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The Real History of Soul Food: From Slavery to Modern Cuisine

Posted by Jordan Tennenbaum on

From the deep South a tradition of brutal slavery and relentless racism was born, yet it also birthed an incredibly delicious and culturally unique food tradition that weaves together the black narrative through the use of ingredients that reflect the lives of slaves in America. Though often times what is now deemed as “soul food” is perceived as a simple southern cuisine, the traditions, techniques, ingredients and community that are involved in its creation and execution reflect the conditions that slaves faced on the plantation. Forced to live off of scraps from their masters, they were able to create food that blended African and American culture in a way that supplied them with plenty of taste, as well as plenty of future health problems. Today, more and more African Americans are falling victim to diseases associated with their dietary habits, and because of this, many people are going to have to make a drastic change, or risk death for a big old plate of mammy’s nostalgia.

soul food

From the West Coast of Africa, dubbed the Slave Coast, comes not only slaves but a variety of foods that slaves and slavers were clever enough to bring with them on their long journey across the ocean. Not only did the foods provide some nutrition to keep ‘cargo’ alive as they endured long hours chained under the deck of a boat, but the seeds they saved and the food that traders brought to the Americas allowed Africans to cultivate a bit of home in their new land. In the words of Olaudah Equiano, a captured African slave, said his tribe consumed small game and animals that were stewed and seasoned by pepper and salt made from wood ashes, and ate quite a variety of starchy vegetables (22).

Some of the most important foods imported to America were rice, okra, legumes, yams, and watermelon (1), all of which were slowly incorporated into southern cuisine straight from the gardens of slaves themselves. Although the exact origins of these crops are hard to distinguish, many of them were recorded in Jamaica as early as 1687 by the physician Sir Hans Sloane, who was sent there to aid the governor, the Duke of Albemarle (1). Whether or not these crops came directly to America from Africa, or passed through the West Indies first is hard to distinguish due to the lack of agricultural records, but it is clear that the majority of African crops grew in popularity in the United Stated around the early 1700s.

Rice found its way to America through the South Carolina Sea Islands, where an experienced slave taught her master how to cultivate rice seeds first imported from Madagascar in 1685. Because her master, as well as many others, realized that rice was incredibly profitable, rice production expanded with the importation of pricey slave labor from the Senegambia region of West Africa, where rice farming had taken place for generations. These slaves fetched such high prices due to their knowledge about flooding fields and dyking the marshes. Although rice production started relatively slowly, the introduction of water-powered rice mills in 1787 increased the production rate rapidly, allowing rice to be consumed, traded, and incorporated into the southern diet (1).

Okra, a staple crop of southern cuisine, made its way to the New World with the transatlantic slave trade. Although the actual origin of the crop is debated, okra was brought to the slave ships in the 1600s under the Bantu name gumbo, which is where the famous dish from Louisiana gets its name. As okra gained popularity for its taste and texture, it also became well recognized for its cooking and medicinal values. Okra was used as a primary thickening agent in southern cuisine for dishes such as gumbo, providing consumers with thick stews and sauces. It was also used to make skin-calming poultices, and helped induce abortions due to its slippery leaves, making it a very common vegetable in the South (1).

Legumes, primarily characterized in southern cooking as black-eyed peas, also include the peanut, which found their way into America by way of the slave trade. Peanuts were indigenous to South America, but were brought to West Africa by way of Portuguese sailors before slavery, and later became incorporated into the African diet. As slaves came to the New World, so did the peanut, inspiring figures such as George Washington Carver, who found over three hundred uses for the peanut, including instant coffee, bleach, flour, rubber, and linoleum (10). The black-eyed pea was brought to Jamaica towards the end of the 17th century, and later spread to the West Indies, and eventually Florida. Although they were primarily used to feed slaves, they grew in popularity, eventually making their way onto the plates and plantation of President George Washington, who bought 40 bushels to plant in 1792. Later, planters adopted a Native American technique called Companion Planting in which corn and black-eyed peas grow symbiotically; the corn provides the beans scaffolding to climb, and the beans provide the soil with nitrogen, preventing the need to constantly turn and till the soil, and promoting the use, consumption, and popularity of legumes in the American economy and diet (5).

