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Soul food

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A plate of soul food consisting of fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread

Soul food is the ethnic cuisine of African Americans.[1][2] It originated in the American South from the cuisines of enslaved Africans trafficked to the North American colonies through the Atlantic slave trade during the Antebellum period and is closely associated (but not to be confused with) the cuisine of the American South.[3] The expression "soul food" originated in the mid-1960s when "soul" was a common word used to describe African-American culture.[4] Soul food uses cooking techniques and ingredients from West African, Central African, Western European, and Indigenous cuisine of the Americas.[5] Soul food came from the blending of what African Americans ate in Africa and what was available to them as slaves. The cuisine initially had its share of negativity. Soul food was seen as low-class food, and African Americans in the North looked down on their (formerly) Black Southern counterparts who preferred soul food (see The Great Migration).[6] The concept evolved from being the food of slaves in the South, to being a primary source of pride in the African American community even in the North, such as in New York City.[7]


Cooking at stove in old Trepagnier Plantation House, Norco, Louisiana, October 1938

The term soul food became popular in the 1960s and 1970s in the midst of the Black Power movement.[8] One of the earliest written uses of the term is found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was published in 1965.[9] LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) published an article entitled "Soul Food" and was one of the key proponents for establishing the food as a part of the Black American identity.[10] Those who had participated in the Great Migration found within soul food a reminder of the home and family they had left behind after moving to unfamiliar northern cities. Soul food restaurants were Black-owned businesses that served as neighborhood meeting places where people socialized and ate together.[11][12][13]


Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade[edit]

During the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved people ate African foods aboard slave ships. These included rice, millet, okra, black-eyed peas, and legumes such as kidney beans and lima beans. These crops were brought to North America and became a staple in Southern cuisine.[14] Slave ships were provisioned with African vegetables, fruits, and animals to feed the enslaved people bound in chains below the ships' decks. These items were later planted and used in the New World for food and as cash crops. The introduction of African plants to the Americas that shaped American cuisine was part of what is called the Columbian exchange.[15] Researchers from Mercer University Libraries explain: "The foods selected to bring to America were brought over for specific reasons. 'They all remain palatable long after harvesting and were thus ideal for use on the slow voyage from Africa. Secondly, they are all the edible parts of plants that thrive in the American South, and therefore they flourished once they had been planted hopefully by the slave in the garden space allotted to him on his owner's plantation'".[16]

The guinea fowl is a bird indigenous to Africa brought to the Americas by way of the slave trade; it became a source of meat for enslaved Black Americans in the Southern United States. On American plantations, enslaved people cooked the guinea fowl and paired it with rice like their West-Central African ancestors. Enslaved Africans in the American South continued to prepare their traditional dishes of guinea fowl and plant foods native to West and Central Africa. They adapted European and Native American foods and cooking methods to create new recipes that were passed down orally in Black families and later published in African-American cookbooks by the end of the American Civil War.[17][18][19]


Soul food recipes have pre-slavery influences, as West African and European foodways were adapted to the environment of the region.[3][20] Soul food originated in the home cooking of the rural Southern United States or the "Deep South" during the time of slavery, using locally gathered or raised foods and other inexpensive ingredients.[21] Rabbits, squirrels, and deer were often hunted for meat. Fish, frogs, crawfish, turtles, shellfish, and crab were often collected from fresh waters, salt waters, and marshes.[22][23] Soul food cookery began when Black American/ African American enslaved people learned to make do with what they were given to eat by their enslavers: leftovers and the undesirable parts of animals such as ham hocks, hog jowls and pigs' feet, ears, skin, and intestines, which white plantation owners did not eat.[24][25]

Enslaved people in the American South cooked the African guinea fowl and paired it with rice, a combination common in the foodways of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Pork and corn were two staple items in the Southern United States for both slave owners and slaves. Many of the foods integral to the cuisine originated in the limited foodstuffs that poor southern subsistence farmers had at hand. This in turn was reflected in the rations given to enslaved people by their enslavers. Enslaved people were typically given a peck of cornmeal and 3–4 pounds of pork per week, and those rations formed the basis of African American soul food.[26] Most enslaved people needed to consume a high-calorie diet to replenish the calories spent working long days in the fields or performing other physically arduous tasks.[27] The slave owners would have smoked ham and corn pudding while the enslaved were left with the offal.[28][29]

Archaeological and historical research concerning slave cabins in the Southern United States indicates that enslaved African Americans used bowls more often than flatware and plates, suggesting that they primarily made stews and "gumbo" for meals, using local ingredients gathered in nature, vegetables grown in their gardens, and leftover animal scraps rejected by their enslavers. This process allowed enslaved people to create new dishes, for which they developed a variety of ways to season and add spice using hot sauces they prepared. The research shows that white plantation families more often used plates and flatware, indicating that they ate meals consisting of individual cuts of meats and vegetables that were not blended into one dish like the stews made by enslaved people. Enslaved people living on plantations located along the Atlantic coast developed a diversity of foodways enabled by their access to seafood.[30]

