This piece was originally published in New Voices On Food, an anthology dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food. You can now listen to Tyree Barnette on The New Writer's Room podcast series right here.
A multitude of stories simmer with every bite. Narratives of unimaginable suffering, dogged survival, and ingenuity are as characteristic to soul food as its seasonings.
Soul food is the culinary survival tactic born out of the American South by enslaved Africans. It is a cuisine of beautiful scarcity from a people who would later be called African-Americans.
Soul food was borne out of the weekly rations of the leafy ends of vegetables like collard, mustard, or turnip greens, cornmeal, beans, and root vegetables given to the enslaved. Occasionally, they also got discarded meats such as the intestines, tails, feet, or ears of pigs along with chicken, fish or some dairy products. Much of it was scraps fit more for hounds than people.
My ancestors took these shreds and cooked what would become a legacy. Back then, it was simply a food of necessity: the enslaved needed calories and fats to work the long hours in brutal conditions. They covered what meats they received with flour or breading and fried them. They also added bacon, salted meat, bones, or fat to vegetables for flavour and sustenance. Nothing was wasted.
Of course, the enslaved didn’t call the food they prepared “soul food”. The cuisine would grow in prominence and receive its name in the 1960s when the word “soul” was used to describe any aspect of African-American culture. It was an exercise of self-empowerment and affirmation. Soul food was a source of strength and comfort for activists in the American civil rights struggles. It was also a gateway for people wanting to reconnect with Black culture – its literature, dress, language and food.
A leading American soul food scholar named Adrian Miller adds that the Southern cuisine stepped out of the civil rights era and into America’s mainstream diet following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The attacks left a disillusioned country searching for what it meant to be American and longing to recapture authenticity across diverse regions of the country. Soul food quickly took up the banner for the South. This resurgence combined with the rise of food-based television shows in the early 2000s such as Paula’s Home Cooking from presenter Paula Dean. These shows overwhelmingly feature white chefs preparing Southern cuisine and soul food while seldom mentioning their African-American origins.
Soul food, like the culture of the people it came from, would eventually be devoured by the entire nation and the world over. As an African-American man living in Australia since 2012, I have seen soul food restaurants and pop-ups around Sydney. The story is the same: a chef from somewhere else visits the Southern USA, learns the technique and recipes under the teachings of Black cooks and local experts, and returns with this new knowledge to sell in Australia. Their creations seem to taste enough like the part and their restaurants are swarmed and celebrated by customers and food critics. There’s nary a mention of the teachers who freely gave their recipes.
Soul food was borne out of the weekly rations of the leafy ends of vegetables like collard, mustard, or turnip greens, cornmeal, beans, and root vegetables given to the enslaved ... My ancestors took these shreds and cooked what would become a legacy.
I find that not only are the culinary experts behind the creations seldom highlighted or celebrated, but the students also use only a fraction of what they learned. Southern fried chicken gets paired bizarrely with wine. Suddenly, you have a unique offering to the market. Poultry, beef, and pork get most of the spotlight as if the formerly enslaved had their want of cattle, hogs, and chickens. Meat was never a mainstay of soul food.
There is also a key distinction to make between soul food and its more familiar cousin – Southern food that also hails from the American South. While the enslaved perfected soul food inside shacks, Southern food came from wealthier plantation homes with cooks, full pantries, equipment, and the riches of time it takes to create the cuisine. Southern food also owes its influence more heavily to European settler cooking techniques. Dishes like macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and barbecue ribs or pork are Southern foods.
Soul food, meanwhile, emerged out of a West African tradition that is much closer to vegetarian and sometimes vegan origins. Collard greens, a leafy vegetable that is also known as wild cabbage, are a mainstay on any authentic plate of soul food. The technique of boiling the greens, with meat or fat for flavour, is also practiced across the African continent. Even the juices leftover from the boiling would be used as a dip for other foods such as cornbread. Cornbread is a sweet and savoury baked bread made from cornmeal. It is also part of the soul food family thanks to Native Americans’ introduction of cornmeal.
I remember my grandparents dunking their golden squares of cornbread into the side of their sectioned plate with the dark collard green juices pooled at the bottom. I preferred my cornbread untouched by moisture and instead warm with a smear of butter in the middle. I loved the sweet and slightly salty taste that filled my mouth, golden crumbs raining down my shirt.