The Yam, a tuber from Africa that had been cultivated and consumed for over 2,000 years, did not come with the transatlantic slave trade, yet when slaves came to America, they instantly recognized the sweet potato due to its orange color and gave it the name yam, which is still used interchangeably with sweet potato to this day. Sweet potatoes were incorporated into a food that resembled Fufu, an African dish of boiled starches covered with sauce. This style of food has continually been of influence to southern cuisine, often seen in Cajun and Creole style dishes that feature meats and sauce poured over a starchy base, such as jambalaya, further incorporating African techniques and foods into the American kitchen (17).

Finally, watermelon, the food so often associated with the negative stereotype that African Americans can be satisfied by simple things, is said to have spread from Sudan in Southern Africa to Egypt 4,000 years ago, and later to the Americas by way of European settlers who brought them from Africa, as well as others who traded with Native Americans. Because African slaves had experience cultivating and consuming watermelon, they helped introduce them to the plantation fields, gardens, and diet (14).

While some of these foods were able to flourish on large-scale plantations, many slaves were given smaller garden plots to cultivate their own foods while reducing their master’s cost of actually feeding their “product.” Because slaves were constantly busy in either the fields or the “Big House,” they had very little time to actually tend to their plot, which could span anywhere from one-half of an acre to three acres (18). Not only did this food introduce many new vegetables to southern whites, who consumed a mostly meats, sweets, and gluten-based foods, but also provided slaves with nutrition that they needed to supplement hours of back-breaking labor in the sun, especially considering the horrendous eating conditions that were upheld on the plantation.

Meals on the plantation were not only infrequent, but often times were leftovers from previous meals held in the Big House, or unused organs and animal parts from livestock that could not be sold. In the words of Frederick Douglass in his piece Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he states that food was “ put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied” (21). That being said, rations and meals were different for slaves across the country due to proximity to oceans, climate, soil, and plantation owners’ preference, this excerpt from Sketches of Slave Life: Or, Illustrations of The ‘Peculiar Institution’ by Peter Randolph, published in 1855, provides perspective when trying to understand how poorly fed slaves actually were.

“The food of the slave is this: Every Saturday night they receive two pounds of bacon, and one peck and a half of corn meal, to last the men through the week. The women have
one-half pound of meat, and one peck of meal, and the children one-half peck each. When this is gone, they can have no more till the end of the week. This is very little food for the slaves. They have to beg when they can; when they cannot, they must suffer. They are not allowed to go off the plantation; if they do, and are caught, they are whipped very severely, and what they have begged is taken from them” (16).

As food from Africa entered the stomachs and souls of Americans across the South, slaves had to learn how to combine their indigenous ingredients and personal cooking techniques with those that were common in America. This was no easy task, considering slaves had very little access to cooking utensils and materials, could not read recipes, and had to cook without gas and electric appliances. In 1912, The Independent published an article analyzing the life of a black mammy slave from the rural south who stated, “We do not cook according to scientific principles because we do not know anything about scientific principles. Most of our cooking is done by guesswork or by memory” (15).

According to Jessica B. Harris, author of nine critically acclaimed cookbooks focused on African-American culture, slaves brought the techniques of boiling, steaming in leaves, deep fat frying, grilling, roasting, and ash baking to America from their homeland. These techniques were applied to southern food, such as fried chicken, barbecued ribs, and steamed seafood. In addition to these techniques, Harris states that the main cooking styles that incorporated both African and American ingredients and techniques were rice dishes, fritters, smoked flavoring, leafy greens, pepper and hot sauces, and nuts, seeds, and okra as thickeners. These techniques and meals were born out of necessity and creativity, often due to the horrible eating conditions that slaves faced on the plantation.

As African American cuisine began to develop and flourish in the South, a long-standing tradition of black cooks in the White House simultaneously began to take root during the presidential terms of Washington and Jefferson. Hercules, the highly regarded and incredibly experienced personal chef to President George Washington, was supposedly trained by Martha Washington in the fine art of cooking without thermometers, evenly distributed heat, or the ability to read. The conditions that Hercules worked under were better than most slave chefs; he was provided with eight assistants to help tend to his pots, pans, and fire, and received a bit more trust and responsibility than most slaves. Hercules was also allowed the privilege of selecting ingredients from Philadelphia’s finest open-air market, providing him with plenty of fresh food from various corners of the world to utilize in his dishes. Despite the fact that Hercules was so revered for his food and personality, he escaped after Washington’s term expired, and was never found or seen again (11).

