In the 1960s, a conversation regarding Southern food versus soul food started to take hold of America’s consciousness, both in private and in commercial market places. While everybody started using the term “soul food,” they struggled to explain why it wasn’t simply Southern food. What was it? What made it different? Who was allowed to identify with the term? Who owned it and had the moral authority to claim it? All important questions, but first let me provide some context and definition of understanding how and why it’s a question at all.
The Origins of Soul Food
Much like Mr. Dynamite’s affirming proposition, “SAY IT LOUD! I’m Black and I’m proud,” Black people began to use the term “soul food” with great pride and allegiance to Black culture. Black folks saw it as a tool of ownership and empowerment—an endearing title if you will—like a badge of courage. Similarly, White people saw the term as a way to finally identify the food that seemed to be part of the Black experience they couldn’t duplicate or fully realize. The same dish they would prepare lacked the bold, intense flavoring and excitement that haunted the food Black people made...because it had no soul.
It was rumored that jazz musicians in the 1940s and 1950s coined the term “soul food” on the heels of other terms like “soul brother," "soul sister," and "soul music,” all meant to create ownership and pride. It was a way to declare value and connection to the unique heritage that was exclusively a “Black thang.”
Soul Food vs. Southern Food
Southern food versus soul food is really a misunderstanding of one's point of view. Southern food is the category by which soul food resides. They are not in competition but rather a derivative of each other, the latter prepared with the magical touch of soul. Southern food represents the Southern states and the basic regional character of food from these areas. Most Southern states had slaves which created the foundation and character of their culinary offerings whether prepared by Black folks or White folks.
Soul food came to be known as a food concept, an idea, that was a deep dive into the plantation war chest of traditional food practices, akin to plantation cooking and slave lore. This idea was heightened mostly by Black people who left the South and referred to its culinary bounty as a way to create endearment and uniqueness around their desire to engage their Black pride.
Soul Food as a Sales Tool
While Black folks were saying it loud, being proud, and expressing satisfaction and ownership with the term “soul,” corporate America saw dollar signs. Madison Avenue got busy redefining and packaging Black pride in a culinary genre they eagerly sold back to us, and we bought it—plus the kitchen sink and the stove, too. Corporate America appropriated, repackaged, and sold to the world our food concept as well as a stereotypical image and definition of who we were as a genre, embodied by the likes of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, and sold our own fried chicken by a White Colonel Sanders. They benefited from a societal concept and pocketed a great deal of money exploiting who we were for profits and branding.
As a child born of the South, I have been called out of my name with a myriad of derogatory, known and unknown racial terms and cultural nicknames by perpetrators (like “Negra” by my White high school music teacher). As a result, I know the power of branding, stereotyping, and playing to different audiences with the same product. Words and phrases have a way of promoting agendas and double entendre, often carrying different messages to Black and White audiences. While soul food gifted Black folks a sense of pride and elevation, it became code language to White America as a way to identify and stereotype Black behavior and cultural practices, which they used to their discretion.
Because I was determined to be seen as a chef presenting a refined, classic, culinary experience on par with the best European and New York high-flying restaurants and eateries, I refused to allow critics, fellow professionals, or patrons to be dismissive or disrespectful of the caliber and legitimacy of my culinary discipline. Being called a chef was also a stretch for Black men since it was perceived that only White men were chefs and Black men were just cooks. One example comes to mind: While at New York City’s Twenty-One Club, a friend (CEO of a major media company) introduced me to a senator as “an incredible cook,” to which the senator replied with great enthusiasm, “I love soul food.” I lobbed back with a not-so-subtle double entendre, “So do I,” knowing it would be lost.
The phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” took on new meaning for me when I opened my first restaurant, Cafe Beulah, in 1994. It was received as the first fine-dining African American food and wine concept serving the Low Country-style cuisine of South Carolina. What’s important to note here is that prior to this time, anytime a Black person opened a restaurant, was a chef in a kitchen, or simply cooked, it was determined they only cooked soul food. The term was inescapable. No food critic could start a conversation with me or talk about my food without a reference to soul food. It was clear White America had decided all Black people cooked soul food upon sight.
My most memorable exchange on Southern versus Soul came by way of a celebrated food critic of a major New York publication writing a feature on Southern food. During the interview, she made reference to my food as soul food and took great issue with me when I corrected her, insisting I didn’t cook soul food. The rest of the conversation went as follows.
Her: (Irritated) “Excuse me, but you have collard greens on your menu.”
Me: “Yes ma’am, I do!”
Her: (Screaming into the phone) “You have cornbread, black-eyed peas...you have fried chicken!”
Me: (Calmly) “Fried poussin, actually, plus sweet potato stuffed corn muffins. And my black-eye peas are delicate cakes with a remoulade sauce.”
Her: (Still not done with me, she elevated her voice again) “Well, that’s soul food, Mr. Smalls!”
Me: “Ms. G., if I were a middle-aged White woman making the same food, would it be soul food?”
Her: (pregnant pause, a bit of stuttering and borrowed silence)
The interview was done. The good news is we became amazing friends and remain so till this day. That’s the power of soul food.
The moral of this story is there is no such thing as Southern food versus soul food. Southern food is a regional identifier denoting regional cooking. In the Southern region, there are many types of and preparations for its food—influenced both by Black and White people. Soul food, in its mission, is a movement, an exercise of a culinary discipline influenced by the African diaspora and suffrage of slavery. It is a concept born of pride and recognition of the unique contributions of African American people. It is heritage cooking that is the envy of those who love it but can’t figure out how to make it.