Soul Food: A Brief History Of Black Cuisine And Its Significance

Soul Food: A Brief History Of Black Cuisine And Its Significance

PSA: Don't read this on an empty stomach.
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Food is intrinsic to our lives, and not just in the fundamental sense; it provides us much more than simple sustenance. Food is a comfort, it is security, and it is pleasure. Food is symbolic of social status, religious significance, and traditions. Across the globe, and throughout time, it has been one of the cornerstones of culture. What we choose to eat, how we prepare it, serve it, and even how we eat our foods are all elements greatly affected by our own distinct cultural legacies.

For Black folk in the U.S., food is integral to our culture. A few cultural dishes include: candied yams, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, potato salad, cornbread, hot-water cornbread, grits, collard and mustard greens, pound cake, head cheese, hushpuppies, banana pudding, ham hocks, sweet potatoes, hog maw, okra, oxtails, pigs’ feets, peach cobbler, neck bones, and of course, red drink. All these dishes fall under the umbrella of — soul food.

I can’t begin to remember all the memories that soul food conjures up. Many of them are (almost) universal when growing up Black in the U.S.: sitting at your grandma’s feet, helping her pick greens; or, running out the house to breath when it was time to cook the chit’lins; sneaking a piece of something, anything, because you’ve been waiting for at least four hours to chow down, eating at the kids table with your cousins, and asking for another plate because whoever made that mac & cheese put their foot in it. And let’s not forget the itis.

Though our relationship with food dates further than when our ancestors were seized and snatched away to this stolen land, U.S. slavery forced us to redefine that relationship. From the early years of slavery until the passing of the 13th amendment, enslaved peoples of African descent only received a small number of rations to live off of for a week—five pounds of a starch (rice, sweet potatoes, or cornmeal); a few pounds of dried, salted, or smoked meat (whatever was the cheapest), and a jug of molasses. Anything else they ate had to be acquired by other means, such as hunting, gardening, foraging, fishing, and/or raising livestock. The enslaved carried with them farming knowledge passed down from West Africa, as well as newer knowledge shared with them by their slavers, poor white neighbors, and, most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the area.

The culture of Southern indigenous populations (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choclaw, Creek, and Seminole) is the basis of many southern cuisines, including soul food.

“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

From their cultures, came corn — one of the principal staples of the Southern diet — either ground into meal or used to make hominy in a Native American process called nixtamalization. Corn was implemented into numerous dishes, like grits and cornbread. It was even used to make liquors such as whiskey and moonshine. Additionally, the entirety of an animal is used for cooking, aside from its meat. This is still a tradition carried on today, in dishes like chitterlings (more commonly referred to as chit’lins), fried small intestines of a hog. Many learned the cooking methods of the Southern Native Americans, though styles of preparation did vary, especially concerning the enslaved, as they combined this with their West African heritage.

A normal day for the (field) slave was a breakfast mixture of buttermilk and crumbled cornbread. It was then poured into a trough, similar to those that livestock eat from. Later in the day, they dined on a “dinner” of boiled vegetables seasoned with meat and red pepper for flavor. The end of the day brought the late-evening supper — leftovers from dinner and cold cornbread. It was only on the weekends, when the work slowed, that the enslaved were given access to prestigious ingredients and dishes involving the use of processed white flour and refined white sugar.

There was no freedom to choose what we ate; our food was only what we were given or allowed to eat. Dining on simpler, poverty food during the week and having the prestige food during the weekend, was the foundation of what we think of soul food today. During Reconstruction, slaveowners, under the guise of a different name (sharecropping), continued the act of slavery. Its rise, along with the power of the Black Church, had a great effect on the evolution of soul food.

The prestige food, the best of the best, was always showcased at holidays, Emancipation celebrations, and Black church get-togethers. The get-togethers at church were the most common and indispensable to the Black community. There they served foods like fried chicken, fried fish, red drinks, and watermelon. Sharecropping forced the continuation of the slavery pattern of eating poverty food during the week and special occasion food on the weekends with church social gatherings.

“Rural Blacks consumed a diet similar to what they had during slavery—heavy on seasonal vegetables, very little meat, and variations of cornbread and water with increasing amounts of processed food.”
— Adrian, “The Soul Food Scholar” Miller

Following reconstruction, many Blacks could no longer bear the economic oppression and racism characteristic of the interior Deep South, that landlocked area of mainly Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. The best solution was to leave, so, over a span of seven decades, six million Black folks, including my maternal and paternal families, did just that. This was known as the Great Migration.

