Soul Food: How to Make It Healthier and Where Did It Come From

Collard greens, blackeyed peas, pigfeet, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, chitterlings (Chitt’lins), neckbones, and the list goes on and on. Recognize any of these foods? Of course you would because many of us eat them regularly or our parents or grandparents prepared them every Sunday and/or holidays. These foods are endearingly called Soul food. But did your elders ever explained to you where soul food originated from?

Let’s deal with definition and history of soul food. According to The African American Registry, Soul food is defined as “a term used for an ethnic cuisine, food traditionally prepared and eaten by African Americans of the Southern United States”, and it can be traced as far back as the 14th century during American slavery times.

When they were captured and brought to the New World so were many of their crops. The crops were to feed the many Africans on their long and arduous journey. Food such as yams, okra, rice, black-eyed peas, cassava, peanuts(which originated from South America), kidney and lima beans. Plus watermelon, millet, sorghum, guinea melon, liquorices, and sesame were all eaten with the attempt to sustain adults and children alike. When the captured Africans landed on American soil, many planted and harvested their own gardens, (after working 14-16 hours in the field),to add-on their family’s and occasionally their owners’ meal.

American culture and flavoring… they were creating unique savory dishes that were passed down. Other foods that were eaten by them were foods that were passed down or thrown out by their owners; mostly foods that derived from parts of the animal that the Europeans considered to be waste, so they were forced to create meals from a little of nothing. And to supplement the little they had they hunted wild game; e.g. possum, rabbit, raccoon and fished to feed the family. Through this process the women and men were creating a style and culture of cooking. The women were frying, baking and boiling, while the men were grilling meats over the outside fire, (hence barbequing).

Because they were never allowed to read and write the great food that was created was not captured on paper but passed on from family to family verbally. Even today we speak of a pinch of this, and a dash of that, a little of this and a heaping of that and so on. In 1881 the first cook book can be attributed to Abby Fisher who wrote “What Mrs. Fisher knows about Old Southern Cooking” and then numerous books were published after that.

The title Soul Food was used sparingly for years, but was coined in the 1960’s to emphasize the Southern cooking style by Black African Americans as a result of the roots in American slavery. During the Civil Rights era we began to discover our blackness and everything that went along with it including our cuisines. Now it is common knowledge that soul food is an African American thing even though history shows that Appalachians and American Indians alike ate some of the same foods and prepare it similarly, but that is a whole different story.

We indulge in soul food because it taste so good. But for so many of us it is not healthy either, especially if we are continuing to cook it the old traditional way. According to the African American Registry;”soul food has been cooked and seasoned with pork products and fried dishes cooked with trans fat, such as shortening or lard for centuries. Consequently this leads to disproportionately high occurrences of hypertension, cardiac/circulatory problems and/or diabetes among African Americans.

Experts suggest that we change the way we prepare our dishes. When frying use Canola or Olive oil. Instead of seasoning vegetables and beans with pork products use smoked turkey, use wheat flour for baking, various herbal spices instead of salt, I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter” versus margarine or real butter, baked chicken and fish versus pork and beef, and a lot less sugar.

Soul food has a rich and tasty history, and with a few modifications can to be passed on and cherished. This history should not be lost throughout generations, but neither should we allow for it to make us sick. Make a few healthy changes and begin creating your own cuisines while celebrating an extremely rich history.