Published on July 5, 2016
Soul food is a variety of cuisine that originated in African-American culture. It is closely related to the cuisine of the Southern United States. The term may have originated in the mid-1960s, when soul was a common word used to describe African-American culture (for example, soul music).
The term soul food became popular in the 1960s, after Alex Haley recorded Malcolm X’s life story in 1963. To Malcolm X, soul food represents both southernness and commensality. Those who had participated in the Great Migration found within soul food a reminder of the home and family they had left behind after moving to the unfamiliar northern cities. Soul food restaurants were black-owned businesses that served as neighborhood meeting places where people socialized and ate together. In addition, today’s African American and soul foodways can be traced back to influences from Moorish and Arawak communities. Ingredients such as cloves, cumin, mint, parsley, and turmeric were used in the Moorish diet. The Arawak way of barbecuing pork developed after the Spanish introduced domestic pigs to the Caribbean region.
The origins of soul food, however, are much older and can be traced back to Africa. Foods such as okra, rice, and sorghum (also known as “guinea corn”) — all common elements of West African cuisine — were introduced to the Americas as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They became dietary staples among enslaved Africans. They also comprise an important part of the cuisine of the American south in general. Foods such as corn and cassava from the Americas, turnips from Morocco, and cabbage from Portugal would play an important part in the history of African-American cooking.
When the Europeans began their African slave trade in the early 15th century, the diet of newly enslaved Africans changed on the long journeys away from their homelands. It was during this time that some of the indigenous crops of Africa began to spread to the Americas. Vegetables, fruits, spices, and herbs were foreign to the typical pre-colonial European diet. Colonialism resulted in the addition of these absent produce items in European Western cuisine, which heavily relied on grains.
Slave owners fed their captive workers as cheaply as possible, often with leftover/waste foods from the plantation, forcing slaves to make do with the ingredients at hand. In slave households, “vegetables” consisted of the tops of beets, dandelions, and turnips. Soon, African-American slaves were cooking with new types of “greens”: collards, cress[disambiguation needed], kale, mustard, and pokeweed. They also developed recipes which used cornmeal, lard, and offal; discarded cuts of meat such as ham hocks, oxtail, pig’s ears, pigs’ feet, pork jowls, skin, and tripe. Cooks added garlic, onions, and thyme as flavor enhancers. Slave owners provided their slaves with the poor parts of the pig such as the small intestines: chitterlings or offal. Sheep intestines had been a common dish in Africa for thousands of years before the Atlantic slave trade; since African-Americans did not have access to sheep intestines, chitterlings came to fill that culinary void. Some African-American slaves supplemented their meager diets by gardening small plots given to them for growing their own vegetables; many engaged in subsistence fishing and hunting, which yielded wild game for the table. Foods such as opossum, rabbit, raccoon, squirrel, and turtle were, until the 1950s, very common fare among the then still predominantly rural and Southern African-American population.