Black fishermen find bass, flounder, shad and rockfish in Chesapeake Bay

During slavery times, Gullah people in the lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia practiced a fishing culture that came from West Africa and made canoes similar in appearance to the ones in Sub-Saharan Africa. Gullah people passed down their fishing traditions and prepared meals of fish using local ingredients from the region, developing fish dishes that are still a part of Gullah culture. Author Amy Lynne Young's research at the Mabry Plantation in Louisiana showed the differences in foodways between enslaved people living inland versus those living along the Atlantic coast. Families in coastal areas had access to a variety of meats from land and sea animals, especially those who lived on the coastlines and barrier sea islands. Inland slaves' choices of meats were limited, consisting of game such as rabbit and squirrel, farm chickens, pigs, and leftover animal scraps. Vegetables were locally gathered or grown in their gardens. Young suggests enslaved people living along the coast consequently had a more diverse diet than inland slaves. This demonstrates regional styles of cooking soul food based on local ingredients.[31][32][33]

Some slaves grew herbs in their gardens to add flavor to their food.[34] Other cooking techniques were boiling and simmering food in an earthenware or iron pot known as colonoware.[35] Salt was used to preserve meats for weeks until consumption.[36] To sweeten their food and beverages, slaves used molasses. They also made blackstrap molasses, a very dark molasses with robust flavor, by cooking the juice of sugar cane low and slow. Other sweet sauces created and used by slaves were sorghum syrup, similar to molasses, made by cooking the juice of the sorghum plant. Sorghum seeds came from West Africa by way of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and were grown by enslaved people on plantations in the New World and used to make sweet sauces.[37][38]

A slave food garden at Mount Vernon - To supplement their diet, enslaved people grew their own food to make stews.

Enslaved fishermen in Virginia caught fish to feed their families and the slave community. The Encyclopedia of Virginia explains the history of free and enslaved Black fishermen: "Enslaved workers also received fish considered undesirable by whites, such as garfish, whose red flesh Niemcewicz explained 'is little esteemed, serving only as food for negroes', and black catfish, which held less appeal for whites than white catfish, which was 'considered excellent.' Enslaved workers also fished in their time off to supplement their rations."[39][40] At George Washington's residential plantation in Virginia, Mount Vernon, enslaved cooks there prepared corn meal pancakes, "hoe cakes", individual cuts of meat, and seasoned cooked vegetables for the Washington family, while the enslaved people primarily ate corn meal and salted fish..[41]

Cooking techniques in West Africa continued in North America with enslaved Africans and their descendants.

The diet of slaves in Virginia generally included meat from farm animals, vegetables, blackberries, walnuts, and seafood. Historical research at the Burroughs plantation in Franklin County, Virginia by the National Park Service showed that enslaved people there had a diet of cornbread, pork, chicken, sweet potatoes, and boiled corn for breakfast. Along the coast, enslaved people ate oysters and seafood. Booker T. Washington was born enslaved in Franklin County, Virginia in 1856 and wrote an autobiography titled, The Story of My Life and Work and Up from Slavery, that explained the diet he grew up with as an enslaved child. Washington's mother was an enslaved plantation cook who prepared meals for the white families.[42]

Booker T. Washington's mother cooked over an open fireplace or in skillets and pots. Washington, his mother, and siblings ate out of pots and skillets while white families ate from plates and flatware using forks and spoons. His mother prepared one-pot meals for her family using local meats, vegetables, nuts, and berries, combining all the ingredients in a pot to make a stew. This way of cooking is still done in West Africa and continued in the Southern United States with enslaved families.[43] Enslaved people at the Burroughs plantation had a variety of vegetables with which to make stews; they were: "Asparagus, beets, beans, black-eyed peas, carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, garden peas, Irish potatoes, kale, lettuce, lima beans, muskmelons, okra, onions, peppers, radishes, tomatoes, turnips, and watermelons would be planted, ripened, and harvested from spring through fall".[44]

Macaroni and cheese, a European dish that became a staple in Southern cuisine, was popularized in the United States by enslaved cook James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's personal chef.

A few enslaved chefs had some degree of autonomy because of their cooking skills, such as Hercules Posey and James Hemings. Hercules Posey was the enslaved cook for George Washington at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Posey's dishes were so popular among elite white families that he had quasi-freedom to leave the house on his own and earn money selling leftovers. According to historians, the dishes Posey made were influenced by West African, European, and Native American foodways. He created dishes of veal, roast beef, and duck, along with puddings and jellies prepared in a way not unlike that of other chefs, but creating his own sauces and flavors. Posey was never given his freedom, and eventually escaped from slavery.[45][46] James Hemings (brother of Sally Hemings) was born enslaved in colonial Virginia and was the head chef for Thomas Jefferson. Hemings combined African, French, and Native American food traditions. While enslaved, Hemings traveled to Paris, France with Jefferson, where he trained under French chefs and learned how to make macaroni pie (today called macaroni and cheese). Hemings introduced and popularized macaroni and cheese in the United States; it later became a common side item in soul food dishes in Black communities.[47][48]

Enslaved women cooking

Sesame is an African crop that was brought to South Carolina in 1730 during the slave trade. Thomas Jefferson noted how enslaved people prepared stews, baked breads, boiled their greens with sesame seeds, and made sesame pudding. Slaves ate sesame raw, toasted, and boiled. It was used as an ingredient for baked breads in colonial America and is still used in the present day.[49]

According to research by scholars at Mercer University, white plantation families initially refused to eat African foods prepared by their slaves, although in many plantation kitchens enslaved African women were the primary cooks. These women passed down cultural knowledge of cooking techniques to the children. Older slave women were preferred as cooks by white plantation families because they were seen as nonthreatening, knowledgeable, and skilled in cooking. Time spent in the kitchen was time that enslaved mothers could spend bonding with their children and teaching them about life, culture, and foodways. In African societies and during slavery, women were the primary cooks. The role of enslaved Black women in the kitchen and as mothers led to racist stereotypes portraying them as Mammys.[50][51]

Using ashes to cook is a traditional method of cooking in Africa that continued in the slave communities in the American South.

