The Diversity of Soul Food
By P.J. McKendrick • December 15, 2017
Soul food’s identity is deeply rooted in both African-American and southern American culture. The cuisine is most commonly known as a style of cooking that was born through the struggles of enslaved and poor African-Americans throughout the south. While these ideas about soul food are true, the cuisine’s origins are more diverse than many people realize. Soul food makes use of cooking techniques and ingredients from West Africa, Western Europe, and Native American cuisines.
While scholars have contrasting views about the quantity of food that enslaved African-Americans ate, they agree that the diet of enslaved African-Americans was extremely limited. Plantation owners often gave cornmeal to enslaved blacks along with leftover scraps of pork or beef (King and Kipple 88). The main vegetable eaten by blacks on plantations was collard greens (King and Kipple 88). Collards were transported from Africa to the Americas during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
While slaves made use of West African cooking techniques, they acquired other cooking skills from plantation owners and residents who were most often European. Blacks also learned techniques from Native Americans, despite the limited contact between to the two populations. Within their own quarters, slaves rarely had the proper ingredients and supplies to put all of these techniques to use. It wasn’t until the end of slavery and during reconstruction that the variety within soul food would drastically increase.
West African food and cooking techniques are often called the seeds of soul food. The collard greens, black eyed peas and okra that many Americans eat today are all goods that originally arrived in the Americas during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Slaves in America also used cooking and preservation techniques from their homeland to make the very most out of ingredients. One-pot stew is a tradition in many West African cultures. African-American slaves used leftover meat and vegetables to create hearty meals from stews (King and Kipple 88). Some scholars believe that gumbo was created in the eighteenth century by enslaved blacks in Louisiana (Nobles 2009).
Since many slaves did the majority of the cooking within plantation households, surviving American slavery also meant adapting to methods of cooking that plantation owners preferred. A vast majority of plantation owners were of Western European descent. Frying food in lard is a technique that is believed to have been brought to the Americas by the Scottish, and later adopted by African-Americans (Opie, 2013). Fried chicken became popular during reconstruction when blacks began to travel America in large numbers (Opie, 2013). The Dutch also managed to make a lasting impact on soul food. Dutch settlers and plantation owners introduced enslaved African-Americans to pies and different deep-dish crusts. This eventually led to the creation of sweet potato pie and other deserts such as pecan pie (Opie, 2013).
The influence of Native American cuisine on soul food is extremely important. In many ways, it is a cornerstone of soul food today. Crops that are indigenous to the Americas, such as corn and sweet potatoes, are heavily used in more modern soul food dishes. Making grits from cornmeal is a Native American tradition that both Europeans and enslaved African-Americans adopted quickly upon their arrival in the Americas (Hudson 498). The hushpuppy, another cornmeal-based delicacy, was also a part of Native American cuisine before it was adopted by traditional soul food consumers.
The commonly known story of soul food, the story of resilience and resourcefulness, is more than deserving of the praise and acknowledgment that it has gotten, especially in recent years. Some of the more interesting truths about soul food though, lie in the diversity of its influence. Several populations of people, from different backgrounds and circumstances, all pitched in to help create a wonderful cuisine.
Hudson, Charles (1976). “A Conquered People”. The Southeastern Indians. The University of Tennessee Press. Pp. 498
Kiple, Kenneth F.; Himmelsteib King, Virginia. Another Dimension to the Black Diaspora: Diet Disease and Racism. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 80-90
Nobles, Cynthia Lejeune (2009). “Gumbo”. In Tucker, Susan; Starr, S. Frederick. New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories. University Press of Mississippi.
Opie, Frederick Douglass (2013). Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. Columbia University Press. Pp. 18