Soul food is an ethnic cuisine, food traditionally eaten by African Americans of the Southern United States . Many of the various dishes and ingredients included in soul food are also regional fare and comprise a part of white Southern cuisine, as well.
History and culture
The roots of soul food can be traced back to Africa . African slave traders brought foods over to America from Africa along with slaves. It is thought that some slaves also brought seeds of native crops along with them to America , hiding the seeds in their ears and hair. Some of these foods became part of America ’s crops and food. Using discarded meat from the plantation like pig’s feet, ham hocks, chitterlings (pig small intestines), pig ears, hog jowls, tripe and skin, the women would add onions, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf to these to give them a more African flavor. The slaves were also given discarded tops of vegetables, like the tops of turnips, beets, and dandelions. These items can be found in many soul food dishes today. As slaves began to cook for their masters, they added things like fried chicken and puddings. The term soul food became popular in the 1960s, when the word soul became used in connection with most things African American. The style of cooking originated during the era of slavery, when slaves were generally given only the leftover and undesirable cuts of meat and had only the vegetables they grew for themselves.
After slavery ended, many African Americans, being poor, could afford only off-cuts of meat, along with offal. Subsistence farming yielded fresh vegetables, and fishing and hunting provided fish and wild game, such as possum, rabbit, squirrel, and sometimes waterfowl.
While soul food originated in the South, soul food restaurants—from fried chicken and fish "shacks" to upscale dining establishments—exist in virtually every African American community in the USA, especially in cities with large African American populations, such as Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.
Poor whites and African Americans in the South ate many of the same dishes, but styles of preparation sometimes varied. African American soul food generally tends to be spicier than Anglo-American cuisine. The recipes and cooking techniques tended to be handed down orally.
It was illegal for African slaves to read or write, and as with most rural cuisine, soul food has a primarily oral history. However, since the mid-20th century, many cookbooks highlighting soul food and African American foodways compiled by African Americans have been published and well received. Vertamae Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, originally published in 1970, focused on South Carolina "lowcountry", Geechee, or Gullah, cooking. Its focus on spontaneity in the kitchen—cooking by "vibration"— rather than precisely measuring ingredients, captured the essence of traditional African American cooking techniques. The hearty, simple, healthful, basic ingredients of lowcountry cuisine, like shrimp, oysters, crab, fresh produce, rice and sweet potatoes, made it a bestseller. The first edition is now a classic cookbook collector's must-have.
At the center of African American food celebrations is the value of sharing. Likewise, African American cookbooks often have a common theme of family and family gatherings. Usher boards and Women's Day committees of various religious congregations large and small, and even public service and social welfare organizations, such as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), have produced cookbooks to fund their operations and for charitable enterprises. The NCNW produced its first cookbook, The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, in 1958, and revived the practice in 1993, producing a popular series of cookbooks featuring recipes by well-known and celebrity African Americans, among them: The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1993), Celebrating Our Mothers' Kitchens: Treasured Memories and Tested Recipes (1994), and Mother Africa's Table: A Chronicle of Celebration (1998). The NCNW also recently reissued The Historical Cookbook.
Celebrated traditional Southern chef and author Edna Lewis wrote a series of books between 1972 and 2003, including A Taste of Country Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) where she weaves stories of her childhood in Freetown , Virginia , into her recipes for "real Southern food".
Another organization, the Chicago-based Real Men Charities, in existence since the 1980s, sponsors food-based charitable and educational programs and activities around the nation. As its primary annual, celebrity-studded fundraiser, Real Men Charities sponsors "Real Men Cook" events and programs in fifteen cities nationwide, where African American men gather to present their best recipes, some original, others handed down for generations, for charity. The event is timed to coincide roughly with Juneteenth and Father's Day and is promoted with the slogan "Every day is Family Day When Real Men Cook." In 2004, Real Men rolled out its Sweet Potato Pound Cake Mix in select food retail establishments in several cities, and published a cookbook in 2005 titled Real Men Cook: Rites, Rituals and Recipes for Living. Proceeds from these events and from the cookbook help fund the organization's varied operations and activities.
Soul food and health
Developed by rural people who lived in difficult, often impoverished conditions, many of whom had forced upon them lives of grinding physical labor, soul food is humble, hearty fare. Traditionally, soul food is cooked and seasoned with pork products, and fried dishes were usually cooked with either lard or hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is high in trans fats.