Four years after the end of Washington’s presidency, Thomas Jefferson came to office, and, through his extramarital relationships with the slave Sally Hemings, discovered the talent of her older brother, James Hemings. In 1794, before Jefferson was elected into office, he was appointed Minister to France, and left the country in search of new French products to import and trade. James Hemings accompanied him as a slave, (despite the fact that slavery was illegal in France) and left France as a master of the French cooking style, further blending Southern, American, and French cuisine in a Creole fashion. In 1793, after training his brother Peter in the art of cooking for three years, James persuaded Jefferson to give him his freedom, but even after being offered a well-paid job, refused to continue cooking for the President (11).

Even though we often times think of slavery as dominant in the South and non-existent in the North, it is clear from the account of Hercules and James that slavery did often times cross borders, and was somehow involved in every aspect of American life. Slavery even entered the American Political system, showing that in some way, this country relied upon slaves and their food in order to continually grow and prosper. As food helped America become a new nation, it also helped many blacks find a new sense of identity.

Because African food had worked its way across the Atlantic Ocean, through the rural south, and all the way up North to the plates of the Presidents, it was apparent that southern cuisine had already found a place in the hearts and stomachs of America. Food provided slaves not only with sustenance but also opportunity and cultural value. Food was an aspect of life that tied slaves together on the grounds that it was their means of survival and creative expression, especially in a time when education and arts were illegal for them to learn. The recipes that mammy knew were passed down for generations orally, not only to their own black children, but to white families and their respective generations to come. Southern cuisine eventually began to find a home in restaurants that started to sprout up in the South in the late 18th century. Although there were relatively few restaurants in the South, they did offer an opportunity for people to experience a new type of food, and also gave way to black business owners, chefs, jobs, and a very important sense of community for black families that had been torn apart and culturally smothered due to slavery.

One of the central aspects of southern food is the sense of community and family that accompanies its delicious taste. Because slaves were malnourished and mistreated for so many years, meals provided blacks with a chance to relax in a communal setting, help each other cook, and begin to form their own identity through creative expression in a foreign country. They were able to turn leftover fat into gravy, expired bread into delicious desserts, and a shared struggle into complex food by assimilating West African techniques with Americanized food. Even after emancipation, black families made a point to gather together and share each other’s company during family meals, similar to the way they would eat dinners together away from the fields during the times of slavery. As this sense of community grew stronger and the traces of slavery grew fainter, Blacks began to assert their rights as individuals, and the rights for their culture to assert itself on the plates of Americans.

During the 1960s, America’s civil rights movement gave way to the creation of “Soul Food.” While many African Americans were struggling with identity and power dynamics, Black Nationalism coupled with the Civil Rights Movement gave many blacks a sense of meaning, often associated with their homeland and culture. Terms such as “soul brotha” and “soul sistah” began to catch on as “soul music” skyrocketed in popularity. Naturally “Soul Food” followed, possibly spread by activist and poet Amiri Baraka in 1962, which consequentially was the same year that Sylvia Woods opened her famous restaurant in Harlem called “Silvia’s Queen of Soul Food.” Regardless of who started the tradition, the term “Soul Food” stuck, revamping black food and prompting restaurants across the country to provide the diverse races of America with a taste of slavery by way of cornbread, barbecue, fried chicken and mac n’ cheese (6).

Soul food also was popularized in the hip-hop music of the 1990s by artists such as Goodie Mob and Wu Tang’s RZA. In the song Soul Food from Goodie Mob’s 1995 album Soul Food, various artists in the collective say that the listener should “Come and get yo’ soul food, well well / Good old-fashioned soul food, all right / Everythang is for free /As good as it can be / Come and get some soul food,” emphasizing the familial and communal qualities that soul food embodies, as well as its “old-fashioned” roots. RZA recalls life growing up poor with a large, mammy-like mother figure supporting his family in the song Grits:

“Afternoon cartoon, we would fight for the spoon / Old Earth in the kitchen, yell "it's time to eat" /Across the foyer, you hear the gather of stampeding feet / One pound box of sugar, and a stick of margarine / A hot pot of grits kept my family from starvin' / Loose with the welfare cheese, thick wit' the gravy used to suck it, straight out the bottle as a baby / Steamy hot meal served less than five minutes / Big silver pot, boilin' water, salt in it / House full of brothers and sisters, the pop's missin' / Pillsbury box on the stove in the kitchen.”

