The mention of soul food evokes an image that instantly invigorates each of your senses. You imagine the most satisfying of comfort foods, like fried chicken, cornbread, and collard greens. A very rich culture surrounds soul food, and its history runs deep.
Slaves brought many of their recipes with them to America, and slave ships transported some of their crops, as well. Okra, watermelon, and coffee all came to America from Africa.
Slave owners would often give their slaves the most undesirable parts of the animal, such as pig feet and intestines, to eat. Slaves owners also let slaves cultivate their own garden plots to lower the costs of feeding them. As a result, slaves adapted by inventing their own unique cooking methods.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, African-American cuisine began to merge with the food of European immigrants. Dishes such as ham and macaroni and cheese became staples in the Black community. Around that time, Black cooks often served these meals at church gatherings; the best meals were usually served on Sundays.
The term “soul food” did not originate until sometime in the 1960s. Although we don’t know when the phrase was first used, Alex Haley used the phrase in his 1965 novel The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
In 1962, Sylvia Woods opened her eponymous restaurant. The establishment quickly became a soul food staple. Her restaurant featured several Southern classics and became a draw for politicians and tourists. Called “the queen of soul food,” Sylvia played an important role in the popularization of soul food.
In the 60s, the influence of soul food began to grow rapidly. The hip-hop artists of the 90s frequently used the term, and today, most people are familiar with the culture of soul food.
When you sit down for your next family meal, take a moment to consider their history of the dishes in front of you. The meal you’re eating may have originated generations ago, perhaps when families relayed their recipes by ear instead of by paper. The culmination of their struggles and their victories is what created the culture we live in today. As you prepare these meals and pass them down to your own children, know that you, too, will become a key player in this continuing narrative.