Frequent consumption of these ingredients without significant exercise or activity to counteract the high caloric intake often contributes to disproportionately high occurrences of obesity, hypertension, cardiac/circulatory problems and/or diabetes in African Americans, often resulting in a shortened lifespan. Additionally, trans fat consumption is a known contributor to cardiovascular disease.
Nowadays as a result, some African Americans use methods of cooking soul food different from those employed by their grandparents, including using more healthful alternatives for frying (liquid vegetable oil or canola oil) and cooking and stewing using smoked turkey instead of pork.
Further, certain staples of a soul food diet have pronounced health benefits. Collard greens are known to be an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins vitamin A, B6 and C; manganese; iron; omega 3 fatty acids; calcium; folic acid; and fiber. They also contain a number of phytonutrients which play a role in the prevention of ovarian and breast cancer. Peas, rice and legumes are excellent and cheap sources of protein, with important vitamins, minerals and fiber. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of beta carotene and trace minerals, as well, and have come to be classified as an "anti-diabetic" food. Recent animal studies have shown that sweet potatoes can stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance.
Dishes and ingredients
Soul food uses a great variety of dishes and ingredients, some unique, some shared with other cuisines.
- Country fried steak (beef deep fried in flour or batter, usually served with white gravy)
- Fried chicken (often fried with cornmeal breading or seasoned flour)
- Chicken gizzards
- Chicken livers
- Chitterlings ("chitlins") (the cleaned and prepared intestines of hogs, slow cooked and often eaten with vinegar and hot sauce; sometimes parboiled, then battered and fried)
- Cracklins (commonly known as pork rinds and sometimes added to cornbread batter)
- Fatback (fatty, cured, salted pork; used to season meats and vegetables)
- Fried fish (any of several varieties of fish—especially catfish but also whiting, porgies, bluegills—dredged in seasoned cornmeal and deep fried)
- Ham hocks (smoked, used to flavor vegetables and legumes)
- Hog maws (hog jowls, sliced and usually cooked with chitterlings)
- Hoghead cheese (made primarily from pig snouts, lips, and ears and frequently also referred to as "souse meat" or simply "souse")
- Meatloaf (typically with a brown gravy)
- Neckbones (beef neck bones seasoned and slow cooked)
- Pigs' feet (slow cooked like chitterlings, sometimes pickled and, like chitterlings, often eaten with vinegar and hot sauce)
- Ribs (usually pork, but can also be beef ribs)
- Black-eyed peas (cooked separately, or with rice as hoppin' john)
- Greens (usually cooked with ham hocks; especially collard greens, Mustard greens, turnip greens, or a combination thereof)
- Lima beans (see butter beans)
- Butter beans (immature lima beans, usually cooked in butter)
- Mashed potatoes (usually with butter and condensed milk)
- Okra (African vegetable eaten fried in cornmeal or stewed, often with tomatoes, corn, onions and hot peppers; Bantu for okra is ngombo, from which the Creole/soul food dish gumbo derives its name)
- Red beans
- Succotash (originally, a Native American dish of yellow corn and butter beans, usually cooked in butter)
- Sweet potatoes (often parboiled, sliced and then baked, using sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and butter or margarine, commonly called "candied yams"; also boiled, then pureed and baked into pies)
- Biscuits (a shortbread similar to scones, commonly served with butter, jam, jelly, sorghum or cane syrup, or gravy; used to wipe up, or "sop," liquids from a dish)
- Rice pudding, with rice and corn-based vanilla pudding.
- Chow-chow (a spicy, homemade pickle relish sometimes made with okra, corn, cabbage, hot peppers, green tomatoes and other vegetables; commonly used to top black-eyed peas and otherwise as a condiment and side dish)
- Cornbread (a shortbread often baked in a skillet, commonly seasoned with bacon fat)
- Sweet bread (a food of Polynesian origin)
- Grits (or "hominy grits", made from processed, dried, ground corn kernels and usually eaten as a breakfast food the consistency of porridge, but also served with fish and meat at dinnertime)
- Hot sauce (a condiment of cayenne peppers, vinegar, salt, garlic and other spices often used on chitterlings, fried chicken and fish)
- Macaroni and cheese
- Milk and bread (a "po' folks' dessert-in-a-glass" of slightly crumbled cornbread, buttermilk and sugar)
- Rice (usually served with red beans and black-eyed peas)
- Sorghum syrup (from sorghum, or " Guinea corn," a sweet grain indigenous to Africa introduced into the U.S. by African slaves in the early 17th century; see biscuits); frequently referred to as "sorghum molasses"