Published on January 23, 2023.
By: Sydnee Walcott
Traditional dishes from every culture are meaningful to the customs, beliefs, and practices of each country, ethnic group, religion, and their global communities. Soul food, a well-known cuisine native to the United States, is a national cuisine that is special to the Black American community.
Soul food is one of the most popular cuisines that originated in the Southern United States and is enjoyed during special occasions, such as the celebration of Emancipation and other religious gatherings.
During the 17th century, soul food started off with influences from African, Native American, and European cultures. It has evolved over the years with dishes that reflect its history and the changes made in different African American cultures of the South.
During the slavery era in America (1619 to 1865), enslaved Africans and African Americans would only eat what was given to them by plantation owners. Once a week, enslaved people were given a bag filled with rice, sweet potatoes or cornmeal, meat, a small amount of molasses, and no vegetables.
If the enslaved people wanted vegetables or extra food for the week, they were responsible for cultivating it on their own, either by collecting or growing their own crops.
Soul food progressed from being known as a simple diet to having a cultural purpose during the Reconstruction Era (1865 to 1910). It became an important symbol at celebrations after the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. It was also an important symbol for gatherings at African American churches, when churchgoers would get together and enjoy soul food dishes after a long week of labour.
During the Great Migration, when many African Americans would move to places up North to avoid the impacts of the Jim Crow laws, soul food dishes were influenced by other cultures. This is because Southern African Americans brought their cuisine into Northern places, and would adopt elements from the cultures in those communities. They incorporated macaroni from Italian cuisine, fried rice from Chinese cuisine, and chili from Latin-American cuisine.
Soul food did not receive its title until the 1960s, during the rise of the civil rights and Black nationalist movements.
During this era, African Americans were looking to reclaim their part of the American cultural legacy.
The term “soul” was already used to describe all aspects of African American culture, such as “soul music,” or when Black men and women would refer to one another as “soul brother” and “soul sister.”
The term “soul food” was first coined by civil rights Activist and Poet Amiri Baraka and was used to describe the dishes African Americans have been cooking for centuries.
The typical soul food dishes consist of rice, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole, collard greens, cornbread, pork, fish, chicken, black-eyed peas, creamed corn, okra, buttermilk biscuits, peach cobbler, sweet tea, and many more dishes.
Listed below are five popular soul food dishes and why they are an important part of soul food culture.
Rice, which acts as a foundation for most southern dishes, is also a staple in many African dishes. Slave traders took this grain along with them from West African countries; it was the most common source of food for enslaved people. Popular dishes like jambalaya, which is rice with chicken, sausage, shrimp and an array of vegetables, are common soul food rice dishes.
Macaroni and cheese, commonly referred to as ‘mac and cheese’, was devoured by affluent white Americans who would enjoy these dishes when travelling to Europe. They would bring this recipe back with them to the US, where African Americans were able to adopt the dish as soul food, serving the dish on special occasions.
Greens, another popular soul food dish, consists of boiled green leafy vegetables and is a common ingredient in African dishes, such as gomen and kontomire stew. During slavery in America, African Americans would boil greens in pork fat and seasonings with a combination of vegetables. Traditionally, the leftover juices from the cooking were soaked up and eaten along with a piece of cornbread.
Cornbread is another staple dish in soul food. Corn, a main ingredient, had been used in Indigenous cuisine for centuries and is a versatile grain used for many other soul food dishes. Soul food cornbread and white southern cornbread are different from one another because soul food cornbread has a sweeter taste due to the additional sugar content.
Pork is an essential soul food meat. It has always been the first choice of meat in the South for centuries. A common method for preserving pork involved seasoning it with salt and smoking it. During the slave trade, enslaved African Americans were given the difficult task of preserving the meat. Through this task, they came up with a variety of techniques to cure the meat.
While the desired parts of a pig would be consumed by slave owners, the head, ribs, feet and internal organs, which were cheap and less desired, were given to the enslaved and used as food rations for them. To give the less desired parts some flavour, African Americans would use a combination of seasonings, usually a mixture of hot red peppers and vinegar, to season these cuts.
Soul food has since spread to other countries in the world, especially into Canada, where we have our own soul food interpretations. Many Canadians have the chance to try soul food dishes at various specialty restaurants, many of which can be found in Toronto.
There are some that specialize in chicken and waffles such as The Heartbreak Chef and The Dirty Bird Chicken and Waffles, and others that are specifically Caribbean and Creole inspired, like Sugar Kane, Lloyd’s Jamaican Restaurant, and Patois.
Soul food is an important part of Black culture as it highlights and embraces the origins of Black people and brings families together as they enjoy the food that represents their history and how far they have come along with connecting to their roots.