• Tyree Barnette, right, appears in the latest episode of The New Writer's Room podcast. (Instagram )Source: Instagram
We wanted to reclaim the food tradition of our ancestors and honour it.
By
Tyree Barnette

26 Jun 2019 - 8:23 AM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2021 - 11:30 AM

This isn’t just food.

It’s my legacy.

Leafy collard greens soaking in the kitchen sink tells our story.  I sit on the bar stool eating at my parent’s house in Raleigh, North Carolina.  My mother is only a few arms lengths away rinsing the wide dark leaves.  My plate features the discarded bits that make up soul food: sweet potatoes, collard greens, fried chicken, black eyed peas cooked in bits of ham, and cornbread.

What we call soul food is a survival tactic born out of the politics of slavery in the American south.  The enslaved Africans who helped create this food should not just be called slaves as that was not the totality of their existence: they had language, culture, history, food and defining characteristics of a people.  Their soul food also further nourished civil rights icons and freedom fighters in the 1960s.  It is as much a Black American art form as jazz, blues, or hip hop.

What we call soul food is a survival tactic born out of the politics of slavery in the American south.  

It started when slaveholders gave weekly rations including leafy vegetables such as collard, mustard, or turnip greens, cornmeal, beans, and root vegetables to the enslaved.  If they were lucky, the enslaved got discarded meats such as the intestines, tails, feet, or ears of pigs along with chicken, fish or some dairy products.  Knowing they needed the calories and fats to work long hours, the enslaved would cover meats with flour or breading and fry them.  They would also add meats to vegetables for flavour and sustenance.  Nothing was wasted.

The cuisine eventually spread to other parts of the South through the slave trade and would take influence, techniques, and ingredients from Black and White southerners, Native Americans, and Europeans such as the Scottish and the French.

In my parent’s kitchen, I split open a chicken wing, the heat floating out of the bits of pale meat.  The skin has the perfect combination of crunch and saltiness. 

It’s a celebratory food. I’m getting my meal of choice because I am home from Australia for only eight days.  I would have a meal like this during high school and university graduations, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve dinners.   

My mom is surprised when I tell her there is soul food in Sydney: at least that’s what people call it.  I tell her there are chefs frying hot chicken and charging $18.50 to consume three pieces of it on a stool in some crowded, musty bar.  She gasps when I tell her that I waited in line 30 minutes to eat this chicken in some noisy, cramped establishment.  

The consumption of African-American culture, without understanding its origins or the complicated nature of appropriation, is evident in the West’s relationship to our food.  Leading soul food scholar Adrian Miller reveals how white cooks became the public face for soul food and southern cuisine in the modern era.  He says the re-emergence of soul food occurred in the American diet following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  A disillusioned country was searching for what it meant to be American and a recapturing of her authenticity across her regions.  Soul food quickly took up the banner for the South.  This combined with the rise of food-based television in the early 2000s such as “Paula’s Home Cooking” from Paula Dean.  These shows overwhelmingly feature White chefs preparing southern cuisine and soul food while seldom mentioning their African-American origins. 

Restaurateurs in Sydney bring the influences of food culture from the Southeastern USA picking what they believe sells best.  They serve fried chicken, fried fish, fatty salted pork, and pork ribs in dark bars in the Inner West or along the waterfront in the CBD. 

Their recreations miss the point.

For my family and I, Southern Soul is an exciting return to culture as some Black Americans work to distance themselves from what they deem as “slave food”. 

The origins of soul food are more vegetarian, nearly vegan in fact.  There is a rich and delicious plant-based origin.  This is what gave my wife and I the idea to launch a soul food business of our own in Sydney.  We wanted to reclaim the food tradition of our ancestors and honour it. 

For my family and I, Southern Soul is an exciting return to culture as some Black Americans work to distance themselves from what they deem as “slave food”. 

Our tradition sustained us through slavery, fed us during the Civil Rights struggle and in the Jim Crow South, and continues giving a stolen people both a food identity and for some, an income.  It is our comfort food and connection to a past that we are still discovering.

Half a world away, we dust off our rituals, apply the seasonings, turn up the heat, and honour our legacy. 

Tyree Barnette is an American writer, currently living in Sydney. 

This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Editorial support for each piece has been provided by Winnie Dunn and Michael Mohammed Ahmad. 

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