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Water Cooler: An introduction to soul food

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 8, 2021

Collard, kale and other leafy greens are an essential part of soul food.  (Pixabay)
Collard, kale and other leafy greens are an essential part of soul food. (Pixabay)

Although soul food is a well-loved staple of American cuisine with roots reaching to the earliest years of U.S. history, the term “soul food” itself is relatively new. It seems like traditional Americana, but the title was not used until the 1960s.

The key dishes of soul food are heavily associated with the rural South. Most people in the country would interchangeably refer to this cuisine as Southern food or barbecue. While that isn’t exactly incorrect, soul food is a term used specifically to describe the unique cuisine that developed through the resourcefulness of Southern cooks, mostly enslaved Africans, who combined their culinary and agricultural skills with limited resources.

The term became popular during the civil rights and Black nationalist movements of the 1960s to highlight and celebrate African heritage, although “soul” as a label emerged in the late 1940s jazz scene, spawning similar terms such as “soul music.”

In his book, “Soul Food Cookbook” (1969), renowned chef Bob Jeffries puts it this way, “While all soul food is Southern food, not all Southern food is soul.” This is something that makes the cuisine of the American South special. Its influence comes from all around the globe. Its blend of key qualities comes from the cultivation and practices of not only Africans, but Indigenous Americans, Spanish, French and English settlers, Caribbean and Asian immigrants, Mexicans and others.

Soul food was born out of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Recalling its history brings up a lot of tragedy, but it also points to the preservation and transformation of African traditions facilitated by those brought to the Southern colonies. A closer look at some signature dishes serves as a testament to that history.

Rice has a large role in soul food, serving as the foundation for dishes like jambalaya, gumbo and Hoppin’ John. Oryza glaberrima, known as African rice, is one of two rice species, the other being Asian rice. Africans who cultivated rice were specifically sought out during the slave trade, solidifying its place in soul food.

Jambalaya is a Creole rice dish with influences from West African, Spanish and French cooking, with rice cooked in the same pot as spices, seafood, sausage or poultry. It is similar to the West African one-pot rice dish, jollof.

Gumbo is similar but it uses filé powder, derived from the North American sassafras tree, and okra, an edible seed pod likely native to Ethiopia, although that is debated and some suspect it could be native to West Africa or South Asia. It is cooked into a thick stew with similar ingredients, then poured over rice. Okra is thought to have influenced the name of this dish, with the term “gumbo” originating from either the Umbundu word for okra, “ochinggômbo” or the Kimbundu word “ki-ngombo.”

Hoppin’ John, also known as Carolina peas and rice, a dish of black-eyed peas served over rice, is very similar to the African pilau dishes (related to pilaf and paella), made from cooking rice in flavored broth.

It’s hard to imagine soul food without greens, the ubiquitous term for boiled leafy greens, whether collards, mustard, turnip, cabbage or kale. Some might be surprised that kale has actually been popular for more than 300 years, at least in the Southern states. This side shares similarities to gomen wat, an Ethiopian dish of boiled greens combined with spices and other vegetables. It also resembles kontomire stew, a popular stew in Ghana made from cocoyam leaves.

This only scratches the surface, so try out these books for deeper reading: “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” by Adrian E. Miller; “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America,” by Jessica B. Harris; or “Vibration Cooking,” by Vertamee Smart-Grosvenor.

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