Soul food

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Soul food can be a synonym for comfort food, any food that is good for the soul by virtue of reminding us of home cooking. Most often, however, it is an informal, generally-accepted term for African-American cuisine developed largely in the southern United States. The foods used have African origins--and Africans had already begun incorporating foreign foodstuffs into their diets, attained through Arab and European trade--as slaves endeavoured to re-create dishes from their homelands, often substituting food items. The new, blended cuisine also used and amalgamated food borrowed from other cultures, particularly American Indian and to a lesser extent Spanish, and new food items which were a part of white immigrant culture. The term soul food was probably coined in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s and coincided with the use of the word “soul” to describe other aspects of African American culture, such as music. Wordsmith Barry Popik says, “The term "soul food" is used in Harlem, but it was probably used first in Chicago (at least 1962) or St. Louis.” He cites newspaper clippings from the 1960s [1]

While soul food has often been decried as non-healthy cooking, due to its high sodium and fat content, and the overcooking of vegetables, particularly leafy greens, it remains very popular. African-Americans have disproportionately high incidences of heart disease and hypertension, so health professionals often advise restricting the intake of many foods in the soul food vocabulary, a situation made all the more interesting because many items on the list developed out of the need to make the best of the leavings of the whites to whom the black slaves and servants were in servitude; and some of these were nutritious. “Pot likker”, for example, the flavoured juice left after the leafy vegetables were strained and served to “the family”, was replete with vitamins and minerals. Wild greens, such as mustards and dandelions, and the discarded tops of cultivated rapas such as turnip and beetroot, are also healthy, as was wild game.


”Although we sometimes think of soul food as unhealthy (even though health-conscious soul food cookbooks and restaurants are ubiquitous today), the original recipes were not fatty. Meat was just not abundant back in the day and the African diet -- and indeed later the average slave diet -- was simple, with a premium on grains and vegetables. This was food that filled you up and gave you energy for hard labor -- again, a diet of necessity.
Believe it or not, it was a much better diet than that of the slave owners or a diet that emphasized fatty foods, few vegetables, alcohol, and desserts with high sugar contents. Rather than consume alcohol, slaves drank iced tea and lemonade, beverages that are soul food staples today” [2]

A further irony is that the gradual introduction of “white people’s” food (in the form of overcooked cultivated vegetables and fatty meats) into the diet of the African slaves and rural poor may have made it less healthy. Some modern research seems to indicate that soul food techniques such as deep frying at hot temperature are not as bad as once thought, and the health benefits derived from the ingredients from soul food may well outweigh the risks.

It has also been suggested that, since many items in soul food are “poor people’s food” common to many cultures, overeating and lack of exercise may actually have been the culprit, not the African American diet.

Notes and sources

  1. Sourced at: http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/soul_food/ On: 1 January 2008.
  2. http:// Gregory Cartier, Discover Soul Food Sourced at: au.askmen.com/fashion/wine_dine_100/101_wine_dine.html On 1 January 2008.

soul food items

Cooking techiniques

  • smothering
  • frying
  • seasoning
  • boiling

See also