The Taste of Culture: Soul food in the African-American Community

The history of soul food and its influence on culture and health

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.

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.”

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