Deep South Soul Food – A Heritage

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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.

Deep South SlavesEnslaved 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 CalhounCookingClass“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-

Deep South Soul Food Ham Hocks and Black Eyed Peas

Ham Hocks and Black Eyed Peas

Collard Greens with Ham Hocks-

Collard Greens (Photo attributed to Mateus Hidalgo)

Collard Greens (Photo attributed to Mateus Hidalgo)


And Oxtail Soup-

Oxtail Soup (Photo attributed to: Nelayan Indonesian Restaurant)

Oxtail Soup (Photo attributed to: Nelayan Indonesian Restaurant)

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 …

(Photo attributed to: Chensiyuan)

(Photo attributed to: Chensiyuan)

… 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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26 thoughts on “Deep South Soul Food – A Heritage

  1. Oh wow – such an informative post about how “soul food” came to be! As a Korean immigrant, hearing about this ethnic food was new to me, but I have tried some and it is soooo yummy! Thanks so much for giving me a quick history lesson behind this.

  2. Hi,

    Since I don’t actually live in the US, i’d never heard of soul food before, so naturally your article intrigued me. It’s a shame that such a wonderful genre of cooking developed as a result of such unfortunate and oppressive circumstances.
    However, the dishes you have mentioned look really good, and luckily, I love trying new foods from all sorts of backgrounds. So I may become the newest southern, soul food enthusiast. Thanks for the history lesson too. I learnt a lot. 🙂


    • Sarraa, you are welcome, and thanks for the comments. I do hope you will try some soul food, it is truly wonderful!

  3. Hi Marvin,

    Great article about “Soul Food” and the history behind them. I find your site informative as well as interesting. You just made history lesson less boring. =)

    I was hoping though if you can also add Moroccan dishes in your cuisine’s lists?

    Keep it up and will be looking forward to see more from your site.


  4. Great article and very interesting insight into the history behind these wonderful dishes. Learning to make do with what you have brings out some of the best creativity in people. How many of these folks back then would have dreamed that what they conjured up would someday be considered gourmet? This is a great read, thanks for publishing it.

    • Thanks Larry. I can only imagine they couldn’t have imagined their food being considered “gourmet” in their WILDEST imagination, either.

  5. Hi Marvin,

    What a great post – soul food is very popular in London and there are many places where it can be found (in authentic restaurants, cafes and street markets) such as Camden.

    I have tried some soul food and always found it to be very tasty. Although I knew it came from ‘Down South’, in all honestly I never knew that it originated from the slave trade. Very informative and has certainly opened my eyes. Very grateful that these delicious and innovative recipes are still being kept alive today 🙂

    • Hi Holly. How cool you can enjoy Deep South Soul Food in London! I had no idea, lol. But I am glad the article filled you in on the origins of this wonderful segment of American cuisine. 🙂

  6. Awesome article, just looking at the pics got me hungry again especially that pic with the fried catfish & gravy lol. What a coincidence I actually just had some soul food today haha

    I like how you integrated historical facts & information to present soul food instead of just explaining what type of foods they are. You went to the roots of how it began & I find that very informative. Keep it up & I look forward to seeing more on your website!

    • Thanks, Yves. Yes, I thought adding some history would make the article more entertaining. And I am a big fan of soul food too! Please do come back often, new recipes and information is being added daily, ok?

  7. I’m glad you included “poor whites” in the category of “Southern American” foods. My ancestors where poor “white trash” sharecroppers – but some of great-great-Grandma’s awesome recipes are still cooked and eaten with joy in my family today.

  8. Soul food is one of my TOTAL FAVES! Good article, Old Silly, I didn’t know the history of soul food, but now, being informed (thanks again!) I like it even more, lol.

  9. This is the first time I have come across an in depth look at soul food and I’m glad to say that I took a lot from the article!
    I had heard of the term before and I knew it was kinda south based but I was unsure of the content. Great site you have here – learning a lot about foods I ha no real idea about beforehand 🙂

    • Chris, thanks so much for the visit and comment. I also learned quite a bit about what “soul food” really is and how it came to be, when doing my research for this post.

  10. Hi Marvin,

    This is wonderful, just wonderful. This is giving history lesson — by using food!

    And in your article, you have highlighted once again that necessity is the mother of invention. There is one important part that I would like to emphasize, however. The abundance of greens, veggies in the dishes, I wouldn’t say that that is the food confined to the poor. Perhaps the old school idea of poverty mentality when it comes to food is wrong: eating less of meat and more of everything else.

    Why do I say it’s wrong? Because when you are older, that is what you are told to do: eat less of meat and more of greens. Or is it just a balance that has to be fulfilled?

    I’m not sure if I have tried any Deep South Soul food, but from how you tell it, I am sure it’s got to be good.

    Will look for some recipes to try. Thank you!

    • Oh yes, I DO agree – eating lots of veggies and greens is very healthy, and certainly not just “poor folks” food. Americans in general, I think, place too much emphasis on having to have meat in their meals. The inventiveness of African Americans in soul food is in the way they prepared their dishes – using humble animal parts and then combining with wonderful veggies and spicing the meals up. Very yummy?

      Thanks for the visit and comment, and sure do please try some of the recipes!

  11. It is remarkable, really, how an entire genre of ethnic foods that taste SO good, came from such trying and poor conditions!

  12. Interesting post. I do love soul food! But I had always thought of soul food being the same thing as Southern American food. It makes sense, though, now that you explain it logically.

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