It is a comparatively large part of what constitutes my cultural identity. So many who look similar to me and whose skin tones—albeit in varying shades from light to dark—hints at a shared heritage … a simpatico, if you will, can make the claim as well. Along with the woman that I am is the place from which I come. It is a place filled with hot water corn bread, candied yams, chitterlings (chit’lins, to the initiated, and ‘wrinkled steak’ to more than a few), pigs feet, collard greens, fatback, ham hocks and black-eyed peas. It is a place infused with the stirring aromas of the food on which I grew up: It is soul food.
As a child of the south, I embrace that part of me which, at its core, has shaped how I have come to relate to food as an adult. If you were to ask most people to describe soul food, chances are you would probably hear words like “its food cooked with soul,” or “food that comes from the heart,” or “cooking with love,” and so on. However, strip it of the attached emotions and take away the sentimentality of soul food, and it can best be summed up in the words of Bob Jeffries, author of 1969’s Soul Food Cookbook, and a chef in his own right.
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.
That is to say, soul food and southern food are not synonymous.
There will likely be debates and words of dissention as to what soul food really is—whether it’s southern regional food that belongs to southerners as a whole, regardless of race, or an outcrop of the scraps, unwanted vegetables and undesirable cuts of meats that slaves had to make do with in the rural south, thus making it truly inherent to the African American community. It can be all of this and more, but one thing I’m certain of: soul food is in my bones.
Soul food is its own double-edged sword. It is adored and cherished as a part of our culture, while at the same time the health and nutritional hazards associated with it cannot be ignored. However, despite the numerous pitfalls, I fully embrace soul food not only for how it seems to wholeheartedly embody the coming together of family but also for what it meant to me growing up and how it has shaped my life as an adult.
I love every nuance of soul food. I marvel at the magic of a few savory seasonings as they lovingly coax robust flavors from a piece of meat once thought useless. I adore how the sight of pork chops smothered in a thick onion gravy can bring a grown man to the verge of tears. And most of all, I am warmed from the inside out when something as simple as the intoxicating aromas of soul food can transport me back in time to my Mom’s or Grandmom’s kitchen.
In my family, Daddy was the only source of testosterone in the house. Even the dog was a girl. Each of the females, from my mother down to my youngest sister, fell into invisible roles ascribed to us by no one in particular, yet we all knew what one of our purposes was: to take care of Daddy. Ironing his postman shirts every Sunday night so he was crisp and spiffy for the upcoming work week; pouring a tall glass of sweet tea for him at the dinner table—with lots of sugar, a few wedges of lemon and a heaping helping of ice; and preparing his favorite meals, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner. These are the tasks we undertook, not because someone told us we had to but rather because our hearts led us to do so.
When Daddy would sit down at the head of the table awash in a sea of estrogen, schoolgirl snickering and talking over one another to be heard, he rarely made a sound save for the sounds I now know as music to my ears—the smacking of lips, the gentle chomping as he would bite down on a buttery homemade biscuit, the barely audible murmurs of appreciation as he would gaze off into the nothingness that lay just beyond our kitchen window. These strange noises that sometimes elicited a childish giggle or two from around the table spoke so much more than any words could ever express. His pleasure was apparent. What he was experiencing was some good eatin’!
While one of our favorite places to be was at the kitchen table, the enjoyment of soul food didn’t end at the threshold of our kitchen as if an invisible barrier had been erected to contain its flavors. No, soul food traveled with us, just like one of the family, as Mommy and Daddy would round up their offspring, pile us into the burnt orange Pontiac Catalina with the tan top and we would ride off into the early morning mist on an oft-traveled road trip from our home in Seat Pleasant, Maryland bound for Greenville, North Carolina. Two and a half hours into the five hour trip, somewhere in the back of the car (which felt cavernous to me) someone would peel back the folds of an aluminum foil bundle and the welcoming aroma of Mommy’s fresh fried chicken would fill the space within the car, wafting through every nook, cranny and crevice to reach our prickling nostrils as we inhaled deeply of the smell that was like no other. Fried chicken never tasted as good as it did right there, in those moments, as we drove along I-95 South.
These are but some of the memories that color the palate of my mind when I think of the food traditions shared in my family. The vibrant mosaic that culture paints across my culinary landscape will always be cherished and never forgotten for within me lives and breathes the very essence of what the sharing of food meant—and still means—to my family.
Let’s get real. Soul food is not the end all and be all. While it’s delicious to the taste buds, it is also a source of fat, sodium, calories, cholesterol and starch. This, in turn, is the root of many health evils such as high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and obesity, to name a few, that plague the African American community. However, soul food, in spite of the plethora of negatives, means more than just a tasty meal that’s finger lickin’ good. It speaks to our hearts and, for me, it embodies the past. Soul food grew out of a fellowship of people bound together in misery, turmoil and grief as they struggled to survive from one generation to the next. They made a way out of practically no way by making the most of cast off meats, vegetables and weeds. It is the fortitude and resilience of my ancestors that allows me to place a pot of fall-off-the-bone braised ox tails, collard greens slow-cooked with ham hocks and a dish full of candied yams on the table with pride. This is my heritage. This is my food. This is soul food.