Slave narratives revealed continued African methods of cooking, heating, and seasoning food. Enslaved people roasted and heated their foods using ashes from fire pits, a traditional cooking method in Africa. This method was passed down orally in Black families in the Antebellum South, and slave narratives explained how slaves cooked food this way. The word "ash" was appended to the name of some of the food thus prepared, as in "ash cake" and "ash roasted potatoes". Enslaved people placed food directly on hot ashes or coals to roast or bake their foods. Pots and pans were also placed on top of hot ashes and coals to cook food. Some slaves heated or cooked their foods by putting them on leaves placed on top of the hot ashes. A former slave, Betty Curlett from Arkansas, told of roasting her potatoes on hot ashes: "They cooked a washpot full of peas for a meal or two and roasted potatoes around the pot in the ashes."[52]

Some slaves did not receive enough food from their enslavers as some slaves starved and consequently were malnourished. House slaves and field slaves had different diets. House slaves ate the leftovers they prepared for white plantation families such as individual cuts from meats like chicken, turkey, or fish, along with pies and seasoned vegetables. Slaves working in the field ate leftover animal scraps, offal, and whatever food they could find in their environment. Some field slaves rarely ate regular hearty meals. Historian John Blassingame's book published in 1972, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, was researched from a collection of slave narratives. According to Blassingame's research, some enslaved people received the bare minimum in food and had to supplement their diets by hunting, fishing, and foraging for food.[53][54]


Chitterlings (also known as chitlin's) are cleaned pig intestines; they are cooked in a pot and seasoned. This food has been associated with enslaved Black people in the American South; however, eating animal innards (intestines) is practiced in other cultures such as Asia, Europe, and West Africa. The Hausa people in West Africa eat chicken intestines. Enslaved Africans in the American South continued their traditions of cooking, seasoning, and eating animal innards. Chitterlings are considered a delicacy in other cultures.[55] Due to the time it takes to clean pig intestines, chitterlings were preserved for special occasions and holidays. Some cooks season chitterlings with onions, celery, garlic, salt and pepper, and butter.[56]

Slave recipes[edit]

Enslaved people fried their foods in lard, which is rendered pork fat.

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration paid American writers to gather stories from the last generations of African Americans born into slavery that are called slave narratives. Alongside the narratives are collections of recipes for sauces, desserts, and cooked meat and seafood dishes made by formerly enslaved African Americans. These records have been studied by John Blassingame, Michael Twitty, Jessica B. Harris, and other historians as they reveal the food culture and diets of enslaved people. The narratives show how enslaved people created new dishes that influenced Southern cuisine in the United States.[57]

Slaves used red peppers and vinegar with other ingredients and made a homemade barbecue sauce.

A former slave named Wesley Jones from South Carolina gave a recipe to make a vinegar-based barbecue sauce using black and red peppers and vinegar. Wesley said slaves barbecued meats often, smoking and basting their meats with this homemade barbecue sauce; they would stay up all night slow cooking the meat. Other slave narratives described barbecuing as a preferred method of cooking because it added flavor and spice to food. Slaves barbecued their foods for special occasions and on their days off. Henry Bland,a former slave who lived in Georgia, said slaves had July 4th (Independence Day) off from work, allowing them to barbecue food, play ball games, wrestle, and play music.[58][59]

A former slave named Callie Elder from Georgia said her grandfather cooked catfish with lard, salt, and pepper, and rolled the catfish in cornmeal before baking. Former slave Clara Davis from Alabama cooked catfish using tomatoes and potatoes or prepared baked catfish with a tomato gravy and sweet potatoes. Slaves in the South fried catfish in lard or other fats. Enslaved people made use of fruits like apples and peaches that had been introduced to North America by European colonists. Some fruits, such as apples, were battered and deep fried in oil, fruit fritters were also fried, and peaches were stewed. Former slaves Mose King from Arkansas and Rose Williams from Texas described eating goat. Mary Minus Biddie was a former slave from Florida and said enslaved people cooked goat in a smokehouse. David Goodman Gullins was a former slave from Georgia and said they prepared barbecued goat. Goat is a traditional meat in West Africa and was commonly cooked and eaten in the American south by slaves.[60]

Black Americans preparing a southern barbecue

Enslaved people also barbecued squirrels. One recipe for barbecued squirrels that might have been similar to the way slaves cooked them was given in an 1879 cookbook: "Put them in the oven and let them cook until done. Lay them on a dish and set near the fire. Take out the bacon, sprinkle one spoonful of flour in the gravy and let it brown. Then pour in one teacup of water, one tablespoon of butter and some tomato or walnut catsup. Let it cool, and then pour it over the squirrel." Barbecuing and preparing barbecue sauce and hot sauce were done to season lower grades of meats.[61] Enslaved people living near rivers and the Atlantic Ocean caught crab and made stews with the crab meat in a pot with okra, sometimes adding a sauce. Cooking seafood with okra is a traditional cooking method from West Africa that slaves continued on Southern plantations.[62] Some of these recipes made by former slaves were published in African-American cookbooks. The earliest such cookbook was self-published in 1866 by Malinda Russell as a pamphlet titled, A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen.[63] A cookbook published in 1900 in the city of Charleston, South Carolina had recipes used by formerly enslaved Gullah people. Benne seeds from sesame, a plant native to West Africa, were eaten raw with sugar or milk. Enslaved people also made cakes, wafers, and brittles from them for white plantation families whom they called "buckra"[64] (a Gullah word for white people).[65][66]


