Soul Food

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Editor: Anand Prahlad
Date: 2016
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Soul Food

Soul food refers to African American foodways, particularly those culinary traditions thought to have derived from the black Atlantic slave trade and U.S. chattel slavery. Although soul food has reference to the “comfort foods” of diverse ethnic groups, during the late 1960s and early 1970s the term gained popular usage in the United States as a synonym for black southern—or “down home”—cooking. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the actual history of African American dietary practices should be distinguished from the emergence and evolution of soul food as a distinct ideological concept, one that has circulated since the 1960s through venues ranging from private conversations and community events to popular film, television, music, and cookbooks. In this sense soul food might be said to encompass not only the ongoing evolution of living culinary traditions but also the politicized creation of imagined culinary pasts.

The underpinnings of soul food encompass at least three overlapping developmental phases. First, European colonialism and the black Atlantic slave trade resulted in a synthesis of foods and cooking techniques indigenous to Africa with those indigenous to Europe and the New World. For example, whereas culinary historians have traced the origins of yams and watermelon to Africa, as well as techniques such as deep fat frying and one-pot stewing, other foods commonly associated with soul, such as collard greens and corn, are said to have originated Page 299  |  Top of Articlein Europe and the Americas, respectively. Second, enslaved Africans learned how to use relatively expensive ingredients such as ham, chicken, eggs, butter, refined sugar, and white flour in cooking for slave owners while also creating healthful and palatable meals for themselves and their families: they supplemented rations consisting largely of inexpensive pork and corn products with wild game, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and herbs derived from hunting, fishing, foraging, and gardening. Third, successive waves of black migration from the rural South to the urban North, Midwest, and West in the decades between the Civil War and World War II not only dispersed southern black dietary practices across the United States but transformed them in the process by giving many African Americans little choice but to consume mass-produced foods and by disrupting the oral transmission of culinary knowledge from generation to generation.

Together these developments set the stage for the emergence of soul food in the mid-1960s, as the civil rights movement was beginning to give way to the more confrontational politics of black power. The former movement had its base primarily in black southern churches. Just as food had historically played an important role in the sustenance of African American communities during and in the years immediately following slavery, it also played a role in sustaining the civil rights protesters—primarily via the famed culinary expertise of the “church sisters.” But, at the time, food itself was not widely understood as a site of political contestation. As the movement shifted from a southern battle over integration to a northern struggle spearheaded by a younger generation of urban activists fighting for black power, however, many black nationalists began using the term “soul” to valorize the cultural forms created through a history of black oppression. Though most commonly associated with music, soul was increasingly used by the late 1960s to refer to a wide array of black cultural practices, including cuisine. From 1969 through 1971, soul food cookbooks, newspaper and magazine columns, restaurants, and cafeteria menus proliferated.

Yet even as many African Americans began embracing soul food as a symbol of black resilience and solidarity in response to centuries of white oppression, others were much less sympathetic to what they considered an inauthentic fad. Whereas Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver ridiculed soul food as a form of middle-class black “slumming,” comedian-turned-political-activist Dick Gregory and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad claimed that in its popular guises soul food was tantamount to racial genocide. Gregory insisted that slaves had eaten not high-fat, salty, and sugar-laden foods such as fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet potato pie, but instead “soil food”—a primarily vegetarian diet of whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables seasoned with lard. Chef Edna Lewis similarly argued that soul food emerged from northern urban poverty and that the then-popular fixation on chitterlings, grits, and greens bore no authentic relationship to the wide array of fresh fruits, grains, meats, and vegetables that have historically constituted the southern black diet. Working from a different perspective, cookbook author Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor also challenged the association between soul food and the U.S. South by critiquing popular understandings of soul food as consisting of “massa's leftovers,” by working to identify the African roots of American dietary practices, Page 300  |  Top of Articleand by redefining soul food to include the culinary history of peoples of the African diaspora around the world.

These debates over the origins, ingredients, healthfulness, authenticity, and meanings of soul food have continued up to the present. Their biggest impact is to be found in the continued growth of a subgenre of health-oriented soul food cookbooks that attempt to recreate traditional recipes using different ingredients (for example, canola oil instead of lard) in order to address widespread concerns about the high rates among African Americans of diet-related health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. But by the late 1990s, the widespread success of a Hollywood film and spin-off television series titled “Soul Food” demonstrated that the term also continued to function—as indeed it had from its inception—as an acknowledgment of black spiritual as well as physical health needs. Soul food might thus be seen to refer not only to African American culinary traditions but also to a widely felt hope that communal wisdom derived from centuries of struggle against white domination not be forgotten.

Doris Witt

See also: Barbecue ; Folk Foods ; Soul

Further Reading

Bates, Kelsey Scouten, 2012, “Comfort in a Decidedly Uncomfortable Time: Hunger, Collective Memory, and the Meaning of Soul Food in Gee's Bend, Alabama,” Food and Foodways 20 (1): 53–75; Harris, Jessica, 1995, The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking (New York: Simon & Schuster); Miller, Adrian, 2013, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press); Opie, Frederick Douglass, 2010, Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (New York: Columbia University Press); Poe, Tracy, 1999, “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915–1947,” American Studies International 37 (1): 4–33; Root, Waverley, and Richard de Rochement, 1976, Eating in America: A History (New York: William Morrow); Toppin, Shirlyn, 2006, “‘Soul Food’ Theology: Pastoral Care and Practice Through the Sharing of Meals: A Womanist Reflection,” Black Theology: An International Journal 4 (1): 44–69; Van DeBurg, William L., 1992, New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); Witt, Doris, 2004, Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7121400124