9 Things You Need to Know About Soul Food
June is National Soul Food Month. Even though school is out for the summer, I think this is an opportune time to drop some knowledge on a largely misunderstood and maligned cuisine. Here are nine things that you need to know about soul food.
1. What is soul food?
Although the term "soul food" has become shorthand for all African American cooking, it's really only one aspect of it. Soul food is the cuisine of the landlocked areas of the Deep South that millions of African Americans left behind when they moved North, Midwest, and West during "The Great Migration" (1910s to the 1970s). Soul food is an immigrant cuisine that fuses together the culinary traditions of West Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. Though they share an African heritage, the Creole cuisine of Louisiana and the lowcountry cuisine of the Georgia and South Carolina coastline are something different.
2. Where did the term "soul food" come from?
Conventional wisdom holds that "soul food" was coined in the 1960s during a time of strong black cultural identity and expression. However, the term had been floating around in African American culture since the 1950s. "Soul" was first associated with the gospel sound that was becoming more pronounced in jazz music. Soul proved so popular an adjective that it was soon applied to almost every aspect of black culture. First, it was "soul music," then "soul brother," "soul sister," and ultimately "soul food."
3. What is a typical soul food meal?
A typical soul food meal would feature:
- Sides: black-eyed peas, candied yams (dark-fleshed sweet potatoes), macaroni and cheese, and stewed greens (cabbage, collard greens, kale, mustard, or turnip);
- Entree: chicken (fried or smothered), fried fish, or pork (smothered chop or "chitlins," which are pig intestines);
- Cornbread (a muffin, slice, square);
- Beverage: a red-colored drink (simply called "red drink");
- Dessert: banana pudding, peach cobbler, pound cake, or sweet potato pie.
"If you like greens, you will love this recipe. The bacon and onions give them a wonderful flavor. Add more red pepper for a little more spice." —Ken Adams, recipe submitter.
"This recipe is originally from Alabama, and has been passed down for generations." —Cindy Garrick, recipe submitter.
"This recipe was shared with me by a special friend in Atlanta, Ga. It has long been a favorite, and everyone who tastes it says it is the best they have ever had." —Cougaar, recipe submitter
4. What's the difference between soul food and Southern food?
There's a lot of understandable confusion on this one because the two cuisines overlap ingredients and cooking techniques. The difference between the two cuisines mainly comes down to performance. Soul food flavors tend to be more intense. They're likely to be fattier, saltier, spicier, and sweeter than their Southern food analogues. Before the current "nose-to-tail" trend, soul food was distinctive for its use of variety meats like ham hocks, ox tails, and turkey necks.
5. Are there different types of soul food?
Traditional soul food has birthed three sub-cuisines. The first is "Down Home Healthy" which lightens things up by using margarine or vegetable oils instead of lard, smoked turkey instead of pork, and sugar substitutes. The second, and completely opposite, sub-cuisine is "Upscale Soul." It uses a lot of extravagant ingredients like duck fat, heirloom vegetables, and heritage meat. The third, and perhaps the most surprising, is vegan soul food. Yes, that's right, vegan. One would think that "vegan soul food" is an oxymoron, but that's not necessarily so. Enslaved African Americans ate a mostly vegetarian diet using small pieces of dried, salted, or smoked meat for seasoning. Vegan is not a departure from traditional soul food — it's really a culinary homecoming.
Celebrate Soul Food Month! Try your hand at some of our soul food recipes.
6. Why are people so critical of soul food?
People are "hating on" soul food primarily for two reasons. Some say that soul food needs a warning label, based on the persistent belief that you will die if you eat this food on a regular basis. This image is fueled by visions of plates overflowing with greasily fried and syrupy-sweet food. But think about what nutritionists encourage us to eat more of: dark, leafy greens; fish; legumes; and sweet potatoes. These are all the building blocks of soul food. It's really a matter of how they're prepared: Meats can be baked instead of fried, and vegetables can be made without meat.
The second critique, more prevalent within the African American community, is that soul food shouldn't be celebrated because it's "slave food" or "poverty food." This too is a half-baked notion. Much of what we call soul food was once celebration food or prestige food. The royal cooks for King Richard II and Queen Elizabeth I made macaroni and cheese. Henry VII gorged on sweet potato pie, and the English and French gentry grubbed on chitterlings ("chitlins"). In the antebellum South, fried chicken was something that was eaten every once and awhile — far from being the ubiquitous convenience food that it is today.
7. Why should I eat at a soul food restaurant?
We're at a generational moment where most of the entrepreneurs who opened up soul food restaurants in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s are retiring or dying. Unfortunately, few of their kids or their employees are willing to carry on their culinary legacy. Some additional complicating factors are: the overall challenge of running a restaurant; the negative health perception of this cuisine, and the continued expectation that soul food should be inexpensive and served in generous portions. Add these all up, and it means that many soul food restaurants are closing.
Soul food restaurants need your patronage more than ever. But the most compelling reason why you should run, not walk, to your nearest soul food restaurant is this: The food is spectacularly good.
8. What cities have the best soul food scene?
Inside the South, Atlanta has the best overall soul food scene, with a nice mix of traditional, Down Home Healthy, upscale, and vegan soul food restaurants. Outside of the South, the top three soul food scenes (in ranked order) are Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New York City.
9. How can I get started making soul food at home?
Making soul food may seem intimidating, but the techniques for most dishes are pretty straightforward. To help you get started, I've included my own recipe for a soul food classic: black-eyed peas. I also recommend the following cookbooks, which can help you become a soul brother or a soul sister . . . at least in the kitchen:
- Soul Food: Classic Cuisine from the deep South by Sheila Ferguson
- The Soul of Southern Cooking by Kathy Starr
- Sweets: Soul Food Desserts & Memories by Patty Pinner
- The Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy and Creative African American Cuisine by Bryant Terry
- The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking by Jessica B. Harris
It's time for us to cast aside any negativity or nervousness we may have about eating this truly American cuisine. Soul food doesn't need a warning label . . . it needs more love!
This is one of the first recipes that I got from my late mother, Johnetta Miller. Though this is a recipe for black-eyed peas, this is my standard approach for making any vegetable in "soul food style." If you want to give this recipe a "Hoppin' John" feel, make some rice separately, mix together, and eat.
Makes 8 servings
- 1 pound of dried black-eyed or other field peas
- 1 smoked ham hock or smoked turkey wing (about 8 ounces)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
- Salt, to taste
- Rinse the peas and pick through them to discard any small stones or broken peas. Pour the peas into a large saucepan and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Bring them to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. (Alternatively, place the peas in a large bowl, cover with cold water, and let stand at room temperature overnight.)
- Meanwhile, make a stock by placing the ham hock or turkey wing in another large saucepan. Cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the stock is flavorful, about 1 hour. Discard the hock or wing.
- Drain the peas and add them to the stock. Make sure the peas are submerged. Stir in the onion and pepper flakes.
- Simmer until the peas are nearly tender, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and continue simmering until the peas are tender and well-seasoned, about 10 minutes more.
- Serve the peas warm.
- If desired, you may pull meat off the ham hocks or turkey parts and add it to the dish before serving.
Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning author. A culinary historian and a certified barbecue judge, Adrian has lectured around the country on such topics as Black Chefs in the White House, chicken and waffles, hot sauce, kosher soul food, red drinks, soda pop, and soul food.
Adrian’s book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship. His second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas was nominated for a 2018 NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding Literary Work–Non-Fiction." Adrian recently received the "2018 Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame" Award for his work on African American foodways. Adrian is currently working on Black Smoke, a history of African American barbecue culture.
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