Emancipation Day celebration in Beaufort

On January 1, 1863, Gullah people in the sea islands of South Carolina celebrated their freedom on New Year's Day at Camp Saxton in Beaufort with food and barbecues. Black people in the barrier islands of South Carolina became free early during the American Civil War after the Battle of Port Royal on November 7, 1861, when many of the plantation owners and white residents fled the area after the arrival of the Union Navy and Army. As a result, over 10,000 African Americans became free on that day.[67] However, their freedom was not official in government writing until the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day in 1863. Thousands of newly freed people celebrated their freedom with food, song, and dance.[68] Charlotte Forten, the first black teacher at the Penn School on St. Helena Island in Beaufort, attended the Emancipation Day celebration at Camp Saxton and recorded in her journal they ate roasted oxen and barbecue.[69][70][71] Susie King Taylor, a Geechee woman born enslaved in Liberty County, Georgia, wrote in her memoir that she had also attended the Emancipation Day celebration at Camp Saxton: "It was a glorious day for us all, and we enjoyed every minute of it, and as a fitting close and crowning event of this occasion we had a grand barbecue".[72] Other Emancipation Day celebrations were celebrated with a barbecue feast, a tradition that originated in the slave community.[73][74]

A 2017 Juneteenth Celebration showing soul food vendors

After the American Civil War, 4 million African Americans were freed from slavery. They celebrated their newly won freedom with barbecues and Emancipation Day celebrations and prepared soul food meals. Two months after the Civil War ended in April 1865, slaveholders in Galveston, Texas refused to tell their slaves the Civil War had ended and they were free. On June 19, 1865, United States Brigadier General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston and read the Emancipation Proclamation announcing that enslaved people were now free. To celebrate their freedom, African Americans in Galveston, and other Black communities in the United States, gathered at public parks and prepared red foods that represent the color of freedom. These celebrations are called Juneteenth, which became a national holiday under the Biden Administration in the year 2021.[75]

Picayune Creole Cookbook

According to food historian Michael Twitty, the reason African Americans eat red food on Juneteenth is that it reminds them of the blood of their ancestors that was shed during slavery, and the cultural colors of the Yoruba and Bakongo people, who were enslaved in the Southern United States and brought to North America under the slave trade. Among the Yoruba and Bakongo people, the color red represents power, sacrifice, and transformation.[76][77] The red foods eaten at Juneteenth are, watermelon, red lemonade, and red velvet cake.[78] In addition to red foods, BBQ, fried foods, and other cooked meals are prepared to celebrate the day of freedom.[79]

After emancipation, many Black Americans in the South became sharecroppers and cooked what was available in their region. This created regional styles of cooking with similar dishes passed down orally in Black families.[80][81][82] Due to slave laws, it was illegal in many states for slaves to learn to read or write. Soul food recipes and cooking techniques were passed down orally until after emancipation.[83]

The first soul food cookbook is attributed to Abby Fisher, entitled What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking and published in 1881. Good Things to Eat was published in 1911; the author, Rufus Estes, was a former slave who worked for the Pullman railway car service. Many other cookbooks were written by Black Americans during that time, but as they were not widely distributed, most are now lost.[84]

Mid-20th century to present day[edit]

Black-owned night-clubs during the Jim Crow era were called the Chitlin' Circuit—they were safe places for Black people to eat.[85][86]

The introduction of soul food to cities such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore came during the Great Migration as African Americans moved to the North for work. Impoverished white and Black people in the South cooked many of the same dishes stemming from this tradition, but styles of preparation sometimes varied. Certain techniques popular in soul and other Southern cuisines (i.e., frying meat and using all parts of the animal for consumption) are shared with cultures all over the world.[87] Food historian Adrian Miller studied soul food's development in Maryland and in Northern American states. Soul food in Maryland's Black communities added local flavors from seafood from the Chesapeake Bay. People in Maryland fried chicken in shallow fat in a frying pan, covering it with a lid, thus frying and steaming the chicken, which was served with waffles.[88][89] Chicken and waffles became a common soul food item to eat in Black communities in Maryland and in Harlem, New York. During the blues and jazz era, musicians and singers performed and practiced late into the night and stopped at black-owned restaurants for food where cooks prepared fried chicken and waffles for their customers.[90][91] Nightclubs in Black communities in the United States during the Jim Crow era were called the Chitlin' Circuit, named after the dish that was usually associated with Black southerners and soul food.[92][93]

The Busy Bee Café is a soul food restaurant frequented by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

During the civil rights movement, soul food restaurants were places where civil rights leaders and activists met to discuss and strategize civil rights protests and ideas for implementing social and political change. As the Atlanta History Center explained: "Throughout the civil rights movement in Atlanta, soul food restaurants were hubs of change where civil rights leaders could convene, converse, and strategize, and in times of terror and violence, these places were retreats where leaders could plan their next tactical moves, giving many of these spots a legacy beyond good cooking". Soul food restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia served as the primary meeting places for numerous civil rights leaders and supporters of the movement. Many politicians and civil rights leaders gathered to discuss plans about the movement at Paschal's Restaurant on West Hunter Street. In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights icons such as Andrew Young, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Jesse Jackson frequented the restaurant, staying late into the night talking about civil rights strategies and politics. Several soul food restaurants were located on West Hunter Street because Jim Crow laws restricted where African Americans were allowed to operate their businesses.[94][95]

Ben's Chili Bowl is a black-owned restaurant in Washington, D.C.