As Soul food gained popularity due to its family feel, outstanding taste, and hip hop credibility, it also gave birth to a host of health risks and dietary concerns for African Americans across America. According to the Office of Minority Health, four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese, and in 2011, African Americans were 1.5 times more likely to be obese than other groups studied and suffer from a 50% obesity rate overall (8, 20). Sadly, this trend is very reminiscent of the Good Ol’ South, because minorities are still uneducated and poor, forcing them into making poor dietary decisions. The average income for black families was 59% of that of whites in 2011, (only a 4% upwards increase since 1967) (13), coupled with the fact that blacks are grossly underrepresented in universities, comprising of only four percent of country’s student body (4, 12, 19), show how blacks are still subjected to educational and economic hardships. Poverty, linked with poor education leads to uninformed consumers buying whatever feeds their family for the least amount of money, regardless of the negative health affects associated with a highly processed, fatty, and sugary diet. While slaves were forced to utilize fat and sugar as a means of energy and survival due to the control of their white masters, the continuation of blacks today who consume unhealthy food high in calories due to its low price can be seen as a modern extension of racist conditions. Institutionalized poverty and lack of education among minorities, which take root in the South, still affect the black community, subjecting people to a variety of diseases that threaten their health, and the pride they have for their culture.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the leading causes of death for African Americans are heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and kidney diseases (3), with the highest rates found in the southern and eastern quadrants of America, which coincide with the fact that the majority of America’s Black population resides in the Southern and Eastern United States (4). Each of these diseases has in some way been scientifically linked to diet (in addition to other factors including living and working conditions, health care, and daily living habits such as exercise), yet the addiction to unhealthy, affordable foods is something that African Americans cannot seem to shake, especially given poor economic conditions and limited educational opportunities that continually plague them.

Thankfully, Americans might not have to sacrifice taste for healthy food due to a new generation of soul food chefs who avoid traditional ingredients such as pork fat and innards, lard, and heavy cream, and still carry on a tradition of tasty family food. According to the Zagat Restaurant Survey, there is a growing trend of southern establishments in cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as many black chefs who use the internet to spread recipes and cooking techniques as a part of a new era of healthy soul food, allowing the southern palate to rise like a cake in the pan, but without all of the sugar and lard (7). In addition to excluding heavy cream and pure fat, chefs who have delved into southern cuisine have begun to integrate even more diverse vegetables, less flour, less red meat, and more local, fresh ingredients, assisting local communities and allowing soul food to see somewhat of a healthy and communal revival. By incorporating new forms of cooking and various local greens that have important nutrients, and by excluding some of the heavier, artery-clogging foods, the taste of the South has started to change, which means that a part of history will change with it. While these changes to soul food are something that, in the long run, will aid many minorities in their fight for healthier lives, it also signifies a loss of a part of black culture and tradition. The heart of soul food is deeply rooted in slave traditions of using what one had in order to create something special, even if that meant using parts of the animal and cooking techniques that can have negative health effects over long periods of time.

While during slavery the extra calories and sugar provided energy and nutrients that the slaves needed to survive working the fields from sunup until sundown, in today’s sedentary world of laziness, the extra calories are not burned, and the sugar slowly turns into fat. That being said, the tradition of soul food carries on not only as a badge of cultural pride for African Americans, but because it tastes great too. Ribs and mac n’ cheese, collard greens and cornbread, fried chicken and grits are all examples of food that have stood the test of time due to their homey feel and outstanding taste. As we progress further into the 21st century, it is crucial that the pride in black food continues to thrive, but does so in a way that can support a healthy lifestyle, for if this does not occur, health, rather than racial inequality, could be the biggest problem that blacks face in America.

Sources

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