Ingredients create recipes, recipes become delicious entrées, which in turn nourish body and soul. Food is more than sustenance; it’s an integral part of who you are, your interactions, and your sub-culture. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.”
North America is an amazing example of diversity, from the farthest reaches of Canada, across the vast United States, to the southernmost tip of Mexico. Indigenous people from across the continent, immigrants from around the world, and African slaves have all made their imprint on the way we eat.
Throughout North America’s immigrant history, settlers from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America flooded the continent and brought their cultures with them. Look at the neighborhoods of any large city, and you’ll find French, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, English, Irish, Peruvian, and Ethiopian food (the list is endless) from all over. Add to that “fusion” restaurants, which blend together two or more countries’ ingredients and cooking styles.
The South in the United States is an example of how various cultures have come together and created some of the best food in the world. The geographic region is known for their delicious cuisine using regional ingredients like game, corn, and other fresh vegetables, fresh and saltwater fish, and popping corn, but even state by state they have their own culinary sub-cultures. Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies & Simple Pleasures by Fred Opie is a great read if you want dig into how food plays a role in regional sub-cultures. Food is the greatest representative of a geographic area.
In the South, eating a meal isn’t just for nurturing the body, it’s a way of life. John Egerton, founder of Southern Foodways Alliance, sums it up quite nicely: “Within the South itself, no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctly characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends.”
How Soul Food Got from There to Here
To understand soul food, you need to know a little about the South’s culinary history; trials and tribulations have done more than create strong people; they’ve created communities that show their love through cooking. Native Americans lived off their land. They hunted for game, fished, and utilized food that grew naturally. Corn played a big role in their culinary repertoire. Squash, beans, nuts, rice, blueberries, plums, blackberries, pumpkins, and cherries were other dietary staples.
White and sweet potatoes, lima beans, peppers, and chocolate would also become part of the food sources in the South, thanks to explorers from Latin America. With such a large collection of grains, game, fruits, and vegetables, you may be wondering what else was needed. Truthfully, nothing. When European immigrants came to the South, they yearned for items from their homelands which simply did not grow here. In fact, many early European settlers starved until they learned to eat corn and other foods that were foreign to them.
French women, especially, detested the gritty cornmeal, preferring the white wheat that grew in their country, but, in time, began to enjoy food items such as ashcakes, hoecakes, and johnnycakes – all made from corn. Spanish explorers who brought pigs with them added a new element to local ingredients. Those that ran away or were stolen are the ancestors of well-known wild pigs.
European settlers, focused on quick wealth, used African slaves for agricultural development. With the Africans came collard greens, okra, peas, yams, sesame, and watermelon – foods indigenous to Africa. The surplus of crops from their farming techniques became the foundation for the South’s hospitality. Africans also brought with them the technique of frying. They made use of the ingredients that were already available, their own seeds that turned into fortuitous crops, and their culinary techniques to alter their recipes and create the basis for Southern comfort food. Country ham, pork ribs, and cornbread continue to be staples of Southern soul food.
Africans and the Birth of Soul Food
When African slaves were brought to the United States, they contributed most dramatically to America’s food culture, first by being the driving force behind the nation’s food supply through forced labor, and then through the proliferation of their cooking styles. They created a culinary sub-culture of Southern soul food that has since swept the nation.
African traditions, flavors and methods by far have had the largest impact on Southern cooking; so much so that by the end of the 18th century, when the first cookbooks were being assembled, they dominated their pages. The majority of recipes were from Africa, such as gumbos, smoked meats, using nuts as thickeners, deep frying, using fish as seasonings, and so much more. Their culinary skills have long been counted as creating some of the best food of the South, and, by the 1960s and 70s, their creations were recognized as a distinct Southern culinary category – the celebrated Southern soul food.
Soul food is more than ingredients, techniques, and recipes; what really defines this cuisine are the cooks behind it. There is a reason it’s called soul food; these unschooled chefs cook from the soul. No measuring spoons or cups needed. Listening to the sound of frying oil tells them when it is the right temperature for the chicken. Tasting to see what seasoning may be lacking stands in for measuring.
The aroma of the bread and the texture of the cake tell them the baking is almost done. They use their senses to cook the meal, and those same senses go into enjoying every last bit on their plates. Smoked ham, fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread, fried okra, sweet potato and pecan pie: these are dishes of the soul, and, when it comes to Southern eating, it just doesn’t get any better.
Africans may have been the biggest contributor to soul food, but Southern cuisine is broad and vast with influences from the French – as seen in Louisiana, other European countries, and Latin America. Do yourself a favor and explore all the tastes of the South.