In 1963, a few days before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington D.C., where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream Speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King ate at a soul food restaurant called the Florida Avenue Grill. During the years of the civil rights movement, other civil rights leaders and activists met at the restaurant, planning and strategizing for the movement. Before King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, he ate at the Four Way restaurant and had fried catfish and icebox pie. Throughout his civil rights career, King frequented several soul food restaurants where he ate and met with other local and national civil rights leaders.[96] After King's assassination, riots broke out in Washington D.C., and the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, asked the owner of Ben's Chili Bowl restaurant to remain open to provide food for police officers, student activists, and firefighters as they worked together to stop the riot. Authors Hoekstra and Khan explained in their book, The People's Place: Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences from the Civil Rights Era to Today, that soul food restaurants served as places to bring communities and families together in times of trouble during the Jim Crow era and helped in the fight against segregation laws by allowing white and Black people to eat together.[97]

Staff of Sylvia's, a legendary soul food restaurant in Harlem, New York

In Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights protestors convened and organized for the movement at soul food restaurants because they provided a safe haven and a place to eat and relax. Martha's Place and Chris' Hotdogs were visited by protestors. During this period of activism, Jereline and Larry James Bethune, the owners of the restaurant Brenda's BBQ, also in Montgomery, taught African Americans how to register to vote and how to read a ballot when Jim Crow laws and literacy tests prevented Black people from voting. Civil rights activists frequented the restaurant for moral and financial support. The owners also helped to print out fliers for the movement and allowed protestors to have secret meetings in the back of the restaurant.[98]

Atlanta's oldest black-owned restaurant, the Evelyn Jones Cafe, was founded in 1936 by Evelyn Jones and her sister. In the mid-1940s, Evelyn and her husband, Luther Frazier, enlarged the restaurant and renamed it Frazier's Cafe Society. It is located at 880 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (then known as West Hunter Street). The Jones family challenged Jim Crow laws when they allowed whites and blacks to eat together. It was the first interracial restaurant on West Hunter Street. The cafe also served as a location for civil rights leaders to meet. The foods the restaurant served were Virginia baked ham, pork chop dinner, jumbo shrimp, roast beef, and other classic Southern dishes.[99][100] Club from Nowhere was a black-owned soul food restaurant that opened in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, operated by Georgia Gilmore. Gilmore's fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, stuffed pork chops, stuffed peppers, and coleslaw were popular among her black and white customers. These were dishes she learned how to make from the women in her family. Several soul food restaurants served black and white people before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made segregated facilities illegal.[101][102]

During the Jim Crow era in the 20th century, it was not safe for Black Americans to travel on the road as they faced possible violence from white supremacists. Black people needed to know what places were safe to stop for food, gas, and motels. In 1936, an African American postal worker from Harlem, New York, named Victor Hugo Green created the The Green Book for Black people to travel safely in the Southern United States, where Jim Crow laws were widespread. Several soul food restaurants were listed in the book because they were safe havens for African Americans to eat. One restaurant listed in the Green Book was Swett's, which opened in 1954.[103][104]

African-Americans in church during a church service. Black churches served soul food meals to feed the African-American community.

The Black Church (African-American churches) played a key role in Black communities as they provided food and a place of worship. Researchers from PBS explained: "Religion played a key role in the proliferation of soul food, as well as the diversification of the cuisine. Black churches, crucial during slavery and in the Civil Rights movement, were also crucial as gathering places, where Black communities could eat and rejoice over plates of chicken and dumplings, black-eyed peas and rice, red drinks, and the classic Black American church dish, fried catfish and spaghetti".[105] Chris Carter is an African American pastor and professor of history who published a book about the Black Church and soul food in 2021 titled, The Spirit of Soul Food: Race, Faith, and Food Justice. According to Carter, soul food in the African-American community is food that fights injustices centered around the lack of access to food, as some Black Americans live in poverty and Black churches on Sundays and during the week prepare meals to feed their community.[106]

Since the mid-20th century, many cookbooks highlighting soul food and African-American foodways have been compiled and published. One notable soul food chef is celebrated traditional Southern chef and author Edna Lewis,[107] who released a series of books between 1972 and 2003, including A Taste of Country Cooking in which she weaves stories of her childhood in Freetown, Virginia into her recipes for "real Southern food".[108]

