If you're eating at a restaurant in the South, you may find yourself wondering whether the dish in front of you counts as "soul" or "Southern." The answer isn't as straightforward as many people think. Soul food and southern food are similar, with soul being a type of fare associated with African Americans and the Black community from the South. The distinction can be a bit confusing, so here's the lowdown on these amazing cuisines!
Defining Soul Food
Soul food is an African American cultural cuisine with origins beginning during United States chattel slavery. Enslaved people had to use rations given to them weekly that included some type of meat, flour, greens, lard, cornmeal, and similar inexpensive items. They were sometimes allowed to get some fresh produce from the gardens around them. Using these ingredients, enslaved African people had to get creative with mealtime.
Classic soul food recipes such as fried fish, cornbread, fried okra, and chitlins came out of this cooking culture. The term soul food, however, came into existence in the 1960s. After the abolition of slavery came The Great Migration. At this time, Black people migrated to the North for a chance at a better life. These travelers brought their comfort food recipes with them, and the food became known as soul food during the Black Power movement.
Eventually, soul food restaurants began to open up to bring people together and celebrate this cultural cuisine. Before its rise to popularity, you could find soul cooking at emancipation celebrations, a Black church, or eaten on a special occasion.
When people talk about soul food, there are several common misconceptions. One is that there's only one way to make traditional soul food meals. Although there are definitely wrong ways, almost every chef or home cook has their own idea of what makes good eating. Additionally, there are recent pushes to expand the confines of the label. For example, "vegan soul food" chefs are attempting to make healthier versions of traditional dishes. Places that serve "elevated soul food" use more upscale ingredients and contemporary cooking methods to put a spin on these recipes.
Defining Southern Food
So, what's Southern food, then? Food writer Adrian Miller explains that Southern food refers to "all of the cuisines found in the American South."(1) In other words, Southern food is an umbrella term for all types of food that you can find below the Mason-Dixon line. For example, Louisiana's Creole and Cajun cuisines are also classified as Southern food, and so is soul food.
Traditional Southern food includes many similar items to soul food since location and affordability dictate the dishes people make. Some iconic Southern dishes include:
- biscuits eaten with gravy
- sweet tea
- country fried chicken
- smothered chicken
If you're at a Southern Restaurant, you can expect to finish your meal with some sort of cobbler, pie, or pudding dish for dessert.
But Southern food is not a monolith. The food you'll be served in Southern restaurants is different if you are in South Carolina (home of low-country cooking) vs. Mississippi vs. Tennessee. So, the term truly includes a wide variety of foods.
What Makes Southern and Soul Food Different?
No matter how you slice it, there are some subtle differences between Southern and soul food. However, as they are branches from the same tree, pitting them against each other is not exactly accurate. Still, some foodies and historians have different views on how to differentiate soul food and Southern food.
The Difference is History
Some historians feel strongly that soul food is distinct because it represents the way that African-Americans created their own cuisine out of scraps. These food-lovers cite the slave trade as a large factor in the creation of soul food, explaining that it's influenced by Native American, European, and West African cooking. For that reason, there is a deeper meaning to these dishes than just what's on the plate.
Some experts say there is no difference in taste or appearance between the two food categories, saying they've become one and the same over the years. The difference is solely that soul food comes from African American culture and represents a strong tradition of resilience and community. Soul food is an immigrant fare rooted in making something out of nothing.
Not All Southern Food is Soul Food
Other experts may agree on the historical aspects but disagree about the food itself. While some of the offerings overlap between what's considered soul food and Southern cuisine, some don't. For example, in Southern down-home cooking, you may find ambrosia salad, corn pudding, white gravy, black-eyed peas, and chicken pot pie. These items aren't often found in a soul food restaurant, where you're more likely to get foods like:
- collard greens served with ham hocks
- smothered pork chops
- baked macaroni and cheese
- candied yams/ sweet potatoes
- pigs feet
- smoked meat
- rice and beans
- vegetables with variety meats
Yet another school of thought is that the difference is all in the preparation. What makes soul food recipes special is the heart put into them, the specific seasoning blends, the presentation, and the cooking methods passed down from generation to generation.
Final Thoughts on Southern Cooking
There's a lot of important history in the American South, and the cuisines tell it all. Author John Egerton writes, "As long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as southerners, food has been central to the region's image, its personality, and its character." (2) Southern cooking is a vast category for all types of meals that originate in the Southern States of America. Ultimately, the difference between soul food and southern is in the history and preparation. The two categories share some common items, like fried chicken and sweet potato pie, and have heavily influenced each other over time.
Miller, A. (2013). Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American cuisine, one plate at a time. The University of North Carolina Press.
Egerton, J. (1993). Southern food: At home, on the road, in history. UNC Press Books.