Upon arrival to our new homes, which unfortunately were just as oppressive and racist, we tried to reconstruct and build community. Food was a crucial factor to accomplishing both. In soul food, we were able to find familiarity in unfamiliar northern cities.

Migrants could afford to eat prestige food throughout the week, they no longer had to save it for special occasions or the weekends. After World War II, the economic situation of Black folks began to improve. Social mobility, though arduous and rare, was a possibility, and for a lucky few, it was a reality. It was during this time that a new tradition emerged—Sunday dinner with extended family, with a kitchen full of prestige foods.

Though in modern times, we refer to Black cuisine as soul food, it wasn’t until 1963 that the term was popularized. Alex Haley was the one to coin the term with his record of Malcolm X’s life story. Malcom X saw soul food as a dual representation of southernerness and commensality. However, upon entering the mainstream, the meaning of soul food splintered almost immediately.

To many, it was simply a new label for the very best home cooking passed down through generations.

Black Power activists saw soul food as a powerful tool to unify Black people across various classes, geographical locations, and life experiences. To them, soul food was distinctly Black, and not to be likened with “southern food”, which was distinctly white.

Others, interpreting the same cultural source material, denounced mainstream soul food as “the master’s chicken-and-pork laden leftovers.” True soul food was the long-established fish and vegetables diet of our West African ancestors, featuring items like okra, yams, sorghum, millet, and black-eyed peas.

Today, we have colloquialized the term “soul” to mean “Black” and the term “southern” to mean “white.” Generally, southern food is blander, while soul food is notorious for its bursts of flavors and expert use of seasonings. However, both cuisines have had major contributions from Black people.

Now, in 2017, soul food, has been reinvented many times over, with new styles of preparation popping up every day, including vegetarian versions and even vegan! Though it may mean different things to different people, soul food still remains at the heart of the Black community.

Cover Image Credit: Soul Food Deli / Wikimedia Commons

Popular Right Now

How To Play 'New Girl's' True American Drinking Game

"It's 75% drinking, 20% Candy Land, and the floor is molten lava."
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I think it's fair to say that anyone who watches "New Girl" knows about True American. This crazy, nonsense drinking game which pops up every so often throughout the seasons and first introduced in season one, episode 20.

The game, as described by "New Girl" character and fan-favorite Schmidt, is 75% drinking game and 20% Candy Land with a floor of molten lava.

The point of the game is for players to navigate through the Candy Land-like spaces to the "castle," which is a table in the center of the room that holds beer "pawns" and the "king" bottle. The first person to reach and sip from the bottle wins.

SEE ALSO: 15 Things "New Girl" Fans Know to Be True

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Here's how to play:

Step #1: Prepare the "castle"

First, set up your "castle." The castle is made up of beer "pawns" and the "king," a bottle filled with the alcohol of your choice.

The bottle should be in the middle of the table, surrounded by four lines of beer pawns. There is no exact number of beers necessary for each line of beer pawns. Choose any amount of beers that seems appropriate for the amount of players.

Step #2: Set up spaces

Set up spaces using pillows, chairs or any other objects players will be able to stand on. Place an equal amount of spaces around the table. You'll want about 5-8 spaces on each side, depending on the size of the room you're playing in.

Only four of these spaces should reach the castle, lining up with the parade of beer "pawns" and allowing players to take a beer pawn from the castle. For example, in the photo above, each of the chairs touch a corner of the table at the end of the line of beer pawns. Therefore, these are two of the four special spaces that allow players to take a beer. Unlike the pillows pictured, which are just regular spaces that the players can use to move around.

Step #3: Pick teams

Teams are optional. To pick teams, all of the players will place a certain number (1 to 5) of fingers against their forehead on the count of three.

Any players who hold up the same number are a team. Unmatched players can team up as needed or simply pair up with the person standing closest to them.

Step #4: Begin

Begin with a shotgun "tip-off" to determine which player goes first.

The winner of this shotgunning contest will yell, "One, two, three...JFK!" to announce the official beginning of the game. All players will enthusiastically respond, "FDR!" then quickly grab a beer pawn from the castle and run to any space they wish to start at, excluding for the four special spaces that reach the castle.