Another early and influential soul food cookbook is Vertamae Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, originally published in 1970, focused on South Carolina Lowcountry/Geechee/Gullah cooking. Its focus on spontaneity in the kitchen—cooking by "vibration" rather than precisely measuring ingredients, as well as "making do" with ingredients on hand—captured the essence of traditional African-American cooking techniques. The simple, healthful, basic ingredients of lowcountry cuisine, like shrimp, oysters, crab, fresh produce, rice, and sweet potatoes, made it a bestseller.[109]

The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro

Usher boards and Women's Day committees of various religious congregations large and small, and even public service and social welfare organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) have produced cookbooks to fund their operations and charitable enterprises.[110] The NCNW produced its first cookbook, The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, in 1958, and revived the practice in 1993, producing a popular series of cookbooks featuring recipes by famous Black Americans, among them: The Black Family Reunion Cookbook (1991), Celebrating Our Mothers' Kitchens: Treasured Memories and Tested Recipes (1994), and Mother Africa's Table: A Chronicle of Celebration (1998). The NCNW also recently reissued The Historical Cookbook.[111][112][113]

In 2011, culinary historian Jessica B. Harris published a book titled, High on the Hog that explains the origins and development of African-American dishes and their roots in Sub-Saharan Africa. Enslaved and free African Americans incorporated indigenous foods from North America such as plants, fruits, and animals but Africanized the foods by preparing and flavoring their dishes similarly to West and Central Africans.[114] Harris' book later became a docuseries in 2021 on Netflix called High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.[115]

In 2018, African American author and culinary historian Michael Twitty published The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South that explains the history, development, and evolution of soul food in Black communities in the Southern United States.[116]

Gullah Geechee chef, Emily Meggett, was born on Edisto Island, South Carolina in 1922. Meggett learned how to farm and cook from her family and published a book about Gullah cuisine in 2022 titled, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island.[117][118]

In 2024, Lakisha Harris became the first Black woman in the United States to present a presentation on soul food at the American Culinary Federation (ACF) National Convention titled, Culinary Freedom of the Soul.[119]

Gullah Geechee chef Benjamin Dennis IV, born in Charleston, South Carolina, continues to educate the public about Gullah and African-American cuisine's origins in West African cuisine and its influence on American foodways.[120][121]

African influence[edit]

Ham hock and black-eyed peas

Scholars have found substantial African influence in soul food recipes, especially from the West and Central regions of Africa. This influence can be seen in the heat level of many soul food dishes, as well as many ingredients used to prepare them.[122] Peppers used to add spice to food include malagueta pepper, as well as variants native to the Western Hemisphere such as red (cayenne) peppers.[27] Several foods essential to Southern cuisine and soul food were domesticated or consumed in the African savannah and the tropical regions of West and Central Africa. These include watermelon, pigeon peas, black-eyed peas, okra, sorghum, and peppers.[122][123]

Okra is used in soul food dishes

A species of rice was domesticated in Africa, so many people brought to the Americas preserved rice cooking techniques. Rice was a cash crop in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and during the slave trade, Europeans selected coastal inhabitants of West Africa who had knowledge of rice cultivation.[124][125] Rice is a staple side dish in the Lowcountry region and in Louisiana. It is a main ingredient in dishes such as jambalaya and red beans and rice, popular in Southern Louisiana. Recipes for rice and beans developed in West Africa were brought to the South Carolina Lowcountry by enslaved Africans and continue to be prepared by their descendants, the Gullah people. A Gullah dish of rice, black-eyed peas, onions, and bacon is Hoppin' John.[126] Food historian Jessica B. Harris traces this dish to a Senegalese food called Chiebou niebe, made with rice and beef. Enslaved Black Americans in the United States thus created new dishes with origins in West Africa but using North American ingredients.[127] A Gullah New Year tradition is eating Hoppin' John to bring in good luck. Customarily eaten on January 1 throughout the Lowcountry region, it is often paired with cornbread and collard greens, which are also said to bring prosperity.[128]

Authentic Gullah Hoppin' John

Charleston red rice is made with rice and tomato paste. This dish originated from jollof rice in West Africa, which is made with a tomato product giving the rice its red color.[129] In the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, enslaved Gullah Geechee people's main source of food was rice paired with meats and shellfish. These rice cooking techniques, influenced by rice dishes made in West Africa, are practiced today in Gullah communities.[130][131]

There are many documented parallels between the foodways of West Africans and soul food recipes.[132] The consumption of sweet potatoes in the United States echoes the consumption of yams in West Africa. The presence of cornbread on African-American tables is analogous to West African use of fufu to soak up sauces and stews.[132]

Harris starred in the 2021 docuseries High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America and traveled to Benin, West Africa, where she saw women making a leafy sauce called feuille, prepared similarly to how African Americans cook collard greens.[133]

West Africans also cooked meat over open pits, and thus it is possible that enslaved Africans came to the Americas with knowledge of this cooking technique (it is also possible they learned it from Native Americans, since Native Americans barbecued as a cooking technique).[27][134]

It was not uncommon to see food served out of an empty gourd. Many techniques to change the overall flavor of staple food items such as nuts, seeds, and rice contributed to added dimensions of evolving flavors. These techniques included roasting, frying with palm oil, baking in ashes, and steaming in leaves such as banana leaf.[135]

Native American influence[edit]

Cornbread, a traditional Native American food, became a staple in African-American cooking

