Every recognized nation has its own cuisine or diet that is part of its identity. For the French, they have baguettes along with wines and cheeses. Most people would also associate rice with a few countries in Asia, but how each one prepares and serves it set them apart.
The United States is a little different. Though this is not unique to America, this country was not solely founded by one identical group of people and those groups didn’t unify under one ethnicity. American culture is often characterized as a “melting pot” of cultures and identities, and the food culture reflects this. One subsection of the “American Diet” is soul food.
Now, it is worth mentioning that there is quite an overlap between southern and soul food which makes it difficult the differentiate between the two. Both were created by disadvantaged people within similar regions as a way of surviving, but their origins set them apart. Soul food describes the specific food practices of the enslaved Africans in the south while southern food refers to all of the recipes and practices that are common to the south.
Though the name “soul food” wouldn’t be used until the 1960s with the Black Pride Movement, its conception goes back to the early 1600s when the first slave ship arrived in the Americas and later solidified when the first plantations were built. Plantation owners had to give out rations to their slaves in order to keep them able to work, but they were often smaller than what they needed and held little nutritional value.
What was included in these weekly rations varied depending on which region the colony was located in and the relative generosity of the of their master. Generally, they were given the undesirable cuts of beef and pork, cornmeal, and vegetables. Flour and molasses could also be included. Some slaves were even allowed to grow their own vegetable gardens to supplement their rations.
Because the white slave owners could determine how they treat their slaves, what soul food was varied between regions and even plantations. Despite this variability, there were three major influences on American soul food.
The most obvious of the three were from the Africans themselves. Vegetables like collard greens, black-eyed beans, and okra were imported from West Africa in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the methods used to cook these greens came over with the slaves. Moreover, the one-pot stew technique from this same region is thought to be what led to the creation of gumbo in Louisiana plantations.
The second influence came from the slave masters themselves. Most of the settlers who owned slaves were of West European descent, so the Africans that worked in their homes had to adapt to their taste and cooking techniques. Some of the most prominent soul foods come from these learned techniques. Scottish settlers are thought to have brought over the practice of frying foods hard which explains where fried chicken originated. Dutch slave owners are also credited with introducing deep dishes and pies to the Americans which likely was the precursor to pecan and sweet potato pies.
The Native Americans also had an influence on soul cooking even though they had limited contact with the enslaved Africans.
Once the slaves were emancipated and onward, former slaves and there descendants (now African-Americans) used these cooking practices and worked in homes, restaurants, and eventually they opened their own businesses selling their food.
Just how there have been a slight standardization of what soul food is, there have been slight alterations from societal and cultural changes. Chefs throughout the past couple centuries have gained access to better cuts of meat, more refined tools, and exposure to foods from other cultures.
More recently, there has been a push for healthier eating options, so some cooks may opt to using less fats and salts that were common of the earlier versions of soul food. A rise in popularity of vegan food has even led to the creation of vegan soul food!