Step #5: Make moves

The winner of the shotgunning contest has earned the first turn. From then on, the order of turns will move in a clockwise rotation. During each turn, the player will move one space toward the castle and choose to play one of the following mini-games.

Mini-game No. 1: The player whose turn it is will count to three then all players will place a certain number (1-5) of fingers on their forehead. Any player who selects a number no one else selected can move ONE space.

Mini-game No. 2: The player whose turn it is will recite the beginning of a famous American quote. The first player to complete the quote can move TWO spaces.

Mini-game No. 3: The player whose turn it is will name two famous American people, places, or things. The first player to identify what the two have in common can move THREE spaces.

For example, say it's your turn. You will move one space then choose one of the three mini-games. You and all of the players will participate in that game, and the winner will move accordingly. After this, your turn is over and it's the next player's turn (in the original clockwise rotation).

Step #6: "Play on, playa."


Continue playing by these rules until one lucky winner reaches the bottle and sips from its royal glass.

The bottle cannot be opened until every last pawn is removed from the castle. Any players who fail to keep at least one beer in hand, who accidentally end up with more than three beers in hand, or who touch the lava are immediately disqualified. Disqualified players can rejoin the game by shotgunning a beer.

Congratulations!

You are now able to impress all of your "New Girl"-loving friends with knowledge of the workings of the epic True American drinking game. Know your limits, drink responsibly, and enjoy!

Cover Image Credit: i.amz.mshcdn.com

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'Oh, You're A Vegan?'

When I tell people I'm vegan, people give me that exasperated look.

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When I first decided to try and become vegan, I got a lot of mixed results. Some people were extremely for it, while other people looked at me like I had gone off the deep end. After a while and even now, I like to play a game of guessing what reaction I will get from people when I tell them about my dietary habits. Unlike a lot of other people who decided to go vegan for the ethical reasons, I kind of fell into it based on me realizing that half the stuff I was putting into my body was making me want to curl up in a ball and only come out for dollars on Wednesday nights at Taylor's. Through the last year and a half, I have learned a lot, from tips and tricks to making food taste good, to some added benefits of being on a plant free lifestyle. So for all the haters, vegan enthusiasts and people looking into making the leap, enjoy!

1. Trust me, its not all just vegetables.....there's other stuff too.

One of the biggest mistakes or misconceptions about being vegan is that all we eat are plants or vegetables. I will be the first to assure you that that piece of information is not true. There are tons of things we can eat if you are creative. Learning what you like and what you can eat will all come with practice. You might have to experiment a little before you find your groove, but it will happen. I would also put money on the fact that you might find yourself having that moment halfway through a bowl of Cornbread Cafes vegan Mac and cheese. Just saying.

2. No allergies in Eugene, too good to be true!

One of the best things that I noticed about becoming vegan didn't become obvious until a few months later. For anyone who has lived in Eugene, OR through the springtime, you know what I am referring too. Allergies are monstrously bad here as we are in the middle of a basin and many people have to shut in themselves to not like, die. I was always one of those people, but last spring and this one so far as well I have noticed a crazy change. While I still get itchy eyes and sneeze occasionally, I no longer want to live in my bed where the pollen can't reach me! The vegan diet has been proven to reduce the levels of allergy issues that people have faced so basically if you're driving people crazy with your sneezing, maybe cut out the glass of milk in the morning.

3. Happy skin, happy day! 

Another benefit to being vegan is clear skin. A lot of people who are vegan tend to have clear skin that is acne free. That is not always the case, but there is 1 key reason why shiny skin comes from veganism. Dairy and meat products are not the skins best friend according to dermatologists. Both are chock full of hormones that aren't good for our bodies. Dermatologist William Danby even calls cow's milk "nature's perfect food for the creation of acne." So you might want to kiss that ice cream goodbye.

4.  There are lots of Vegan options, you just have to look!

Like I said above, there is a gross misconception that the only things Vegans eat are vegetables. There are so many different things that are incredibly good and don't have any animal products in them. Also, vegan restaurants are popping up all over the place now so you will able to eat out in peace and rest easy knowing your environmental footprint will be smaller. Some of my personal Eugene favorites are Cornbread Cafe, Morning Glory, the Veg and surprisingly Tacovore. Their tofu tacos are to die for! If you're more of a homebody though there are a lot of different well-known brands such as Ben and Jerrys and Carls Junior that are coming out with vegan alternatives!

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