Soul food originated in Africa and came to the United States with African slaves. Foods such as okra and rice, which are common in West Africa, were introduced to the Americas as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. These foods were dietary staples among the slaves. Foods such as corn from the Americas, turnips from Morocco and cabbage from Portugal would become staples in African-American cuisine. Slaves were fed as cheaply as possible; they were given the scraps: pig ears, pig feet, ox tail, ham hocks, hog jowls, trip and skin of animals. The slaves developed dishes using the scrap parts and these dishes became a part of their daily diet. They used onions and garlic to add flavor and lard for baking and frying. In addition to the scrap animal parts they were given the small intestine of the pig, or chitterlings, which were a poor dish for Europeans during medieval times.
These cooking rituals would be passed on from generation to generation of African-Americans, and these recipes are alive and well even today. Of course these dishes are not prepared in the same manner as during slave times, but they have not changed a whole lot. For instance, chitterlings are prepared in African-American homes during the holidays every year. In my family, my mother, grandmother and aunts prepare chitterlings every Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. Chitterlings are cooked with onions and garlic the same as the slaves, but are prepared in much nicer cookware and maybe with a little vinegar. Fried corn, a major staple in soul food, was introduced to the slaves by the Native Americans and continues to be a popular dish today. Other products made from corn, such as cornbread, grits, whiskey and moonshine are still a part of the African-American diet.
When I think of soul food, I think of Sunday dinners that include fried chicken, fried corn, macaroni casserole, collard greens, turnip greens, cornbread, fried pork chops smothered in gravy, black eyed peas, potato salad and sweet potato pie. I can smell these wonderful dishes right now. Some people say soul food is not exactly the food a person cooks; it’s that the person cooks from the heart. Personally I think the enslaved African women put their heart and soul into the food they were cooking for their families.
If you would like to cook some of these wonderful dishes, you should come to the library and check out African-American Kitchen: Cooking from our heritage by Angela Shelf Medearis, The Welcome Table: African-American heritage cooking by Jessica B. Harris, and Down Home with the Neely’s: A southern family cookbook by Patrick Neely. Or for a lighter version of soul food try Healthy Soul Food Cooking by Fabiola Gaines.