Southeastern Native American culture is an important element of Southern cuisine. From their cultures came one of the main staples of the Southern diet: corn (maize), either ground into meal or limed with an alkaline salt to make hominy, in a Native American process known as nixtamalization.[136] Corn was used to make all kinds of dishes, from the familiar cornbread and grits to liquors such as moonshine and whiskey (which are still important to the Southern economy[137]). Black Americans in Tuskegee, Alabama combined molasses and leftover cooked grease, a combination they called "sap", to pour over their cornbread and "hoe cakes".[138]

The foods of Black Seminoles in Florida and Oklahoma are influenced by Gullah rice and bean dishes and Seminole foodways.[139][140] Historian Ray Von Robertson conducted oral interviews with sixteen Black Seminoles from 2006 and 2007 and found that Seminole cultural influences were incorporated into their daily lives in practices such as foodways and herbal medicine. Black Seminoles cooked and ate fry bread, sofkee, and grape dumplings.[141]

Grits originated among Southeastern Native American tribes and have become a staple in soul food dishes.

Many fruits are available in this region: blackberries, muscadines, raspberries, and many other wild berries were part of Southern Native Americans' diets as well.

To a far greater degree than anyone realizes, several of the most important food dishes that the Native Americans of the southeastern U.S.A live on today is the "soul food" eaten by both Black and White Southerners. Hominy, for example, is still eaten: Sofkee lives on as grits; cornbread [is] used by Southern cooks; Indian fritters -- variously known as "hoe cake" or "Johnny cake"; Indian boiled cornbread is present in Southern cuisine as "corn meal dumplings" and "hush puppies"; Southerners cook their beans and field peas by boiling them, as did the Native tribes; and, like the Native Americans, Southerners cured their meats and smoked it over hickory coals...

— Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians[142]

African, European, and Native Americans of the American South supplemented their diets with meats derived from the hunting of native game. What meats people ate depended on seasonal availability and geographical region. Common game included opossums, rabbits, and squirrels.[143]

When game or livestock was killed, the entire animal was used. Aside from the meat, it was common for them to eat organ meats such as brains, livers, and intestines. This tradition remains today in hallmark dishes like chitterlings (commonly called chit'lins), which are the small intestines of hogs; livermush (a common dish in the Carolinas made from hog liver); and pork brains and eggs. The fat of the animals, particularly hogs, was rendered and used for cooking and frying. Many of the early European settlers in the South learned Native American cooking methods, setting in motion the cultural diffusion of Southern cuisine.[citation needed]

Sauces and seasoning[edit]

Hot sauce is used to add flavor to food.

Since the mid-20th century, Black Americans have seasoned cooked meats and vegetables with Lawry's Seasoned Salt. Because Lawry's is economical and offers multiple herbs and spices in one product, Black Americans use it in most of their dishes except sweet dishes.[144][145][146] For extra flavor and spice, hot sauce is sprinkled over fried chicken and fish, collard greens, and other cooked foods. West Africans made variations of hot spicy sauces using hot peppers indigenous to the region. After their enslavement and transportation to the southern United States, thy continued to make their own versions of hot sauces using spices and peppers from North America. By the mid-20th century, Black Americans were turning to store-bought hot sauces to add flavor and spice to their food.[147][148] During slavery times, enslaved people had flavored their vegetables with bacon grease or other parts of the pig. This tradition continues today with Black families using pig feet, bacon grease, or turkey necks to flavor collard and turnip greens.[149]

Cultural relevance[edit]

Soul food restaurant in Texas

Soul food originated in the southern region of the US and is consumed by African-Americans across the nation. Traditional soul food cooking is seen as one of the ways enslaved Africans passed their traditions to their descendants once they were brought to the US. It is a cultural creation stemming from slavery and Native American and European influences.[132][27]

Soul food recipes are popular in the South due to the accessibility and affordability of the ingredients.[132][26] Scholars have observed that while white Americans provided the material supplies for soul food dishes, the cooking techniques found in many of the dishes have been visibly influenced by the enslaved Africans themselves.[27] Dishes derived by slaves consisted of mostly vegetables and grains because slave owners felt more meat would cause the slave to become lethargic with less energy to tend to the crops.

The bountiful vegetables found in Africa were substituted in dishes down south with new leafy greens consisting of dandelion, turnip, and beet greens. Pork, more specifically hog, was introduced into several dishes in the form of cracklins from the skin, pig's feet, chitterlings, and lard used to increase the fat intake into vegetable dishes. Spices such as thyme, and bay leaf blended with onion and garlic gave dishes their own characteristics.[135]

Red drinks are ubiquitous at African American social functions. When black people congregate for special occasions and food is present, a red drink will be found there. Any restaurant with a mostly black clientele serves at least one red drink. Red drinks are important in soul food culture because they represent social connections between friends and family, and a link with the African diaspora.[150] Newbell Puckett, a southern sociologist who documented African American folk beliefs in his 1926 study, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro,[151] suggested that there was cultural and historical continuity between African American culture and West African societies where red had been an important ritual and royal color for hundreds of years. There were two notable red drinks in West Africa, kola tea and hibiscus tea, by the time the Atlantic slave trade began. Kola tea was made from the nuts of West African trees, especially Cola nitida. Tea made from the dried red flowers of the hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), a plant related to okra, is used to make a tea called bissap, from the French jus de bissap. It is popular in Senegal and Gambia. Bissap was called sorrel tea or red sorrel in the Americas.[150]

