What Defines Authentic Soul Food?

If you're thinking ham hocks and hush puppies, you're on the right track

Soul Food - Fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens with black eyed peas, biscuits, and sweet tea

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The term “soul food” didn’t become common until the 1960s. With the rise of the civil rights and black nationalist movements during the 1960s, many African Americans sought to reclaim their part of the American cultural legacy. As terms like “soul brother,” “soul sister,” and “soul music” were taking hold, it was only natural that the term “soul food” would be used to describe the recipes that African Americans had been cooking for generations. The term may have first been used in 1962 by civil rights activist and poet Amiri Baraka. Sylvia Woods opened her now-famous Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s in that same year; today, Woods is known by many as “the queen of Soul Food.” Soul food restaurants and cookbooks continued to be popular through the ’70s. 

The Food

Soul food is basic, down-home cooking with its roots in the rural South. The staples of soul food cooking are beans, greens, cornmeal (used in cornbread, hush puppies, and johnnycakes and as a coating for fried fish), and pork. Pork has an almost limitless number of uses in soul food. Many parts of the pig are used, like pigs’ feet, ham hocks, pig ears, hog jowl, and chitlins. Pork fat is used for frying and as an ingredient in slowly cooked greens. Sweet, cold drinks are always a favorite.

Soul or Southern?

To many Americans, all that just sounds like a description of Southern food. The distinctions between soul and Southern are hard to make. In his "Soul Food Cookbook" (1969), Bob Jeffries summed it up this way: “While all soul food is Southern food, not all Southern food is soul. Soul food cooking is an example of how really good Southern [African American] cooks cooked with what they had available to them.”

Soul food has its roots in the enslavement of African Americans when they had to make do with whatever was on hand. For the next 100 years after the abolition of slavery, many African-Americans continued to make use of cheaper ingredients. Of course, soul food isn’t entirely defined by a racial divide. Historically, there hasn’t been much of a difference between the foods eaten by poor black Southerners and poor white Southerners. John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote: “The differences between the foods of black and white Southerners are subtle. More capsicum pepper heat, a heavier hand with salt and pepper, and a greater use of offal meat are comparative characteristics of soul versus country cooking.”