Other ingredients such as okra, potatoes, rice, beans, grits, and corn are part of several dishes in the soul food tradition. These were foods that the enslaved were not only given as rations but could also grow themselves to supplement the scraps they received.
I remember my grandparents dunking their golden squares of cornbread into the side of their sectioned plate with the dark collard green juices pooled at the bottom.
Growing up, I never liked the other-worldly sliminess of okra. Also known as ladyfingers, okra is native to West Africa, Ethiopia, and arguably South Asia. Originally, an ingredient for West African stews, soups, and rice dishes, Black Americans also used okra in a few similar ways. My mother would cut up the slimy seedpods into circular discs, cover them in cornmeal, and deep-fry them. I preferred this slightly greasy, salty method because I didn’t have to look at the interior of the vegetable whose juices resemble mucous. Other times, she would bake it or use okra in hearty stews in the winter.
Rice, another ingredient in soul food dishes, was brought over to the Americas from Africa. It is found in a host of African dishes from jollof, which is a single-pot rice dish with vegetables and white meat or fish, to waakye, a Ghanaian rice and beans dish. In the American South, rice found a home in red beans and rice as well as Hoppin’ John (rice and black-eyed peas) in the soul food tradition. It is also featured in the greater Southern cuisine family within gumbo and jambalaya.
Grits, typical breakfast food in the South, are good for any meal. The porridge-like dish comes from boiled cornmeal that is similar in texture to polenta. Salt, pepper, butter, bits of bacon, and prawn are just some of the ingredients that can go into grits to add flavour and depth. I have had grits to accompany fried fish, steak, cooked prawn, and even topped with stir-fried vegetables for a vegan meal.
Another issue arises when soul food isn’t portrayed and served accurately. When you leave out these vegetables in favour of meat-based elements and blur the line between what is soul food versus what is Southern cuisine, soul food can be mischaracterised as unhealthy – the cause of heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes due to the perceived amounts of meat, fat, and sugar in it.
Soul food, due to its plant-based roots, is not wholly unhealthy. In addition, Southern food is a more celebratory cuisine today. It is inconceivable to think that lovers of the cuisine are frying chicken, fish and pork chops, barbecuing ribs, and eating pulled pork sandwiches every day. My own paternal grandparents, caretakers of Black Southern cooking traditions, would also readily enjoy a hearty salad for a meal. The time and labour involved in creating some of the dishes lend itself to partaking only on weekends, or special occasions when the looming workday wasn’t a factor.
After seeing one too many poor imitations of soul food here, my wife and I decided to start our own business. Southern Soul was born in her mother’s North Carolina kitchen back in 2018 as a vegan food business. We launched our first stall at the Rozelle Collectors Market after a few factors seemingly collided around us.
The first was Australia’s obsession with America. Early on, I saw the fascination here with Black American music, sports, slang, celebrities, and food. A second factor was what my wife and I believe is the future of food: veganism. While neither one of us are vegan, we both know that everyone cannot consume meat continuously and expect a balanced, healthy planet. Another under-appreciated factor in the mass-production of meat is the human toll on workers within the supply chain. Many people are justifiably irate about the mistreatment and slaughtering of animals for food, but not as rabid about the conditions, treatment, and exploitation of the aforementioned employees. Many of these labourers come from marginalised backgrounds and are people of colour.
A final motivating factor for us birthing our business without a clue on what we were doing is the same reason why I wrote this entry. The rich story of our food culture deserves to be told in a better context, coming from people that know, grew up with, and truly love this food. Soul food wasn’t something that we discovered on some extended trip to find ourselves in a foreign land – we didn’t take the best parts of it and leave to tell some broken food story about what we fell in love with.
We have a long history of food rituals: countless hours of watching a Black woman clean collard greens in her kitchen sink, the water spilling out onto the counter choked with dark wet leaves. We know the horrible smell of chitterlings or pig intestines oozing from the kitchen that is a soul food staple called chitlins. Soul food is the story of every packed Thanksgiving table, summer family reunion, a visit back home from university, or racing down the road to make it to grandma’s house by dinnertime. Once it left the oven or the stovetop, it was gone.
Soul food is experiencing the dogged survival of Black Americans since 1619 when we arrived in shackles to America. It is not just fatty glistening fried foods, too much salt, and not enough nutrition. There is a rich plant history behind it and a multitude of stories accompany every dish. It is more rewarding to first seek out a full and authentic source of this food and to truly understand what is being communicated on the plate.
You’ll find a much richer story that way.
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