Imagine a plate of collard greens cooked in bacon fat, smothered chops, candied yams, and a thick slice of cornbread. It's enough to make anyone's mouth water. These are just a few soul food dishes you can find in an eatery or prepared in someone's home for special occasions. But there's much more to it than any individual dish. Soul food is just one type of cooking attributed to African Americans, specifically from the Southern United States. African, Native American, and European cultures have influenced this cuisine to make it what it is now.
Today, this food is closely associated with southern American cooking and is a large part of American mealtime culture in general. Here's everything you need to know about this influential cuisine.
Where Did the Term "Soul Food" Originate?
It's hard to say exactly who was the first to use the term soul food to describe Southern African American cooking. However, historians agree that one of the earliest mentions of the term was published by Amiri Baraka in an article that argued that African American cultural fare exists. Amiri Baraka's article was published in 1962, and the word was also found in the autobiography of Malcolm X published in 1965.
It makes sense that the phrase would rise to popularity during the 1960s and 70s within the Black Power movement. At this time, the word soul was used frequently to describe parts of African American culture as in the terms soul music, Soul Brother, and Soul Sister.
However, the cuisine itself was established way before the 60s and is attributed to the home cooking of African-American cooks following emancipation from slavery in the 1860s. These home cooks expanded on the diet typically provided by slave owners and added their own cooking methods and additional ingredients. During the Great Migration, when a lot of African-Americans moved North to escape the harsh conditions of life in the South, they brought this cuisine with them, and it quickly became associated with African American culture.
Influences On Soul Food
Enslavement had a key influence on every soul food recipe because the diet uses many of the foods that were integral to the rations given to enslave people during slavery. For example, enslaved people typically got 3 to 4 pounds of pork a week, cornmeal, vegetables, and parts of animals that were undesirable to enslavers. To make do with such meager rations, enslaved Africans had to cook creatively and make items like cornbread, chitterlings, and smoked meats.
They also had to find a way to add higher calorie and fat content to dishes made of primarily veggies and grains. So, they began the traditions of cooking greens in animal fat, frying pigskin into cracklins, and adding spices to improve the flavor of a dish. These conditions also led to inventive cooking methods to support long days performing manual labor such as breading meat and fish, frying foods, or mixing meats and vegetables.
Creole cooking is another widely-known African American cuisine with French and African influences, but it is not the same as soul food.
Notably, there is also a substantial West African influence in soul food recipes. Enslaved African people brought their knowledge and experiences to the United States. For example, some foods from West Africa are now integral parts of soul food cuisine, such as okra, black-eyed peas, and rice. Rice especially appears as the center of many dishes in Lowcountry cuisine, such as red beans and rice, gumbo, and jambalaya.
Soul cooking is often spicy as well, another nod to the heat level of many dishes with African origins. There are countless parallels between soul food recipes and West African recipes. Historians and foodies have made comparisons to the consumption of sweet potatoes to yams and cornbread to fufu.
Native American Influence
American southern cuisine, in general, is heavily influenced by Native American culture. Native American diet staples such as corn ground into meal still appear in traditional Southern dishes today. Examples of these items include cornbread, hush puppies, and grits. Native Americans also boiled their beans and peas to cook them as well as cured and smoked their meats over coals, just as Southerners do now.
The foods available depended on geographic region and seasonal availability. Therefore, game and livestock used in southern cooking were the same as what was used in Native American cooking. Additionally, many European settlers picked up Native American cooking techniques, and those methods continue to permeate all types of southern cooking. So, next time a traditionally southern side dish appears on your plate, consider all the history behind the recipe.
What Are Some Staple Soul Food Dishes?
Soul food is a style bursting with flavor and full of variety. The meals are intentionally filling since they originated in conditions where people didn't have a lot of options and may only eat once a day. The following are just some of the items you may find classified as soul food and served in a restaurant:
- Fried chicken
- Pork ribs
- Fried fish (mainly catfish)
- Ham hocks
- Pickled pigs feet
- Smoked meat
- Fried okra
- Collard greens
- Turnip greens
- Mustard greens
- Black-eyed peas
- Lima beans
- Green beans
- Sweet potatoes
- Baked macaroni and cheese
- Butter beans
- Bread rolls
- Sweet potato pie
- Pecan pie
- Peach cobbler
- Layer cakes
- Bread pudding
If breakfast food is more your thing, you can find southern cooks making traditional breakfasts of grits, eggs, and bacon; sometimes including breaded pork chops and gravy.
In general, the culinary traditions we're discussing here are more than a list of dishes. Many black chefs say that the food is about community, family, and togetherness. For that reason, cookbooks for these foods are relatively new. A traditional recipe is more likely to be passed down from generation to generation instead of recorded.
Because of the accessibility of the ingredients, soul food is popular in the American South. However, you can find the cuisine all over the country. Private chefs in the White House brought soul food to northern cities like Washington D.C. and popularized black community traditions there (1). These days, cities like New Orleans, Atlanta, and D.C. have plenty of soul food restaurants.
Traditional soul food has been a hot topic of debate for many years. Prominent Black figures have criticized these dishes as being unhealthy or unnecessary. Additionally, some people have claimed that soul food is not a heritage worth celebrating since it originated due to enslavement. On the other hand, many African Americans take a lot of pride in the food, explaining that it's culturally significant and important for fellowship. A soul food recipe is typically used for social events such as holidays, funerals, church services, or celebrations.
