Cornbread, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and collard greens are indistinguishable ingredients found in soul food. The food of the Deep South (landlocked areas of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama which were notably known as the Cotton Belt and the Black Belt), the term soul food was first introduced in print during the 1960s during the rise of the civil rights marches and Black nationalist movements. But what makes soul food different than Southern food?
The History of Soul Food
While the name "soul food" originated in the 1960s, the African American food culture has been around since the American colonial period when slaves were given limited rations by their masters. Typically rations such as cornmeal, lard, molasses, peas, greens, flour, and some kind of meat, were distributed every Saturday. Some slaves were permitted to gather fresh produce from the gardens as well. From these ingredients came classic recipes such as fried chitlins, bbq, cornbread, fried fish, and cooked okra. It was a cooking culture that came to fruition out of necessity and the limits that were put on enslaved African Americans.
Once slavery was abolished, the Great Migration brought soul food and southern cuisine to the North and West as six million Black southerners moved to more urban areas of the United States. With them, they brought comfort food recipes from home. As Adrian Miller shared with Epicurious, "Soul food is really more about what African-Americans are eating outside of the South."
In the 1960s soul food restaurants began to open in large cities, including Sylvia Woods now-famous restaurant, Slyvia's, in Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. Known as the "Queen of Soul Food," Slyvia's started out as a small luncheonette that consisted of 15 stools and six booths. Today the family-run enterprise boasts two restaurants, a full-service catering hall, a nationwide line of Slyvia's Food Products, and cookbooks. Menu items include home cooking specialties such as chicken and waffles, fried pork chops, candied yams, grits, and macaroni and cheese. Wash it down with a red drink.
The Difference Between Southern Food and Soul Food
Not all Southern food is soul food, but all soul food is Southern food. According to Miller, Southern food is the mother of soul food.
Southern food is a larger repertoire of food, but soul food is really the limited menu that was taken outside the south. As people left the South, they did what any other immigrant group does: They tried to re-create home.
The soul food recipes we know today are derived from the food Black Southerners used to eat to celebrate a special occasion. Today it is a large part of Black American culture and continues to gain popularity as a food that promotes community.
If you haven't tried soul food before, I highly suggest looking up a soul food restaurant near you and ordering takeout or if possible, dining-in if coronavirus restrictions have been lifted.