The Taste of Culture: Soul food in the African-American Community
The history of soul food and its influence on culture and health
By Tiffani DuPree
Amother yells to her children to come in the kitchen and start snapping the green beans. The smell of fresh collard greens fill the house as they start to boil. The yams are already ready and waiting to be mixed with other ingredients for the sweet potato pie. On another pot the water starts to boil for the macaroni noodles. Dinner is being prepared and on the menu is none other than soul food.
“The word soul food I think a lot of people forget is all about people migrating,” said food culturist Nicole Taylor. “Soul food too…is people trying to recreate the foods that they had when they were in the South.”
Soul food has a vast history within the African-American community, but has often been blamed for the constant health problems that African-Americans face.
Soul food too…is people trying to recreate the foods that they had when they were in the South.
— Nicole Taylor, Food Culturist
Although the term soul food has only been used since the 1960s, much of the food and techniques associated with soul food have roots stretching back to Africa. The history of what is now called soul food has a lot to do with African-American experiences and their lifestyle.
According to Britannica Academia, soul food can be traced back to the times when Africans and African-Americans were forced to be slaves in the United States. They had to work long hours outside participating in hard labor that required them to eat certain types of meals to last them throughout the workday. Many slave owners only gave leftovers or parts of the meat that they did not want to eat –like chitterlings (chitlins) and pigs’ feet - to their slaves.
Much like today, African-American women were put in charge of cooking the food for the entire household. They typically used West African cooking techniques such as frying that is currently still used to make food.
Between the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, what became known as soul food had become established as a permanent fixture in African-American culture.
When African-Americans migrated from the American south to the north and the west, they took what they had learned about food with them. Soul food emerged as a result of having to adapt to a new environment and how the social climate for African-Americans had changed.
Taylor said, unlike Southern food, soul food does not include some the same ingredients because the northern and southern climates were different. For example, certain foods like sea island peas or speckled butter beans can only be found in the South because of the warmer climate these foods need in order to grow. Some common soul food dishes that are included in both southern and soul food cuisines are collard greens, cornbread and black-eyed peas.
Click on each soul food item to see the recipe.
Sweet Potato Pie
Ingredients for 2 pies: cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla flavoring, 2 eggs, 2 cups sugar, yams, evaporated milk, baking powder, butter or margarine and pie shells.
-Boil three large yams until tender, then peel.
-Beat with mixer until smooth.
-Add two cups of sugar and two eggs.
-Add nutmeg and cinnamon (more cinnamon than nutmeg).
-Add half a teaspoon of baking powder.
-Add enough pet milk to make loose.
-Add a half stick of margarine or butter.
-Then add half a teaspoon of vanilla flavoring.
-Mix everything together.
-Cook at 375 F for 45 minutes to an hour.
Ingredients: whole turkey, seasoned salt, seasoned pepper, paprika, garlic pepper, long strips of onions, bell peppers, carrots and celery, 1 stick of butter, cheese cloth or oven bag.
-Preheat oven to 300 F.
-Clean turkey thoroughly and remove fat, giblets and neckbones.
-Stuff turkey with celery, bell peppers, carrots and onion.
-Heat up the butter and pour it over the turkey.
-Season turkey with seasoned salt, garlic pepper, seasoned pepper and paprika.
-Put turkey in the oven bag.
-Seal bag and poke holes in it with a fork.
-Bake for 3 1/2 to 4 hours or until brown.
Corn on the Cob
Ingredients: corn on the cob, seasoned salt, seasoned pepper, 1/2 stick butter
-Butter the corn and put seasoned salt and seasoned pepper on corn on the cob.
-Put corn on the cob into pot with water.
-Cover the pot.
-Cook for 1 to 2 hours.
-Corn is ready when it is tender.
Ingredients: 2 1/2 pounds dark meat turkey pieces, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 1 medium chopped onion, 2 chopped celery ribs, chicken broth, 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, 1/3 cup butter, 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, 1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning, 1/4 teaspoon rubbed sage
-Cook turkey pieces in hot oil over medium-high heat until lightly brown.
