foraging, and fishing to get extra food. For the most part, it was all about eating a lot of vegetables, and this is why many think of the new trend of vegan soul food as a sort of homecoming.
As the years went by, these recipes and new techniques became the foundation for the soul food dishes people are familiar with today. While this cuisine is now associated mostly with decadence and comfort, its origin was anything but since it was born out of the struggle to survive.
The origin of the name comes in the 1940s when African-American jazz artists started to fuse gospel sounds into jazz, creating what they described as “soul” and “funky”. This is why soul slowly started to become almost a label for all aspects of black culture such as soul music, soul sisters, soul brothers, and soul food.
What happened then is that “soul” became black while “Southern” became white, and this is the reason why it is not factual to think of soul food as Southern food. While both are similar, soul food tends to be more intense, fattier, spicier, saltier, and sweeter than the Southern counterpart.
Many people, when hearing about soul food, tend to think about something that is unhealthy, fried and full of fats. While there is indeed a bit of truth in that, the building blocks of soul food are leafy greens, legumes, pork, and rice which can be combined and cooked to make a healthy diet.
Whether it is baked, fried, or stewed, okra is a vegetable that has become the cornerstone of soul food but also of southern American cooking despite its African origin. This slimy green vegetable comes from Ethiopia and over the centuries it also made its way through the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.
Only in the 18th century did okra made its way into the Americas through the slave ships. This vegetable is extremely versatile which is exactly what the enslaved needed since it could be used as a soup thickener, a substitute for coffee, and even as a material to make rope.
To this day, okra is still used in a variety of soul foods including soups, stews, and rice dishes, and the recipes vary widely from region to region. In the Deep South, okra is usually served fried but most may be used to it as an ingredient in gumbo which is a savory stew that consists of meat or seafood and vegetables. It is served with a side of rice.
An interesting fact about gumbo is that its name is derived from “ki ngombo” which is the Bantu word for Okra.
In the south of the United States, the barbecue is a true form of art, it is not reserved just for special occasions or casual backyard gathering. Pork has been a traditional meat choice in the South for centuries and the preferred method to preserve it in the past was either smoking or salting it.
During the Atlantic slave trade era, it was the enslaved who were given the task of preserving the meat, which is why many of the techniques used in curing meat are believed to have been developed by the African-Americas that lived in that era.
The least desired cuts of the pork and the cheapest such as the head, feet, ribs, or internal organs were used in the weekly food rations of the enslaved. As is to be expected, the taste of these organs is not always the best on its own, which is why the slaves drew from their traditional African cooking and used a lot of seasonings on the meat.
The most popular mixture was that of hot red peppers and vinegar, and this flavoring is now the base of many of the different barbecue sauces that are used in the South to this day.
When cooking pork, soul cuisine does not waste anything and all the parts of the pigs are used such as the pig’s feet, ears, ham hocks, hog jowl, ad chitlins. The pork fat is also used for frying and as an important ingredient when cooking greens slowly.
In soul food, greens are very important and they are truly ubiquitous since almost all dishes use at least a few of them. While there are many cultures that have a practice of boiling leafy greens, nowhere is this more common that in African countries where there is an almost endless variety of green vegetables.
It should come as no surprise that during the Atlantic slave trade this love of eating boiled leafy greens came to America through the enslaved as well. During the slavery era, the greens used to be boiled in pork fat and were seasoned with a combination of whatever types of vegetables the enslaved could get their hands on.
The leftover juice was known as “potlikker” and was soaked up in cornbread and eaten. This style is very similar to various traditional dishes in Africa since many African countries have the practice of dipping a staple starch into meat-based and vegetable gravy.
The soul food greens that are used are collards, mustards, cabbage, and kale. While most people have only now discovered the benefits of kale and its delicious taste, it has been a staple for soul food for more than 300 years.
What is a typical soul food meal?
A typical soul food meal consists of sides which can be black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, candied yams (dark-fleshed sweet potatoes) and stewed greens (cabbage, kale, turnip, mustard, or collard greens).
Then there is the entrée which may be fried fish or pork (chitlins which are cooked pig intestines or smothered chop) or chicken. It is all served with cornbread which can come in the form of a square, slice, or a muffin.
For the desert, the most popular dishes are banana pudding, pound cake, sweet potato pie, or peach cobbler. If you also want to enjoy a beverage, the most iconic soul beverage is the red drink. In soul-food culture, red is not only a color but also a flavor.
The three types of soul food
Traditional soul food is divided into three sub-cuisines and the first one is “Down Home Healthy” and it is focused on using vegetable oils instead of lard, turkey instead of pork, and healthier alternatives for sugar.
The second type is “Upscale Soul” which is quite the opposite of the first since it uses extravagant ingredients such as heirloom vegetables, heritage meat, and duck fat.
The third and last is vegan soul food which is not at all surprising since as we’ve talked about at the beginning of our article, the root of soul food was in vegetables since the enslaved had very little meat on their hands.