Celebrate Black History Month: The Best from the Worst, Soul Food

Growing up, food was always a big part of my life. My parents were both in the food industry and at every celebration food was a large focal point of the planning. Like many Black families the question of “Who made the mac n' cheese” was a serious indicator if you would or would not add the food to your plate. Actually, let me not tell that lie. You have to have at least twenty years of vetted culinary mastery to even be considered to have the honor to make the mac n' cheese. Some of us are still waiting for the opportunity. Even I who have finally reached "Mac n' Cheese age" or "Hey Auntie age" am STILL not allowed to just make the mac n' cheese at all major family gatherings; that honor still resides with my well over 95 year old grandmother.

I was recently asked if there was a “Black cookbook” by a non-Black person in an online forum. I will admit my librarian hat wasn’t on at the time, so I rolled my eyes hard after reading the question. What can I say I do take days off... sometimes? Nonetheless, after groaning I wrote my response, as I realized there is a large misconception about the monolithic nature of Blackness. The person in the question stated that people from various cultures all cook differently and thought it would be “cool” to get Black wisdom on how to cook. Ok, sounds good natured, but let me explain why I rolled my eyes. Given the nature of the middle passage, natural human migration and colonialism, Black people come from everywhere and are everywhere. Off the top of my head and thinking about the backgrounds of my friends if I were to say bring your family’s best dish to a meal we would have: West African, South African, Ethiopian, Afro Latinx, Soul, Vegan, Creole, Spanish, Portuguese, Caribbean (and I will not name every island), Brazilian and French food. Yet if you asked us all if you should capitalize the B in Black when talking about our people the answer would be yes. It's this very crux that lends itself to confusion. Black people seem monolithic only because the fight for social justice can't be seen to have divisions. Also, racism, and oppression of Black bodies gives us a shared hidden commonality that is deeply rooted.

However, when some non-Black people want to know about “Black cooking” they are usually thinking about and referring to Soul Food if they are in America and aren’t aware of the myth of the Black monolith. Again, while I did roll my eyes when I read that question I do understand that there is a lot of confusion about what is well…Blackness and what isn’t; which includes what we will eat and how we prepare food. I can by no means even attempt to define or layout to you all what falls into and out of Blackness because again, we aren’t a monolithic group. Everything I share is just a start on the journey that may take you a lifetime to understand.

Is it Soul or Is it Southern?

Let’s address the elephant in the room shall we. Soul food has become a euphemism for "Black American cooking", yet that’s not 100% correct, nor is it flat out wrong. Yet, to truly understand what we are talking about, we need to set some geographic parameters. For many lovers of Soul Food, it is food that is from Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, the mostly inland portions of the area also known as the Cotton Belt. I know you’re probably thinking, hey Tiff, what about Florida, the Carolinas, Texas and your beloved Louisiana? Well for me, while I do consider those areas as part of the South, it makes sense if you understand what products America cultivated during those periods and how those regions were settled and by whom. For example, the Gullah and Geechee people that are decedents from slaves who lived on the Atlantic coast have maintained many of their African roots. This is because plantation owners on the coast found out early on that rice grew well in those areas and would pay higher prices for Africans kidnapped from Senegal to Liberia (especially Sierra Leone), that were skilled in the cultivation of the staple. Taking slaves from this similar geographic area allowed them to maintain elements from their original African culture which includes not only language but many of the dishes that can be found in those coastal Black communities. If we go to Louisiana, you find French elements as Louisiana and New Orleans particularly had a complicated very fluid pre-Civil War slave society and thus the food is equally complex.

If you really want to understand Soul food you have to think of it as actually a scarcity model of cooking and food prep. Slaves were often given meager food rations that were of low nutritional value and of equally poor quality. However, using African traditions and supplementing with traditional African staples some brought with them during The Middle Passage and planted in slave gardens they made scraps into meals. Interestingly enough, slave rations were used as a point of contention between abolitionists and slaveholders, as slaveholders would contend that the rations offered slaves meat that was often not attainable by poor European counterparts. To make the food more palatable, it was cooked in ways to maximize their flavor. These gardening practices and techniques of cooking were passed down from generation to generation. Soul food may in essence be the truest link to the African past that survived the evils of slave life and the loss of culture.  Recipes were passed down from mother to child (and sometimes the cast iron too) until today. Now there is no debate that these dishes do often carry high fat content which can lead to obesity and other poor health outcomes which are an issue in the Black community but it also shows how labor-intensive slave work had to have been to mitigate the excessive weight gain.

But back to the question, "what falls into the category of Soul food and what is Southern?" Honestly, just like slavery, Black people and the legacy of social injustice are deeply interwoven into the American story, so is the food. Some would argue the easiest way to tell Southern food versus Soul Food is the way the food is seasoned. I can argue there is some merit to that, but honestly while the seasoning can vary there is a lot of overlap. Additionally, after slavery many Black women found jobs as domestics, a trend that lasted well into the 1960s, which meant that these dishes found their ways into many homes in the south and in many other places across the nation during the first large scale migration of slaves after the Civil War and the exodus from the South during the Great Migration. This speaks to the root of how Black history IS American history and you shouldn't and can't separate the two.

I could spend a lifetime debating what dishes fall into and out of Soul Food. Furthermore, I will not debate if sugar and butter or ham belong in grits. Nor will I try to explain what Chitlins smell like during their preparations. What I will do is help end the debate on what is Soul food and what is Southern in one masterful stroke. Soul Food cornbread should have sugar! There I said it! If anyone asks you to define Soul Food say its sugar in cornbread (AND JUST CORNBREAD-ANYTHING ELSE IS NOT WORTH THE BATTLE TRUST ME!). In all seriousness, there is no answer on where the line is. What I do know is you can't take the Black influence out of either or the complicated sometimes happy and other times very dark history that shaped that influence. Food like any element of culture is a living thing. There has been a lot of adaptations of Soul Food but I think it's important to acknowledge the connection to slavery and oppression to honor those who made a way out of none. So, I like to leave you with a challenge and here it is: Try you hand at hot water cornbread. It's easy to make and completely unhealthy; you’ll love it. But as you eat it take a moment to think about that piece of culturally history that you're eating and I believe it may taste even sweeter.


Soul Food and Southern Food

I Heart Soul Food 100 Southern Comfort Food Favorites, book cover
The Rise Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, book cover
Soul Food Love Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in A Black Family, book cover
The Cooking Gene A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, book cover
Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook A Celebration of African American Cooking, book cover