Top Soul Food Restaurants
One of the most famous soul restaurants, Sylvia's Restaurant, opened in Harlem in 1962. The founder, Sylvia Woods, became known as the queen of soul food. The restaurant is still a popular eatery today for locals and tourists alike. There are many similar restaurants around the country, namely in cities with large African American populations.
Today, a lot of these eateries have made it into the mainstream by either media or word of mouth. Some of the most popular restaurants in the United States include:
- Alcenia's in Memphis, Tennessee
- Florida Avenue Grill in Washington D.C.
- Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans, Louisiana
- Martha Lou's Kitchen in Charleston, North Carolina
- The Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta, Georgia
All of these places are known for their own special recipe or signature dish. For example, The Busy Bee is known for its peach cobbler dessert. Food Network featured Willie Mae's for their amazing chicken. So, before you visit one of these restaurants, make sure to research their infamous offerings. Or, you can take the more exciting approach and keep going back until you've tried everything on the menu!
Is Soul Food the Same as Southern Food?
It's hard to provide a clear distinction between soul and southern food since soul food came from the South and heavily influenced what people think of when they discuss southern food. Generally speaking, soul food is southern, but not every southern dinner is soul food. Some chefs say that what distinguishes soul food is that it comes from the soul, as the name suggests. So, it may all depend on who's in the kitchen. Sheila Ferguson writes:
"You taste, rather than measure, the seasonings you treasure; and you use your eyes, not a clock, to judge when the cherry pie has bubbled sweet and nice. These skills are hard to teach quickly. They must be felt, loving, and come straight from the heart." (2)
Soul food tends to have heavy spices and use less favorable ingredients. Previously, soul food was known for containing meat like ham hocks, turkey necks, and ox-tails--items that not many people liked to eat. Now, however, many cooks are adopting the trend of using every part of an animal. Still, a southern restaurant that serves fried catfish and greens isn't necessarily a soul food restaurant. In fact, they may just have southern comfort food, which often includes recipes for dishes like:
- Biscuits and gravy
- Mashed potatoes
- Beef stew
- Chicken fried steak
- Chicken pot pie
- Country ham
- Crawfish etouffee
- Creamed corn
- One-pot soup
Additionally, southern food depends on where you are in the South. The options you'll find in Louisiana are much different than what people might serve you in South Carolina.
Criticism of soul food
Health concerns are one of the main criticisms of soul food. From the beginning, critics have pointed out that the low-quality nature of the ingredients coupled with the preparation methods and high salt content can have adverse health effects. Some health professionals have gone as far as to implicate soul food in conditions that affect African Americans at high rates, such as:
- heart attacks
- clogged arteries
- type 2 diabetes
- high blood pressure
A 2019 article in The Journal of Black Studies reports "when consumed in large portions, some soul food items, like fried chicken, chitlins, or pork, contain high fat and sodium content that often exceed the recommended dietary guidelines." (3) Some people say overconsumption is a recipe for disaster.
In response, some home cooks have switched up their techniques or ingredients to make healthier recipes that are equally delicious. For example, contemporary cooks have switched to canola or vegetable oils instead of using lard or grease for cooking a meal. Leaner meats can also be used to replace fatty pork in a recipe.
Some restaurants now offer "elevated soul food," which uses high-quality ingredients and incorporates modern cooking methods. There's also a recent uptick in vegan soul food restaurants where cooks remove meat altogether or use alternative proteins such as tofu or soy.
The cooking methods used are also contributors to health issues. For example, some chefs may choose to have baked meats instead of frying them or saute vegetables instead of boiling them. However, soul food recipes aren't all bad. Dark greens and sweet potatoes have many positive properties, and the food itself isn't to blame for the overall decline in food quality in the United States.
One counter-argument to the health concern is the frequency of consumption. In the Netflix docuseries High on the Hog, for example, host Stephen Satterfield emphasizes that the meals are not meant to be eaten daily. When part of a balanced diet, consuming macaroni and cheese and fried chicken occasionally isn't the end of the world.
Finally, many foodies wonder where the intense criticism of the recipes comes from. Soul food is not the only cultural cuisine that makes use of low-grade ingredients and fat-heavy cooking styles, yet it's frequently under fire. Either way it goes, the cultural tradition seems to be here to stay.
Bringing Flavor to the Table
Whether you're concerned about the nutritional value of soul food recipes or not, there's no question that a plate of fried chicken, rice, baked mac and cheese, and veggies prepared with onion and garlic in a pot makes people feel good. It's especially fulfilling when served in a community setting and eaten with family and friends. Soul food is culturally important in more places than just the rural South, and its influence is still expanding today.
Miller, Adrian (3 June 2014). "African American cooks in the White House: Hiding in plain sight". Washington Post.
Ferguson, S. (1993). Soul food: Classic cuisine from the deep south. Grove Press.
Crimarco, A., Turner-McGrievy, G. M., Botchway, M., Macauda, M., Adams, S. A., Blake, C. E., & Younginer, N. (2020). “We’re Not Meat Shamers. We’re Plant Pushers.”: How Owners of Local Vegan Soul Food Restaurants Promote Healthy Eating in the African American Community. Journal of Black Studies, 51(2), 168-193.