Some people mistakenly equate “soul food” with the “Southern” foods of America. But that is not correct. Deep South Soul Food cooking is a major segment of the broader category of Southern cooking, yes. But not all Southern American cooking is “soul”. Bob Jeffries, author of the 1969 publication, Soul Food Cookbook, said it simply like this:
“While all soul food is southern food, not all southern food is ‘soul.’ Soul food cooking is an example of how really good southern Negro cooks cooked with what they had available to them.”
The amazing, simple and basic, humble and yet exquisite recipes that comprise Deep South Soul Food are the creative products of African Americans. To put it accurately and bluntly:
Deep South Soul Food has its roots embedded deeply in the American 18th and 19th century institution of slavery.
Enslaved Africans, living in squalid conditions provided them by their plantation owners, were fed with what the white people considered “scraps” and all the “undesirable” offcuts of meats. What vegetables they had, they had to grow for themselves, and grow them they did, in abundance. Black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, collard greens, mustard greens, kale, spinach, peppers and tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, corn, and okra … Deep South Soul Food, while having to rely on meager amounts and poor cuts of meats, was (and still is) rich in varieties of vegetables.
These African-Americans were inventive and ingeniously skilled when it came to cooking. Using such humble “meats” as oxtails, pigs feet and ears, cow marrow bones, pig intestines, ham hocks, chicken feet, and such, they developed remarkably tasty recipes.
Dishes like Ham Hocks with Black-Eyed Peas-
Collard Greens with Ham Hocks-
And Oxtail Soup-
If the Africans were fortunate enough to live on a plantation that had streams, rivers, or lakeshores, fish was also a favorite deep south soul food ingredient.
Delicious meals like fried catfish with gravy, rice and cornbread …
… were created and beloved. After a long day of arduous labor in the blistering southern sun, picking cotton, imagine how good it tasted!
Even after slavery was finally abolished in the United States, for the better part of a century after The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862 by then President Abraham Lincoln, living conditions for the vast majority of African Americans were abysmally poor.
The Emancipation Proclamation, by the way, was the final straw for the Southern States. They seceded from the Union, which led to the Civil War of 1864. The war was over economic matters, the principle and central issue being the institution of slavery. Without slave labor, the white southern plantation owners could not realize anywhere near the immense profitability they were accustomed to.
But back on point. Continued poor living conditions and widespread racism that stymied most attempts to achieve a better lifestyle did not stop the early African Americans from eating well. Deep South Soul Food kept on getting better, more varied, and more popular nationwide.
The term, “Soul Food”, wasn’t actually coined and popularized until about a half century ago. Up until then, it was just regarded (by the white American community) as those delicious foods cooked by “colored people”. But by the 1960s, this brand of cooking had become so endeared by such a large number of Americans from a very wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, it came into being as an established, recognized and favored American foods category.
Keep in mind, there have always been poor white people in the south, also. And they also came up with very tasty ways to prepare meals using ingredients that were “undesirable” meats and the many vegetables, grains, and fruits that they raised themselves. Poor southern white cooking contributed greatly – as did African-American cooking – to the generic and widely varied ethnic food known worldwide now as “Southern American”.
And trust me, Deep South Soul Food still tastes just as wonderful today as it did to those poor people back then. Gourmet chefs nationwide, and even sometimes found in other countries, nowadays will specialize in this food genre. And any restaurant that boasts of serving Deep South Soul Food had better get it right. Because soul food lovers know well cooked soul food from that which is not.
So there you have it, a brief history of this rich American heritage. For a list of recipes you can go to our All-American/Southern Soul Food page.
Chow, y’all, happy Soul Food preparing and eating, and hey – please leave a comment. I love to engage with my readers. Ask a question, offer a suggestion, whatever … it’s all good.
My Best Always, Your Friend,
Marvin D Wilson (AKA “The Old Silly”)
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