Soul Food. What is Soul Food?
When I first learned that we were developing a program for Black History Month about the historical and cultural connections to what is commonly classified as soul food, and how it has (or hasn’t) evolved over time, I had some reservations about the topic. Well, not so much the topic, but the term that was associated with it.
For me the typical foods associated with African American cuisine is not soul food, but rather country food. What makes the same food that I grew up eating–fried catfish and Maryland fried chicken, black-eyed pea and ham soup, collards cooked in pork fat (or ‘fat back’), corn pudding, candied yams and sweet potato casserole–soul food? I was perplexed. What’s the difference?
As the programming for Soul Food Justice developed, I did a little research and continued to learn more about this topic of apparent interest. According to Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, there really isn’t much of a difference. In an interview with UNC Press, Miller states that, “inside the South, the distinctions between [southern cooking and soul food] are so subtle that it almost seems meaningless.” This answer really didn’t satisfy my curiosity.
On February 21, despite the snowstorm that blasted the D.C. region, four local food experts came together at Joe’s Movement Emporium for an evening that fed both the bodies and the minds of all of us curious souls. Arcadia’s culinary educator, JuJu Harris, moderated the panel which included historian, food scholar and author, Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson; founder of NativSol Kitchen, Tambra Raye Stevenson; and Christopher Bradshaw, founder and director of Dreaming Out Loud.
The evening began with a cooking demonstration led by JuJu. She showed the audience a quick and easy way to make a super delicious kale salad with a lemon vinaigrette dressing using a few simple ingredients. It was so good I haven’t been able to stop making and eating this salad at home and sharing it with my family of reluctant vegetable eaters.
Then, once our taste buds were awakened, the audience enjoyed a feast of healthy dishes representing a reinvented interpretation of soul food. On the menu was Smoked Salmon (donated by Mid-Atlantic Seafood), collard greens (donated by Glut Food Coop) with smoked turkey, chicken chili, millet salad, and Nation of Islam bean pies. These dishes were prepared by Accokeek Foundation staff from recipes provided by the panelists as a representation of what soul food is to them today. A tasty feast indeed!
With full bellies, the evening proceeded as we were engaged in a lively discussion about the historic and cultural connections to food, returning to heritage based diets, family, the socioeconomic issues around food access, and the importance of community education.
In the end, I learned that the only difference between soul food and southern (or country) cooking, was a matter of opinion. It’s about who you are as an individual. Like most of the panelists, I certainly don’t still eat like I did growing up. Like Psyche explains, “it will kill” me. But occasionally, when I’m not feeling well or it is cold outside (like today!), I crave food that is comforting; that reminds me of home. Soul Food, as JuJu so eloquently stated, is the food of love. When my grandmother prepared our meals she did so with love. And that is good for the soul.
I left with a deeper understanding of how my own food connections help to define soul food. My craving for knowledge was sated, and my taste buds were teased. I want more!
Tell me: How do you define Soul Food?