Figures such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Elijah Muhammad, and Dick Gregory played notable roles in shaping the conversation around soul food.[152][132] Muhammad and Gregory opposed soul food because they felt it was unhealthy and was slowly killing African-Americans.[9] They saw soul food as a remnant of oppression and felt it should be left behind. Many African-Americans were offended by the Nation of Islam's rejection of pork as it is a staple ingredient used to flavor many dishes.[132]

Stokely Carmichael also spoke out against soul food, claiming that it was not true African food due to its colonial and European influence.[132] Despite this, many voices in the Black Power Movement saw soul food as something African-Americans should take pride in and used it to distinguish African-Americans from white Americans.[10] Proponents of soul food embraced the concept and used it as a counterclaim to the argument that African-Americans had no culture or cuisine.[27][132]

Soul food spread throughout the United States when African-Americans from the South moved to major cities across the country such as Chicago and New York City during the Great Migration. They brought with them the foods and traditions of the Southern United States, where they had been enslaved.[6] Later, the magazine Ebony Jr! was important in transmitting the cultural relevance of soul food dishes to middle-class African-American children who typically ate a more standard American diet.[153] Today Soul food is frequently found at religious rituals and social events such as funerals, fellowship, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in the black community.[132][107][122]

Soul food is culturally similar to Romani cuisine in Europe.[154]

Health concerns[edit]

Soul food prepared traditionally and consumed in large amounts can be detrimental to one's health. Opponents of eating soul food have been vocal about health concerns surrounding the culinary traditions since the name was coined in the mid-20th century.[155][156]

Soul food has been criticized for its high starch, fat, sodium, cholesterol, and caloric content, as well as the inexpensive and often low-quality nature of the ingredients such as salted pork and cornmeal. In light of this, soul food has been implicated by some in the disproportionately high rates of high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), stroke, and heart attack suffered by African-Americans.[157][158] Figures who led discussions surrounding the negative impacts of soul food include Dr. Alvenia Fulton, Dick Gregory, and Elijah Muhammad.[152][132]

On the other hand, critics and traditionalists have argued that attempts to make soul food healthier also make it less tasty, as well as less culturally/ethnically authentic.[159] There is also often a foundational difference in how health is perceived; perceptions of healthiness by consumers of soul food may differ from normal understandings in American culture.[160]

The nutritional value of most processed foods, and not just those implicated in a traditional perception of soul food, has degraded as the agricultural system in the United States became industrialized, fueled by federal subsidies.[161] This urges a consideration of how concepts of racial authenticity evolve alongside changes in the structures that make some foods more available and accessible than others.[162][163]

An important aspect of the preparation of soul food was the reuse of cooking lard. Because many cooks could not afford to buy new shortening to replace what they used, they would pour the liquefied cooking grease into a container. After cooling completely, the grease re-solidified and could be used again the next time the cook required lard.[164] With changing fashions and perceptions of "healthy" eating, some cooks may use preparation methods that differ from those of cooks who came before them: using liquid oil like vegetable oil or canola oil for frying and cooking, and using smoked turkey instead of pork, for example. Changes in hog farming techniques have also resulted in drastically leaner pork, in the 21st and late 20th centuries. Some cooks have even adapted recipes to include vegetarian alternatives to traditional ingredients, including tofu and soy-based analogues.[165] Several Black chefs have opened vegan soul food restaurants to cook healthier foods rooted in African American culture.[166] Others, such as Jenne Claiborne, author of the Sweet Potato Soul Cookbook, have chosen to start a YouTube channel and show people how to prepare healthier soul food.[167]

Several of the ingredients included in soul food recipes have pronounced health benefits. Collard and other greens are rich sources of several vitamins (including vitamin A, B6, folic acid or vitamin B9, vitamin K, and C), minerals (manganese, iron, and calcium), fiber, and small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain a number of phytonutrients, which are thought to play a role in the prevention of ovarian and breast cancers.[168][dubiousdiscuss]

The traditional preparation of soul food vegetables often consists of high temperatures or slow cooking methods, which can lead the water-soluble vitamins (e.g., Vitamin C and the B complex vitamins) to be destroyed or leached out into the water in which the greens are cooked. This water is often consumed and is known as pot liquor.[107] Because it contains micronutrients from the greens cooked in it, pot liquor contributes to the nutritional value of a meal when consumed.[169] Peas and legumes are inexpensive sources of protein, and they also contain important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.[170]

Dishes and ingredients[edit]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Huges, Marvalene H. Soul, Black Women, and Food. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Bowser, Pearl and Jean Eckstein, A Pinch of Soul, Avon, New York, 1970
  • Counihan, Carol and Penny Van Esterik editors, Food and Culture, A Reader, Routledge, New York, 1997
  • Harris, Jessica, The Welcome Table – African American Heritage Cooking, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996
  • Mitchell, Patricia (1998). Plantation Row slave cabin cooking: the roots of soul food. Patricia B. Mitchell foodways publications. Chatham, VA: P.B. Mitchell. ISBN 978-0925117892.
  • Root, Waverley and Richard de Rochemont, Eating in America, A History, William Morrow, New York, 1976
  • Glenn, Gwendolyn, "American Visions", Southern Secrets From Edna Lewis, February–March, 1997
  • Puckett, Susan, "Restaurant and Institutions", Soul Food Revival, February 1, 1997

External links[edit]