-Add onion and celery and sauté for 4 minutes.
-Gradually stir in chicken broth.
-Stir in parsley.
-Bring to a boil and cover.
-Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes.
-Pour mixture through a strainer into a large bowl.
-Melt butter in a pan then mix in flour and mix constantly until golden and smooth.
-Gradually mix on broth mixture.
-Increase heat to medium-high and bring to boil.
-Reduce heat to medium and simmer while stirring occasionally for 15 to 20 minutes or until thick.
-Stir in remaining ingredients.
(Recipe from http://www.myrecipes.com)
Ingredients: 3 1/4 cups all purpose flour, 1/4 cup butter flavored shortening, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 package of dry active yeast, 1 1/4 cups milk, 1 egg, 1/4-1/2 cup sugar
-Preheat oven too 400 F.
-In a large bowl mix 1 1/4 cup of flour and yeast together.
-In a pan over medium heat add milk, sugar and shortening.
-Stir until shortening has melted. Do not boil.
-Pour milk mixture with flour mixture.
-Add in the egg.
-Beat on low speed for 1 minute and then on high speed for 3 minutes.
-Add in salt and the rest of the flour.
-Use your hands to mix in the flour into a soft ball of dough.
-Place dough in a bowl greased with vegetable oil.
-Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
-Punch down dough with your fist.
-Shape dough into desired pieces and place on a buttered pan.
-Cover the pan with a thin towel and let sit in a warm place for at least 1-1 1/2 hours.
-Bake for 10-14 minutes or until brown.
(Recipe from divascancook.com)
Ingredients: collard greens, chicken broth, turkey or hammock, onion, green pepper, seasoned salt, seasoned pepper, garlic powder, greens seasoning and crushed red pepper
-Clean and soak the greens.
-Boil turkey or hammock in a pot for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
-Drain greens and put into pot with the meat.
-Add seasoned salt, seasoned pepper, garlic powder, greens seasoning and crushed red pepper.
-Add onions and green pepper to greens.
-Add chicken broth and then cook for 1 hour.
Macaroni and Cheese
Ingredients: evaporated milk, 2 eggs, butter or margarine, noodles, regular milk, seasoned salt, seasoned pepper, sharp cheddar cheese, medium cheese and aluminum foil
-Boil water in a pot and add noodles after the water boils.
-Cut up sharp cheddar and medium cheese into small pieces.
-Set oven to 375 F.
-Mix 2 eggs and the evaporated milk together.
-After noodles are soft, strain them.
-Add cheese and noodles together in a pan and stir.
-Add 1/4 stick of butter and stir.
-Add eggs and evaporated milk mix then stir.
-Add regular milk until loose and stir again.
-Add seasoned salt and seasoned pepper.
-Put macaroni and cheese in the oven for 30 minutes with aluminum foil over it.
-Take off the aluminum foil and put back in the oven for 15 minutes or until lightly brown.
Ingredients: 12 ounces fresh cranberries, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup fresh orange juice, 1/2 cup 100% pomegranate juice
-In a pan over medium heat add cranberries, sugar,orange juice and pomegranate juice.
-Stir until sugar is dissolved.
-Keep on heat until all cranberries have opened.
-Stir occasionally until thick and liquid has evaporated.
-Put in dish and let cool.
(Recipe from divascancook.com)
Ingredients: 2 cups of cornmeal, 1/4 cup buttermilk, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1 egg, 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
-Heat oven to 450 F.
-Coat an 8 or 9 inch ovenproof skillet with non-stick cooking spray.
-Place skillet in oven for 8 minutes or until hot.
-Mix egg, buttermilk, vegetable oil, butter and cornmeal until smooth.
-Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until brown.
(Recipe from Martha White "Self-Rising Enriched Corn Meal Mix")
-Wash off green beans and snap in half.
-Put turkey leg in water and cook on high.
-Remove turkey meat from bones, shred.
-Preheat oven to 350 F.
-Put green beans in a pot with onions, vinegar and smoked turkey.
-Pour in turkey broth and black pepper.
-Stir everything together and let bake for 40 minutes.
