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Soul food is a variety of cuisine originating in the Southeastern United States. It is common in areas with a history of slave-based plantations and has maintained popularity among the Black American and American Deep-South "cotton state" communities for centuries. The expression "soul food" may have originated in the mid-1960s, when "soul" was a common word used to describe Black American culture.
The term soul food became popular in the 1960s, however its origin is debated. One of the earliest written uses of the term is found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was published in 1965. 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. Early influences included African and Native American cuisine.
However, the actual origins of soul food trace all the way back to slavery. A large amount of the foods integral to the cuisine originate from the limited rations given to slaves by their planters and masters. Slaves were typically given a peck of cornmeal and 3-4 pounds of pork per week, and from those rations come soul food staples such as cornbread, fried catfish, BBQ ribs, chitterlings, and neckbones.
Slaves needed to eat foods with high amounts of calories to balance out spending long days working in the fields. This led to time-honored soul food traditions like frying foods, breading meats and fishes with cornmeal, and mixing meats with vegetables (i.e. putting pork in collard greens). Eventually, this slave-invented style of cooking started to get adopted into larger Southern culture, as slave owners gave special privileges to slaves with cooking skills.
Introduction of soul food to northern cities such as Washington D.C. also came from private chefs in the White House. Many American Presidents have desired French cooking, and have sought after black chefs given their Creole background. Prior to having a black chef in the White House, the Washingtons had a white chef. They did not like the white chef's cooking, however, and replaced that chef with an African American one.
One famous relationship includes the bond formed between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Zephyr Wright. Wright became a great influence to Johnson in fighting for civil rights as he saw her treatment and segregation as they would travel throughout the south. Johnson even had Wright present at the signing of several civil rights laws.
Native American influence
Southern Native American culture (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole) 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. Corn was used to make all kinds of dishes, from the familiar cornbread and grits, to liquors such as moonshine and whiskey (which is still important to the Southern economy).
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
Native Americans of the American South also supplemented their diets with meats derived from the hunting of native game. Venison was an important meat staple due to the abundance of white-tailed deer in the area. They also hunted opossums, rabbits, and squirrels. Livestock, adopted from Europeans, in the form of cattle and hogs, were kept.
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 fried 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, and so cultural diffusion was set in motion for the Southern dish.
Impoverished whites and blacks in the South prepared many of the same dishes stemming from the soul tradition, but styles of preparation sometimes varied. Certain techniques are popular in soul and Southern cuisines (i.e., frying meat and using all parts of the animal for consumption) are shared with ancient cultures all over the world, including China, Egypt, and Rome.
Because it was illegal in many states for slaves to learn to read or write, soul food recipes and cooking techniques tended to be passed along orally, until after emancipation. 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.
Since the mid-20th century, many cookbooks highlighting soul food and Black American footways that's being complied by Black Americans, and have been published and well received. 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 Black 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.
At the center of Black American food celebrations is the value of sharing and caring. Therefore, Black American cookbooks often have a common theme of family gatherings. 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. 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.
Celebrated traditional Southern chef and author Edna Lewis wrote a series of books between 1972 and 2003, including A Taste of Country Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) where she weaves stories of her childhood in Freetown, Virginia into her recipes for "real Southern food".
Traditionally-prepared soul foods tend to be very high in starch, fat, sodium, cholesterol, and calories. In contemporary times, some traditional-style soul foods have been implicated in the abnormally high rates of high blood pressure (hypertension), type 2 diabetes, clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), stroke, and heart attack suffered by Americans – especially those living in the Southern and Central United States. A foundational difference in how health is perceived of being contemporary is that soul food may differ from 'traditional' styles is the widely different structures of agriculture. Fueled by federal subsidies, the agricultural system in the United States became industrialized as the nutritional value of most processed foods, and not just those implicated in a traditional perception of soul food, have degraded. 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.
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.
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. Critics and traditionalists have argued that attempts to make soul food healthier, also make it less tasty, as well as less culturally/ethnically authentic.
Isolated ingredients of a soul food diet do have pronounced health benefits. Collard and other greens are rich sources of several vitamins (including vitamin A, B6, folic acid or vitamin B9, 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. However, since traditional-style cooking of soul food vegetables requires high temperatures or long time periods, the water-soluble vitamins (e.g., Vitamin C and the B complex vitamins) are either destroyed or leached out into the water in which it is cooked. Additionally, the high quantity of oils used in preparing such ingredients means the final product might contain only a small amount of vegetable relative to the total amount of calories per serving. Peas and legumes are excellent, inexpensive sources of protein; they also contain important vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Sweet potatoes are a tremendous source of beta carotene and trace minerals, and have come to be classified as an "anti-diabetic" food. Recent animal studies have shown that sweet potatoes, if consumed plain and in modest amounts, can stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance.
Dishes and ingredients
- Comfort food
- List of American foods
- Cuisine of the Southern United States
- Cuisine of Atlanta
- Soul Food Junkies, a documentary
- Rouse, Carolyn Moxley (2004). Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA
London, England: University of California Press. p. 106. ISBN 0-520-23794-3. line feed character in
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