Updated: Jun 7, 2021
As seven year old me let my grandmother taste some of the food I was cooking. I can't remember what exactly I was making, but I do remember her words, "It’s too fresh". Fresh was the word our grandmother used to describe food that wasn’t quite right. It needed more seasoning, more time, more soul. This is the moment I started to learn how to make soul food.
Soul food is a style of cooking, food traditions, and recipes passed down from generation to generation with its roots traced back from pre-slavery, slavery, and the civil rights era. Soul food is unique to the Black-American culture and became a popular phrase in the 1960's. Southern food is not soul food. Referring to soul food as southern food takes away from its rich history and significance. Soul food is unique to the Black experience in America. Soul food tells both a story of injustice, pain, and hardship yet, also a story of independence, joy, and comfort. Soul food is a cuisine created out of oppression. It is food that speaks to your soul.
Soul food is created by long cooking times and heavy seasonings of spices, fatty meats, and aromatic vegetables and herbs. Enslaved Africans were given the offal cuts of meat and small plots of land for gardening. Offal which sounds a lot like awful were mostly pork and cattle cuts of meat that were tough, fatty, and not what slave masters wanted for themselves. These cuts of meats required a long cooking process in order to tenderize the meat. The meat rich in fat and bones, were also used to flavor beans, greens, soups, and stews.
In addition to the offal meats, soul food flavors also come from heavy seasoning. Enslaved Africans used spices and seasonings native to their country or reminiscent of their native country. When food was one of the only parts they had control of in their life, the heart and soul went into each dish to bring healing.
Soul food is more than just following a recipe. It takes practice and knowledge. Cooking in itself is an art and so in order to create soul food, the passion for the cooking has to stem from an experience, and in this case it’s oppression and the need to survive.
While soul food was created from the conditions of slavery and oppression, we encourage everyone to partake in soul food cooking. When doing so, however, it is important to remember that you should participate and appreciate but do not appropriate.
Cultural Appropriation means to take someone’s cultural traditions and identities and making it your own. For example, if you're making soul food for guests, you should take the time to educate them about its origin.
What Soul food is not:
Southern Food: Calling soul food dishes southern food is inaccurate and harmful.
Foods derived only from Africa: Soul food incorporates ingredients and techniques from all around the world including fruits and vegetables native to North America.
Always unhealthy: Many historical soul food dishes are actually very tasty and very healthy.
High-end: While some people have fancied up soul-food dishes so it fits a white tablecloth setting, soul food is not considered “fine-dining” in its nature.
Bland- Soul Food is never, ever, bland.
This is only a brief background to soul food. It is worth mentioning how Black cooks shaped America’s food culture, helped establish professional kitchens, and fused cuisines from around the world.
While studying African-American foodways in college, I had the privilege of getting to know food historian Michael Twitty, an accomplished author, scholar, and James Beard Award recipient. He is a wonderful resource and for learning not only about the historical significance of soul food but also, the social injustices Black Americans have and still experience as it relates to food.
Check out Michael Twitty's website using this link: https://afroculinaria.com/
Check out his Youtube videos on 18th century cooking among enslaved:
His talk on culinary injustice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFK0UfEFQpE
We hope this blog helps you understand the rich history and story behind soul food. We also hope to encourage you to make soul-food or soul-food inspired dishes. Look out for a future blog post on Soul Food Cooking Tips that we've shared in a weekly email! If you aren't subscribed to our weekly email list, you can subscribe here.
You can get the recipes for our Quick Sautéed Greens and Brown Butter Sugar Sweet Potato Pie in our Fall themed cookbook. Use this link: YHV Cookbook to order your copy!
Until Then, Vibe Yellow!