By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.
Soul food is the cuisine that was developed by African Americans, most of whom first came to the United States enslaved. It integrated a people’s culinary memories from the African countries of their heritage with the foods of the American Indians and American South. This specialized cookery was first developed by African Americans and is known for its creative use of often unusual ingredients. The enslaved people had to make-do with whatever their “masters” gave them in payment for their work or whatever they could grow, hunt, or fish. Typical items included the so-called “undesirable” cuts of meat (tongue, pig’s feet), cornmeal, wild greens of many kinds, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, peanuts, catfish, and small mammals such as squirrels or possums. It is a cuisine that grew out of inventive minds and limited resources.
Most enslaved Africans were brought to America to work on the big plantations in the southeastern United States. They were forced to work long hours doing hard, physical labor. It was up to the plantation owner to decide what foods would be given to the enslaved, who had to be supplied with enough food to allow them to have the strength and energy to work all day. But black Americans were very imaginative with the food resources given to them and they found small pleasures in getting together and sharing their meals at the end of a long day of physical labor.
Corn and pork were two staple items in the South for both slave “owner” and the enslaved. The slave owner would have smoked ham and corn pudding while the slaves were left with the “offal” (thought of as the waste parts of the pig), and corn mush. Offal included the feet, ears, jowls, and small intestines (chitterlings), of the pig.
There are practical reasons why corn and pork were featured items in the southern menu of rich and poor alike. Corn was a crop that thrived in climates that wheat would not tolerate, corn especially liking hot summer nights. Not only could corn withstand more rainfall than wheat without falling prey to disease, it also demanded less skill and attention in cultivation and harvesting. Also, corn did not require fine milling to render an acceptable flour for turning into an adequate bread. A common way to prepare ground corn was as hoe cakes. Cornmeal was mixed with water and placed on the blade of a hoe which was then placed next to an open fire to bake.
Pork was popular because pigs were easy to raise. A spring piglet grew fast enough for slaughter in the late fall which meant that it did not have to be fed and maintained over the winter. Pigs are notorious scavengers and often they were set free to rummage through the woods for food until just before slaughtering time. This meant that they were relatively self-sufficient in terms of care and did not require grain. However, since swine are efficient converters of grain to meat (much more so than cattle), frequently they were penned and fed corn a few weeks before they were killed. Preservation of the entire animal was possible through salting, smoking, and storage in a brine solution. Pigs contain a lot of fat that was rendered into lard for cooking so for this reason, much of soul food cookery involves frying.
In 2006, Dr. David Pimentel, an innovative scientist at Cornell University, did groundbreaking work comparing plant versus animal protein to the amount of energy required primarily from fossil fuels and fertilizers to produce food calories from plants or animals. He found that conventional corn’s ratio was 1:4 and the ratio for pork was 14:1 (see chart at the end of this article). As the earth struggles with climate change it is important that people appreciate the amount of energy that plants versus animals require. Consuming plant protein instead of animal foods is one step that will have a major impact on slowing down the devastating effects of climate change.
Our goal with this blog is to take traditional recipes that honor diverse cultures and modify them by eliminating animal products to demonstrate how delicious the recipes can be while improving the health of people and the planet. African Americans used animal products primarily as condiments to flavor their dishes in the early days of slavery and came up with a unique cuisine. We are currently at a crossroads and can choose to consume foods that don’t deplete the earth’s resources while enjoying tastes that are highly satisfying.
The ingenious one pot gumbos and stews created with whatever ingredients were available give testimony to the adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Many of the items created by African American cooks are now considered to be exotic gourmet fare. Most meals were cooked in one pot and the term “pot likker” comes from this practice. Also known as “pot liquor” the juices from the greens, salt pork, and stew, remaining in the pot after serving, were considered the tastiest portion. People would fight over who was the lucky one who got to drink the pot liquor. Often the liquid used to cook vegetables is thrown out by cooks which is a big mistake nutritionally speaking. The liquid used to cook vegetables is very rich with nutrients.
Most enslaved families were given a small plot of land on which to grow vegetables for their own consumption. Turnips and turnip greens were favorite items along with collards, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas. These high protein beans were brought from Nigeria and have the advantage of being delicious fresh and were easy to dry and store for later consumption. Black-eyed peas are also called cow peas because they were first fed to cows in the United States until the white plantation owners realized how delicious they were.
The transatlantic slave ships transported peanuts (groundnuts), sesame seeds, also known as benne seeds, black-eyed peas, and okra to the United States. Peanuts originated in Brazil and traveled a circular route from South America, to Africa, where they were a popular food item, to North America. African American horticulturist George Washington Carver developed over 300 uses for the peanut. He focused his research on peanuts, nitrogen-fixing legumes, as an alternative to the soil depleting crop of cotton. Okra is a member of the cotton family which also includes the hibiscus flower which can be made into a refreshing tea. Okra is the immature pod of the plant and is classified as a fruit because it contains seeds. Okra is also called ladies fingers and is very popular in the American South. It is often coated in cornmeal and fried, and frequently used to thicken the popular gumbos.
A fun activity can be done with okra to create interesting and beautiful artwork. All you need is okra, paint, and paper. Slice the okra and remove (or keep) the seeds. Dip into paint and press on paper in whatever design you like.
A former enslaved person describes typical fare:
“Us slaves was fed good plain grub. Before we went to de field us had a big breakfast o’ hot bread, ‘lasses (molasses), fried salt meat dipped in cornmeal, and fried taters. Sometimes us had fish and rabbit meat. When us was in the field, two women would come at dinner time with baskets filled with corn pone, baked taters, corn roasted in de shucks, onion, fried squash, and . . . at supper time us had hoecakes and cold victuals. Sometimes dey was sweet milk and collards.”