(Recipe from iheartrecipes.com)
Other Popular Soul Food Items
Biscuits-A shortbread sometimes served with butter, jam, gravy or jelly.
Black Eyed Peas-A member of the pea family with a small black dot resembling an eye.
Dressing-Made with crumbled cornbread and toasted crumbled bread.
Fried Chicken-Chicken that has crust on its exterior from being floured or battered and then fried.
Grits-Small grains of corn.
Peach Cobbler-Peach filling covered with either batter or dumpling and then baked.
Ribs-A cut of pork meat and bones that can then be smoked, grilled or baked.
Today, soul food has become more mainstream with many restaurants across the country catered to this type of food. Unlike many other cuisines like Chinese and Thai food, soul food does not reflect the ethnicity it comes from in its name. However, even through its growing mainstream popularity, soul food also has some negative connotations.
Some people have associated soul food with the reason why many African-Americans have poor health, when in reality; culinary historian Adrian Miller said in First We Feast that soul food was traditionally known to have more seasonal vegetables.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for 2011-2014, 12.1 percent of African-Americans were obese. This was the highest percentage among all the races that were measured. Within that category, African-American women had more than a 5 percent higher rate of obesity than African-American men.
Traditional soul food dishes generally are high in starch, sodium and cholesterol and have often been blamed for African-Americans having high rates of obesity, hypertension and diabetes. However, soul food is not the only factor that leads to African-Americans having health issues.
Lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project, said another factor for people not eating healthy can include not making enough money to afford the healthier food options.
Hover over the image to hear more from food culturist Nicole Taylor. Courtesy: Nicole Taylor
“I think one of the things that people…may not realize is that it's hard for a lot of people, especially people of color, to be a able to have access to healthy foods,” said Ornelas. “It may be frustrating for them and they may become hard on themselves, but without realizing there's a larger context to that problem.”
In Today’s Dietitian, Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of the nonprofit organization Oldways, also agreed with Ornelas that there are other factors besides specific cultural foods that can be attributed to health disparities.
“There are many factors that have led to poor outcomes-economics, changes in family structure, lack of access to healthful food, and perceptions about time needed for cooking and shopping,” said Baer-Sinnott.
Black Women for Wellness, a nonprofit organization concerned about the health and wellness of African-American women and also children, has resources and programs for the community about topics such as health, finance and education. One program the organization offers is called Kitchen Divas.
Senior Manager at Black Women for Wellness, Willie Duncan, said the statistics against specifically African-American women regarding high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic disease and other health factors led to the start of the Kitchen Divas program. Through the program, the chefs educate participants about the importance of incorporating healthier options in their diets. They also show participants fun and delicious recipes that are healthier for the body through demonstrations or interactive workshops.
“We take holiday favorites and we’ll show them how to make healthier versions. You know people love their greens, but by telling people to eat their greens…and cook them with the hammock and everything like that you’ve taken a lot of the nutritional value out of the greens,” said Duncan. “So we have a recipe that we pass out…basically where you sauté greens and make them very delicious.”
By themselves, many traditional soul food dishes are healthy. Collard greens are rich in calcium, vitamins and minerals. While sweet potatoes are a good source of fiber, potassium and vitamins. The foods’ nutritional values and the fact that most soul food is not consumed on a daily or even weekly basis also shows how soul food cannot be the sole factor in manipulating health disparities within the African-American community.
Although there are many healthy soul food recipes today and a variety of ways to cook traditional dishes, Nicole Taylor believes that African-Americans should start getting back to soul food in a way that really celebrates it and is not a watered down version.
“No matter what our socioeconomic level is we always went back to soul food or southern food because it brought us a sense of who we are and who we use to be and how far we've come,” said Taylor. “So for us to erase that history or move so far away from it we kind of like are erasing a part of us that was so vital in building this country and building our families and sustaining us."
"Honestly there could never ever be a time where soul food is erased from the vernacular of black people's mouths.”
Scroll over each post to see how some Facebook users feel about soul food.
Click to watch video on how to make macaroni and cheese. If video does not play click here.