The Story of Soul Food
By Erica Lee, Senior Director of Human Resources, Entrepreneurial Council, FLIK Hospitality Group
For our last part of this series, we are going back to historical memory to talk about how the foods popularized by America’s Black communities evolved from their origins to the foods we eat and love today. We’re also talking about how we can take foods that originated in communities of enslaved people – who were provided reduced-nutrient rations or who used provisioned, gardened, or foraged wild plants to provide for their own subsistence – and prepare them more healthfully in the 21st century.
We wanted to address the fact that racist systems contribute to poor health effects in communities of color, like high blood pressure and hypertension, while also celebrating memory-rich foods that taste good. As Chef Joe Randall says in this podcast, all things in moderation.
What we now know as soul food began as Southern food but evolved as African Americans migrated away from the South and as the civil rights movement took shape. Of course, Southern cooking was never a single cuisine to begin with. Southern cooking started as home cooking, because cooking was a natural rhythm of daily life in the South, and each region had its own flavors, which were based on the philosophy of “what grows together, goes together.” The foods that nurtured us reflected both the commonality and the diversity of Southern cooking. These foods traveled with Black Southerners during the Great Migration of the early 1900s to the North and West, at which time they began to undergo a transition. “Foods that traveled well — such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, normally reserved for holidays and large gatherings — began to eclipse daily meals based in vegetables and grains,” wrote celebrity chef Carla Hall in her 2018 cookbook, “Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration.” The phrase “soul food” was coined by civil rights activist and poet Amiri Baraka in 1962, but Chef Hall argues soul food has always been the true food of African Americans.
“You may be wondering, What’s the difference between Southern food and soul food? Easy answer: Black cooks. And I’m one of them,” Hall writes.
My own mother was from Macon, Georgia, and migrated north to Philadelphia, where I was raised. I used to ask her how she got to be such a good cook – a Black cook – and she would say, because I like to eat! It was important to her that I know about Southern cooking and where some of our family dishes originated, as well as how those influences were woven into American culture. That recognition and respect is a legacy I’ve passed on to my own children, such that now, all the grandchildren laugh whenever one of us eats something familiar and exclaims, “Oh, I know what this is – it’s a little of this and a little of that.”
Interested in reading more about FLIK's celebration of Black History Month? Check out related posts here:
- A Path Forward
- FLIK x Black History Month: On Rice & Roots
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Hercules Posey
- How Black Chefs Shaped American Cuisine
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Leah Chase
- The Culture of Food as Medicine
- Black History Month Spotlight: Chef Patrick Clark
- Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration
- What Defines Authentic Soul Food?, By Andrea Lynn for The Spruce Eats
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