“Most every slave had his own little garden patch. .. Most every plantation kept a man huntin’ and fishin’ all the time . . . On Sundays us always had meat pie or fish or fresh game and roasted taters and coffee. On Christmas de marster would give us chicken and barrels o’apples and oranges. ‘Course, every marster weren’t as free handed as ours was” (Taylor 1982:84).
Hunting was a popular pastime and supplemented the diet with animal protein. Squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, muskrats, and possums were featured in stews. The possum was especially valued because it contained a relatively large proportion of fat and it was one of the easiest animals to catch. When chased by a dog or human, it would inevitably climb a tree and perch on one of the low branches. All the hunter had to do was shake the branch and the possum would fall down and “play possum.”
Fishing also provided a free source of animal protein to the diet. Catfish were the fish of choice and they were breaded in cornmeal, fried, and consumed bones and all. The bones provided an excellent source of calcium. Catfish stew, often made with fish heads, was highly seasoned with hot pepper and spices.
Sweet potatoes are members of the Morning Glory family, native to Central and South America. They are not related to potatoes, despite their name. Frequently confused with yams in the United States, they differ in a number of ways. Sweet potatoes are moist in texture while the yam is of a drier consistency. Sweet potatoes take anywhere from 90 – 150 days before harvest while the yam, which is larger, takes double the time – up to a year. The most important difference between sweet potatoes and yams is from a nutritional perspective sweet potatoes have an extremely high beta carotene content, which protects the body against disease among other benefits, while yams contain very little of this super nutrient.
Sweet potatoes deserve high dietary esteem not only because of their abundance of beta carotene, but also because they are low in calories, and high in potassium, vitamins A, B, C, & E, iron and calcium. Sweet potatoes are one of the only plant foods that contain an excellent supply of vitamin E, without also being high in fat, such as nuts, seeds, and oils. In Africa the leaves of sweet potatoes are eaten as a green that are a great source of vitamins and nutrients. Colors of the underground tuber range from yellow to orange, red, and purple.
It was the Portuguese who first introduced sweet potatoes to Africa and then Asia, where they remain an important crop to this day. The English learned about sweet potatoes on a slave trip in 1564 in which they brought back both slaves and the foods they were eating that were unfamiliar to England. It is very interesting to note that many of the foods fed to slaves were thought to be of inferior quality, such as sweet potatoes, are in fact of superior nutrition than the food that the “master” consumed, which were viewed as more desirable and of higher status.
When Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto (c. 1500 – 1542) entered Louisiana, he found the Native Americans living there were consuming sweet potatoes.Â They have long been a food associated with the American South and a defining food of southern cuisine and soul food cooking. American colonists did not begin growing them until 1648 in Virginia, and, despite their association with Thanksgiving, they were not a featured food at the first Thanksgiving.
One of the most important ingredients in soul food cooking is the use of greens. Greens are easily grown in gardens and there is an abundance of wild greens. With some knowledge of plants, you can harvest a variety of free greens. African Americans loved a variety of different greens including collard, turnip, kale and mustard.
An ingredient African-Americans used to sweeten recipes was molasses. Molasses is made from sugarcane. Sugarcane is one of the plants that sugar is made from. In the process of boiling the sugarcane down, a dark liquid called molasses is squeezed out. There are three different types of molasses: light, dark, and black strap. Light molasses is made from the first boiling of the liquid, dark from the second boiling, and black strap from the third. Molasses can also be made from sugar beets and sorghum. Sugarcane grows in hot climates and molasses was a food the African-Americans used because it was a sugar byproduct and viewed as not as desirable as refined white sugar. It is ironic that many foods that are seen as lower status are actually more nutritious. Molasses is a good source of calcium, potassium, and iron whereas sugar is a poor source of all nutrients and its redeeming characteristic is that it provides quick energy. However it causes tooth decay.
To liven up the cuisine, a hot sauce called Tabasco sauce was often used. Tabasco sauce is made from the Tabasco pepper. The pepper is native to a state in Mexico called Tabasco, which means “damp earth.” The pepper is extremely hot and is made from Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt in a process that takes three years. The peppers are mashed and placed in a wooden barrel to ferment for three years. In the U.S. Tabasco sauce is made in Louisiana and has been made in the same factory the same way, since the Civil War.
There is a spotty historical record of soul food recipes since most of the cooks who created them were illiterate. The slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write because the masters realized that literacy would make it possible for the slaves to organize and protest their situation. Black Americans could be punished by death if they learned to read or write. It was against the law in many states to teach enslaved people to read. Recipes were kept alive through memories and passed down from the generations.
For an enslaved family living on a plantation and working the fields all day, mealtime was something to look forward to at the end of the day, a time of sharing food, singing, and socializing. Soul music evolved as a heartfelt expression of feelings, intertwined with the process and smells of cooking. Soul food involves a generous accepting attitude towards food and life as much as it has to do with the actual preparation of foods. Pleasure was taken in the hearty gumbo or stew simmering on the fire to be shared with friends. Both soul food and soul music evolved as a way to make you feel good all over and to speak to your very soul. Soul food involved taking what was available and using it in interesting, creative, and delicious ways.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that soul food was named and the recipes recorded. Black Americans who moved to northern cities longed for the food developed in the south and recorded the recipes. During this period soul music became popular too, and African-Americans began to take pride in their cultural heritage. It was during the 1960’s that Martin Luther King worked so hard for the civil rights of his fellow African Americans that both soul food and soul music became known and appreciated in mainstream culture.
It is a sweet irony that many of the foods that were made available to enslaved people and thought to be undesirable such as dark leafy greens, whole cornmeal, and less fatty animal products used often as a condiment rather than as a main course are superior to those foods the plantation owners ate from a nutritional perspective. Let us celebrate the food legacy that African Americans created not only during Black History Month but throughout the year!